Each week, The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they’ve faded from memory. This week’s glimpse into the crates:
Ten Grand – This Is The Way To Rule
Throughout the late 1990’s, Iowa City, IA’s The Vidablue tore up basements, garages, living rooms and bars with a breed of post-hardcore punk rock, merging jagged polyrhythms and jazzy chord structures with dissonant guitar freakouts and nigh-unlistenable shrieked vocals. Critics of the time—largely their peers, disaffected (mostly) white suburbanites put off by the perceived machismo of metal and hardcore—labeled the band “emo,” a genre tag they and others of their ilk wholeheartedly embraced, despite the fact that their primal-yet-complex drumming, thunderous bass, and roaring screams recalled Suffocation and Bad Brains as much as they did Rites Of Spring or Sunny Day Real Estate. The melding of styles was as widespread as it was seamless and, perhaps, inevitable; as a genre, punk was always as defiantly resistant to clear definition as it was to authority, with bands like Fishbone, The Clash, Fugazi, Bow Wow Wow, and the aforementioned Bad Brains merging rock with dub, calypso, funk, jazz, and any imaginable musical form. Still, the starkness of The Vidablue’s approach—the instrumental arrangements so delicate and tender, with vocals so scrapingly abrasive—suggested a sort of identity crisis, an inability to move too far in one direction.
At the center of this enigmatic whirlwind was Matt Davis, a thoughtful, soft-spoken Black man whose amiable demeanor and quiet charm offstage evaporated into a Tasmanian Devil-esque onstage eruption of screams, chords, and dreadlocks flying in all directions. While this approach certainly worked in a live setting (contributing—along with their frontman’s ethnicity—to the band’s legendary reputation in the Iowa hardcore scene and securing them a contract with high-profile independent label Southern Records), their recordings, while certainly well-received critically and (relatively) commercially, suffered qualitatively; indeed, all of their material preceding their breakthrough album (2002’s The Comprehensive List Of Everyone Who Has Ever Done Anything Wrong To Us) rang incomplete, as if there was something missing from the band’s attack.
Suddenly, before the band was even able to record a follow-up, everything changed, beginning with a call from attorneys representing Page McConnell, erstwhile keyboardist of then-on-hiatus jam band Phish. McConnell had formed a band of his own, dubbed “Vida Blue,” and found the presence of an existing band using virtually the same moniker more-than-slightly inconvenient. Exactly what happened between the two parties is as apocryphal as it is likely accurate; regardless of the account, the end result was undeniable. By mid-2002, McConnell’s band had released their self-titled debut, Davis and company embarked on an extensive national-and-beyond tour, and subsequent pressings of The Comprehensive List were re-branded with a new band name. Throughout the drama, the band had secured the contract with Southern, proving that The Vidablue was dead, if only in name. In its place stood Ten Grand. With a new name, a new label, and newfound energy, This Is The Way To Rule hit stores in mid-2003, and instantly established itself as the band’s magnum opus.
What sets The Way apart from The List isn’t a series of drastic changes. In fact, much of what went into The List is still there; drummer Bob Adams and bassist Zach Westerdhaul provide elastic rhythms that propel the band’s aggressive set much as they did in the past. Joel Anderson’s and Davis’s guitars call and respond to each other, more as textures than points-of-interest; furthermore, the guitarists trade vocals just as they had in the past. Even the man behind the board—producer Mike Lust—hasn’t changed.
What is different, though, is how everything is just a bit sharper, clearer, and more defined. Lust’s mix isn’t as spacious as it was on the previous recording; indeed, the album is tighter and more compressed-sounding than any of the band’s previous releases. The claustrophobic sound lends itself to the band’s approach, though, as every instrument—especially Adams’ drums, the arguable lead instrument—sounds better in such close proximity, especially on album opener “Hands Off The Merch.” The song also highlights another changed dimension for the band; Davis’s vocals, heretofore presented with Anderson’s as a counterweight, are front-and-center, with precious little contribution from his counterpart at all, and not delivered at a usual monotonous, unintelligible shriek. In fact, Davis only unleashes the scream when absolutely necessary, otherwise limiting himself to a restrained yelp. The overall effect is curious—the band sounds roughly the same on their faster songs—“Merch,” and “Get Out Of My Dojo” in particular—but much more interesting, vulnerable and (ultimately) engaging on their slower numbers.
One such song, “Wedding Song For Steve and Angie,” completely disarms anyone acquainted with the band’s work. With virtually no complicated time, tempo, or key changes, and surprisingly tender vocal performances from Davis (whose fragile voice sits in the center of the mix and anchors the entire song) and Anderson, who sings four brief lines as the perfect counterpoint to Davis’s nigh-conversational delivery, “Wedding Song” is danceable and surprisingly sweet from its opening chords to its haunting, echoing ending. Shrewdly, the band then coasts rather than launches into “R E S P E C T Me,” a song built around a series of one-note guitar figures and Westerdhaul’s shifting bass lines, with Davis and Anderson building vocal tension that doesn’t entirely release; the tension only mounts with “Let’s Wreck The Van,” another midtempo number with a couple brief moments of agitation at the end.
Things come to a head, however, with “I Will Seriously Pay You To Shut Up,” a lightning-fast explosion of snarling post-punk verve. The song is a perfect two minutes of intricate, complex musicianship disguised as frantic bursts clearly meant to seem out-of-control, creating a sonic vortex that, whether intentional or not, seemingly embodies the complex, unstable identity of the band. Adams’s drums stop and start seemingly at random, with Anderson’s guitar stepping to the forefront of the arrangement. As the song reaches its bridge, guitars and bass immediately begin hammering on two-note triplets, and Davis’s guitar disappears from the mix as he screams the album’s most compelling lyric: “Godd*mmit, baby, this is soul…what’s wrong with you?” The line is a fitting tell-off to anyone confused about their chosen subgenre’s identity in the rock continuum, the band’s identity in the musical continuum, and—possibly—the Black singer’s identity in the white-dominated punk continuum.
From there, the album bounces back-and-forth between slower, angular post-rock and lurching, almost metal-esque moments of speed—occasionally within the same song (especially “Dojo,” which begins almost at a limp and ends with Davis employing his trademark shriek for its last forty-five seconds). Anderson makes his most substantial vocal performance on “This Isn’t Heaven, This Sucks,” a song that begins as a slow dirge and ends in a din of diminished chords and crashing cymbals. By the time the album ends with the atonal, no-wave-esque “Now You Got What I Got,” it’s clear that Ten Grand is ready to emerge from their name change and continue to forge an identity as one of the most intense bands in American rock.
Sadly, such a future wasn’t in the cards. On August 10, 2003, barely three months after the CD release of This Is The Way To Rule, the 26-year-old Davis—an avowed teetotaling member of the “straightedge” movement who consumed neither legal nor illegal drugs—awoke complaining of difficulty breathing. On the way to the hospital, he had a seizure and died. One month later, film director James Spooner released Afro-Punk, a documentary about the Black experience in the American punk rock scene; Davis had been one of the film’s four main subjects. The loss of their friend and frontman essentially meant the end of Ten Grand as it was; still, its members eventually moved on, first as Payload (backing band for former Ten Grand roadie William Elliott Whitmore) and then as Flaccid Trip, then finally as ft (The Shadow Government).
Still, the memory of Ten Grand persists, if only as a band primed to achieve great things they only began to reach.
A. Darryl Moton is a Black Iowan, Karaoke Host, Bus Driver, and numerous other things that would make you doubt his sanity. He currently floats between dead-end jobs in Portland, Oregon.