Thursday, July 12, 2007

The "17 Steps" of the Vegas Dragons

There is a series of wicked turns on the lower end of the Pasadena freeway just as you leave downtown Los Angeles, heading north. At 3:00 AM, when traffic is at a minimum, this stretch can be thrilling. You can take it up to 75 or 80 MPH but all the curves are blind and you never really know what you'll face as you round the bend in the road. If one car ahead fucks up, you'll be sideways in the guard-rail for sure.

One early morning, after a club date, I found myself with this little bit of roadway all to myself. Thrills being thrills and boys being boys, I decided to punch it up a notch and whip through the blind esses. I guess I hadn't been to Disneyland in a while and needed an adrenalin rush to make it home. Clearing the first turn, my pulse raced with excitement. No tail lights ahead! I bore down on the accelerator and braced myself for the next turn into the first tunnel...and there in front of me was a wall of tail lights! I barely controlled the car and found myself on the shoulder at a dead standstill. There was no clue as to why the traffic had emergency lights or equipment, no police or ambulance. Just four lanes of stopped cars seemingly staring into the gaping maw of the tunnel leading to the Dodger Stadium exit.

After a few minutes, I got out of the car to investigate. I have few regrets in my life, but leaving my car that night is in the top five. As I made my way to the front of the snarl-up, my eyes followed the beams of the leading car's headlights and there, in the garish light of early Los Angeles morning was a motorcycle...well, there were parts resembling what could once have been a motorcycle...accompanied by parts of what was most likely the late motorcyclist! There were, as yet no signs of help and there was the cold, icy chill of recent events suspended in the air as if afraid to settle and lend legitimacy to the surreal tableau at my feet. In the siren-less vacuum and in light absent of emergency strobes, I looked down and saw half a face, the missing half now a 75 foot long smear in the pavement. There was no movement, but the massive wound had just moments before given up a volume of blood that seemed still alive as it continued to flow across the pavement, finally pooling as it found a dip in the asphalt. The moment is forever and indelibly etched into my memory.

Brian Taylor and the Vegas Dragons are a rock band to be found on the Sellaband web site. If they were not a band, they could do well as designers of amusement park thrill rides. Their latest offering is called "17 Steps" and is best heard with headphones cranked and with the same receptive attitude one has when ascending the first long climb of a wicked rollercoaster. You get the feeling that something exciting is just around the corner, but the full impact of the excitement is still in the future and remains unknown.

"17 Steps" opens with a soundscape I can only describe as a midievil violi da gambi duet transported to a windswept Saharan dune. Enter the drums with a pulse that is almost a heartbeat but with a sinister pathological hitch. The next layer is a guitar straight from a Sergio Leone film. Before Brian utters a word, the track has already required the listener to suspend reality. Black is white, up is down and answers become questions.

The song inexorably plows its way through the blind curves of the Pasadena freeway and as the frenzied peak is approached, as the adrenalin starts to ooze through the temples and stain the headphone pads...the listener rushes down the last precipitous drop of the rollercoaster. But instead of the exhilaratingly misty ending of "Tom Sawyers Log Ride" he finds himself staring down at pain...memories and pain. Everybody has their own most painful moment...that one memory that makes the bones inside your elbows ache in horror. In my case, it was an oozing half head at 3:00 AM on the Pasadena freeway. I think Brian Taylor and the Vegas Dragons are asking the question, "What's yours...what are your 17 steps?"

Now, to get back to the real world for a moment, I would be doing the band a grave injustice not to draw some attention to areas that could be better executed. As recorded, the vocal does not sit most effectively in the mix. I get the feeling that what is wanted here is a vocal that gnaws at the brain like a nagging conscience. The little devil perched on your shoulder reassuring you in hushed tones that it's alright to burn down the orphanage. The voices that no one but the afflicted can hear. The deafening whisper of ultimate insanity. Placing a vocal with those characteristics into a track of such cinematic breadth is daunting...but production chops and proper tools can, and hopefully will make it happen.

"17 steps" is not the sort of music that will result in many backseat conceptions. But there are already plenty of songs filling that particular bill. "17 Steps" is a ride inside. After repeated listenings, I found myself happy to have made it out again, but in some twisted way, unable to resist revisiting the scene of the crime.

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