Twisted Metal

A pop singer and a jazz drummer made Pankration a better metal band.

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Pankration, with Sweep the Leg Johnny Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 9 p.m. Friday, July 19, $6, 216-321-5588.
Hard hobbits to break: With a pair of new influences, - Pankration is shedding the Tolkien imagery.
Hard hobbits to break: With a pair of new influences, Pankration is shedding the Tolkien imagery.
Erin Carracher is visibly nervous on this Monday night, standing before a group of about 40 scruffy rockers in the Beachland Ballroom tavern. Her eyes scarcely meet the crowd; her gaze instead is fixed upon her own feet, as she paces the stage anxiously.

You'd probably be uptight, too. As the new frontwoman for the Akron/Kent avant-metal sledgehammer Pankration, Carracher has the daunting task of blending her blithe, mellifluous vocals with the heady charge of a longtime instrumental ensemble, whose rare vocal flourishes have always been of the raw-lunged, laryngitis-be-damned variety.

It's all new to Carracher, the former singer for area pop darlings Churchbuilder. Her immediate task is to appease Pankration's metalhead fan base, who stand with arms crossed at the beginning of the set, wary that the band they've come to see has been watered down.

"I've been singing since I was seven years old. I've done symphony choir kind of stuff in Cleveland and things like that, but never to an audience like a metal audience," Carracher says the next day over beers at the Lime Spider in Akron. "I don't think I've ever been as nervous in my life as the first time I went onstage with them. It's easy for me doing pop vocals: I know what people want. But metal, that's a whole different ball game. I don't know what they want to hear. The first metal CD I think I ever owned was our CD. I like Rod Stewart, for God's sake."

In metal circles, such admissions are taboo, like Supercuts and sobriety. But Carracher's obliviousness to heavy metal conventions has been a godsend to Pankration. The band made a name for itself with five years of sounding like Rush skinny-dipping in battery acid: all colossal guitars, frenzied bass, and algebraic time signatures. Then they tired of life as an indie-metal battering ram and sought to fill out their sound. That's when they brought in Carracher, whose spry, luminescent vocals are like rays of sunshine down a blackened mine shaft. Still, as one might expect, going from Churchbuilder to Pankration -- from saccharine to cyanide -- has had its challenges.

"I have no idea how to write serious lyrics," she says. "That's probably the most difficult part. It's like there's a requirement of this sort of music, that the lyrics have to be something kind of serious."

Dragons are always good.

"Yeah, D&D, Lord of the Rings, wizards," she laughs. "I don't have a problem picking out tones; that's probably where I'm strongest. But lyrics are not an instinctive thing for me at all. I work really hard to make them as not-cheesy as possible, or just something that people haven't got sick of hearing about. Like hobbits."

Pankration bassist Ben Wienand's on the same page. "We're just starting to get out of the Dungeons & Dragons realm when it comes to our music," he says.

Indeed, Pankration's debut from a few years back is called Of Man, of Monkey, of Wizard. It's an impressive display of power and poise, with the foundation-rattling force of a rhino charge. But it's no longer representative of the band's sound, and the change can be attributed to more than the addition of Carracher. At the beginning of last summer, Pankration recruited Josh Phelps, a new drummer whose manic, hydraulic-armed bebop style further enhanced the sound.

"Our drummer only listens to talk radio and jazz," Wienand says. "When he first joined the band, it was weird, because he didn't really know anything about metal music. There's a lot of tricks you can use to make stuff sound heavy and fast, and he didn't know anything about that stuff. You go over to his house, and he's got jazz playing quietly in the background. He couldn't tell you any metal band. That kind of helped, actually, because it made us able to do more than just metal stuff."

None of this is meant to suggest that Pankration has abandoned the hard stuff -- far from it. Carracher's coos and Phelps's nimble playing only amplify Pankration's feral side. Moreover, the band's axemen remain ardent metal fans at heart.

"You go see metal bands that indie rock kids are into, and it's kind of like poking fun at it," Wienand says. "A lot of the circuits we run with and a lot of the shows that we get out of town are more like indie rock type of shows, and sometimes you'll go to them and people will be into it, but you can't tell if it's just because they think it's cliché. We're trying to get to the point where it's not funny metal."

Pankration's certainly having the last laugh at the Beachland. The band's set is sufficiently severe, with roiling guitar freakouts, breathless drumming, and Carracher fighting through her initial unease to deliver a solid performance. For a pop singer in only her sixth month with a metal band, she's clearly making progress.

"I feel a little awkward sometimes," she says. "I don't know how to be an idiot onstage. I'm more concerned with being technically good than I am with wowing the crowd with my antics. It's not within my personality."

Maybe that's the point. Pankration's new doses of personality have helped to differentiate the band from all the other talented terrors stalking the indie underground.

"I think whatever we do is going to be heavy to an extent. That's just how we play our instruments. But we're also working on dynamics a lot, and that's kind of taken charge over just rockin,'" Wienand says. "We can write rockin' parts, but if it's just rockin' parts, it doesn't build up or lead to anything. So we're working on moods a lot: setting the mood and taking it somewhere."

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