Sparks the Rescue: Hey Mr. Allure

To the Rescue

A new EP Sparks renewed interest

Young bands come and go. As Reindeer Records’ 22nd annual Reindeer Rock-Off gets set to kick off this Sunday [May, 2006], it’s important to remember that for every Jeremiah Freed or Howie Day, who make it from the finals to the major labels, there are hundreds who melt into obscurity, as high-school bands are wont to do. Still, finalists Gloria Red, Norwood, Passing Lane, Rocksmythe, and the Shams have more reason than ever to be reasonably hopeful that hard work and good songs will pay off with at least a dedicated and loyal fanbase (thanks to the power of Internet marketing), if not fame and outrageous fortune.

I am reminded of this by a great new EP by Sparks the Rescue, a band I saw as part of my judging duties at Reindeer Rock-Off 20, back when they were the three-piece band Pozer. They had matching unis, a cool banner behind them, and the bassist jumped off the top of his stack and nearly killed himself. I liked them quite a bit. But their songs were a bit lackluster, they couldn’t generate quite the sound they needed, and the vocals were a bit weak, so I didn’t put them first (nor, however, did I put in for Sammie Francis, the eventual first-female, first-solo-artist winner – I was a Stillview man).

Luckily, Pozer have addressed all of these perceived deficiencies in fine fashion in building Sparks the Rescue, a leader of Maine’s all-ages scene. Original members Toby McCallister (guitar and vocals), Ben Briggs (bass), and Nate Spencer (drums) first added vocalist/guitarist Pat O’Connell and Marty McMorrow (keys/other stuff) to fill out their sound and upgrade their vocals a bit. This worked pretty well. Their debut self-released disc (we’ll call it a full-length at seven songs), Stumbling Skyward, was an unexpected hit, selling well for the past year-plus on the local front and helping them to build a loyal following.

Since then, however, the lead vocals of Pat O’Connell and Toby McCallister have been augmented (not quite replaced) by the addition of Alex Roy, who’s simply a more polished and confident frontman. Plus, that’s all he’s got to do, leaving the guitarists to rip – especially on stage, where Sparks are known for an impressive performance, full of flailing about that’s just short of self-mutilation. The result is personified by Hey, Mr. Allure, a three-song statement that should propel the band into the ranks of Maine’s best-known bands.

Not that they’re unknown. Not by any means.

Between Myspace and PureVolume the band have more than 100,000 song listens under their belt, which isn’t exactly the same as going platinum, but is pretty impressive nonetheless and suggests success as the band embark on an east coast tour later this month that puts them in Virginia Beach, Nashville, Roseville (Michigan), Elizabethtown (Kentucky), and Glen Cove (New York), among other places, with shows likely to be added along the way. Like Killing Moon (nee Animal Suit Drive-by), among other local young bands, Sparks have utilized the ’Net’s immense power for disseminating information, paired it with good songwriting, energy, and a willingness to develop relationships with their fans, and turned it into a tangible musical career.

Two of Mr. Allure’s tracks, “Nurse! Nurse! (I’m Losing My Patience)” and “The Scene: Your Bedroom,” are featured even now on the band’s Myspace page, so purchase of the limited-run disc is as much show of support as anything. But for those who like to hear great music in full CD quality, it’s probably worth the buy even if you’ve heard the tracks five times a day for the last few months.

First of all, the band have this time enlisted the talents of Jonathan Wyman (Skyward was recorded by the able Terry Palmer at Dizzyland), and he’s employed his close-mic’ing techniques and big-sound sensibilities to create a much fuller sound, more Foo Fighters, more immediate. “Nurse! Nurse!,” too, shows off frontman Roy’s wonderfully crisp and reedy tenor, full of irony and sneer. It’s contrasted here with deranged screaming to good effect. It’s something the band feature often, and gets them past rock and roll and into a realm of emo and hardcore. On Skyward they possibly over-utilized the delivery technique, pairing it with the lead-singing like a form of harmony on many of the tracks, stripping some of the impact.

Also, the lyrics are easier to discern here, and they can be pretty good: “Oh, can we call the hospital?/ I’ve been sleeping with the nurses/ For medication.”

Later, Sparks kick off “Saco Boys Have No Class” with an old-school “let’s go” and then reach back again for the whininess that made the early Cure my high-school girlfriend’s favorite band. They employ the screaming again sparingly here, paired with some sour notes in the bridge to emphasize the pit of despair we’re meant to sympathize with. Also, they pair it with the lead vocals in the final reprise of the chorus, which is fairly stellar, but instead of harmonizing, the scream sings a different part with different lyrics entirely.

Add that kind of creativity to a song like “The Scene,” which features five of the six band members with vocal parts, and the band’s evolution is pretty evident. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be sharing 21+ stages with bands like Lost on Liftoff any time now. Which would be appropriate. Liftoff frontman Walt Craven’s old band, Goud’s Thumb, was once Illegal Jam, which, of course, performed in Reindeer Rock-Off 2, way back in 1984.

Some young bands just don’t go away.

6gig: Mind Over Mind

Over and above

Never mind the bollocks, here’s 6gig

Start with the band’s name: it should say something about the group, define them without putting them in an unfortunately small box. The Beatles had a great name when they were four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, but was The White Album really recorded by “The Beatles”? Rage Against the Machine? I’ve always thought that name put them in a very tight space, indeed. Could that band ever write a decent ballad and not have it sound silly?

With 6gig, we have a moniker that says precision, calculation, speed, and intelligence and rings with frontman Walt Craven’s self-depreciating story about how he’s a computer geek and just sort of came up with it. (It also gave us an idea in the office: What if you named a band 6gig, then played only six gigs and quit?)

But 6gig’s meaning provides a more-than-apt description for their music: tight, written out to the smallest beep and whir, with quick riffs and rhythms put together in ways that you haven’t heard before, but reserved and humble enough to keep them from sounding like Dream Theater or math rock. Plus, they’re a band whose professionalism in the studio is the stuff of local legend, a band whose first take is often their last.

But what about Craven’s impassioned vocals, alternately sung and screamed? Okay, so computers and melody may not make for a ready free association, but there is a lyrical quality to 6gig’s two syllables, sibilant and guttural, the “x” and “g” working together like light and heavy elements to form a willing compound.

6gig are what a fully realized band looks like. That sounds a bit like a hypothesis, and it fits them — a scientific method for their scientific musical creation. And, finally, the proof is readily available now that you can say the same about their sophomore full-length release, Mind over Mind (how’s that for emphasizing the cerebral?). There’s heart there, too, of course — beating through the layers of steel and cable that have been erected to protect it.

And this aesthetic pervades everything the band does. The packaging for the new album is brilliant, reds and blues mirroring grays and metallics, meshing Craven’s technical (CAD training?) designs with Bob Smyth’s organic forms, the schematics just abstract enough to suggest living organisms. Every lyric is there, and there are notations above and beyond the standard to let the reader (cover band?) know just which verse repeats when, and which codas are extended or reprised. Plus, look at the thank yous: They’re all-encompassing, equally full of family, friends, and industry types who have helped them along the way — but they’re in alphabetical order!

All of this is to say that they couldn’t have done better than Matt Wallace (Faith No More, most famously) as producer, the last cog in any band’s musical machine. He has taken this grand vision of a technical musical masterpiece and crafted it expertly. The opening track, “Space Suit,” more prelude than introduction, is a whir of pneumatic pumps and gadgets, Craven’s voice a distant jumble of barely comprehensible phrases. This is an album, one where nothing is tossed off, and everything is wedded to the purpose. Again, this “Space Suit” theme surprisingly reappears for 14 seconds between tracks six and seven, the CD player counting solemnly down in the negative like a rocket bracing for liftoff.

But what is all this technical wizardry masking? Real passion — as evidenced on the band’s first single and the first song here, “Whose Side Are You On?” Wallace here, as on much of the album, gives Craven personality by keeping his vocals high in the mix, immediate and captivating. The bass line from Weave is dark and methodical. Climbing guitar lines go up and down stairs while multi-tracked background vocals arc in and out of the mix. The anger is palpable: “I heard what you did, it crept under my skin/ The things that you do disgust me.”

It’s a recurring theme, this anger.

Rock and roll (and its increasingly heavier musical children) has always been the uplifter/reflection of disaffected youth, of course, and those that eschew pop eventually come back around to it by embracing that inner societal revulsion that most intelligent music fans can’t help but harbor toward a world where the Backstreet Boys are rich and famous and classical musicians are forced to pay orchestras to perform their compositions.

Want to rebel against your folks/school/government by finding an empathetic voice? Well, why don’t you take Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Iron Maiden, Green Day, or Marilyn Manson for a spin? That usually works pretty good. It’s so loud! So shocking! And just look at them!

Lately, however, bands like Korn and Slipknot have turned this back upon itself, and made the condition of today’s youth their rallying cry and pennant, taking experiences of broken homes and battered mothers and turning them into platinum records. This isn’t just teen angst, this is a reflection of the truly tattered edges of a society that often seems to treat its most valuable resource as disposable income.

Truth be told, however, I’ve never bought the sentiment of these bands for a second. Maybe these emotions were heartfelt once, but the labels so marketed and embraced the ethic that it soon became nothing more than a way to sell records. How many videos do I have to watch where a kid in a soiled T-shirt and a bad haircut watches as his drunken father knocks around his poor, wailing mother? Isn’t that video’s appearance on MTV the height of cynicism?

6gig, however, show here that teen angst can still be done well, while embracing the contemporary tragedies that no other era of rock and roll has ever really imagined. The grunge kids were troubled, sure, and Nevermind and Ten contained brutal images, but it all felt so suburban and narrative, the overall question being asked something along the lines of “Why me?”

With Mind over Mind, however, the question is more like, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?”

“Proud,” for example, asks the question through irony. Both the rocking, singalong cadence and the content of the chorus are jarring.

Thank you/ For lying to my face/ For wasting all my time/ For being drunk again.

Thank you/ For making my mom cry/ For screaming in my face/ For everything you did to us.

I’m so proud of you.

There is a seriousness here borne out by the irony, a resiliency born of distress and adversity overcome. The bridge is a quiet rehearsal of prose poetry over background drums (superb throughout from the late Dave Rankin, though Jason Stewart is now wholly ensconced with the band) and a strummed guitar. The bass entry is cool and melodic, up, up, down, like hopes and dreams.

“Deadbeat” is another ode to “ocean-size letdown,” but personal enough to avoid the cliché. Is it clear that a generation of fathers have abandoned their duty like never before? Yes, by now, quite. But what makes this ring true are the “after-shave smells,” “a telephone call,” “no more baked-bean fat,” “laying out on the grass.”

“Can you bear the thought of losing the love of your family?” 6gig are clearly incredulous that some people all too easily can.

But there’s that resiliency again, undeniable. “Start Again” makes it clear that “I thought about giving in,” but “you cannot make my mind up . . . I’ll start again.” Ending with a blinding guitar solo from Steve Marquis (a rare spot of individual-instrument emphasis), the departure from 6gig’s signature guitar sound of a low chunk tied with a screaming, high punctuation is a notice that the band isn’t afraid to surprise you.

They are, in the end, “Free,” and “I’ll never go back again/ And it’s the only way that I wanna be.” Along with the chorus to “Words,” which might be the best Craven has ever sounded on record, this is a statement that should not be regarded lightly. 6gig know exactly what they want to do, how to do it, and their vision has been realized.

Hook up, plug in, and take notice.