Heavy-metal isn't often thought of as being associated with orchestras or string arrangements. But more often than not, a cello or a horn will find its way into a symphony of destruction. Metallica famously performed with the San Francisco Symphony on their 1999 live album, S&M. Three years before that, Finnish chamber quartet Apocalyptica released their own album of classical Metallica covers. And that's even before we get into the dramatic subgenre of "symphonic metal."
Still, as far as we can tell, Oakland trio Judgement Day is the first band to lay claim to the title of "string metal."
Playing intense, technical, instrumental heavy metal without the help of a single guitar, Judgement Day's Anton Patzner (violin), Lewis Patzner (cello) and Jon Bush (drums) push the limits of what acoustic stringed instruments can do. They layer on the riffs like Megadeth's Marty Friedman does, but they also go full-throttle psychedelic, turning a chamber session into a heady raga. Whichever way they tweak their sound, they always shred.
Patzner explains that the sound grew out of some time spent busking with Lewis, his brother, in Berkeley.
"We started the band playing on the street," he recalls, speaking by phone from a tour rest stop. "It kind of evolved as a street-crowd-pleaser kind of thing. The louder we played and the more we jumped around, did kicks or rock 'n' roll moves, the more money we made."
Yet Patzner is quick to clarify that, in spite of the genre name, the group's biggest influences are predominantly in hardcore punk. ("String hardcore" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.)
"I used to go to hardcore shows in Santa Cruz," Patzner says. "It's a really cool scene. I'd go to house shows, or there was this classroom where I'd go see hardcore bands like Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower and Akimbo. It was my favorite thing to do. And I really wanted to be in a band like that but I play violin.
"Really, our influences are more hardcore than metal," he adds. "We just call it metal."
The band's new album, Polar Shift, is a significant departure from the trio's methods on previous albums. On 2010's Peacocks / Pink Monsters, the Patzner brothers fed their instruments through effects pedals, distorting and tweaking their sounds into unrecognizable noises and textures. By comparison, Polar Shift finds them emphasizing the natural sounds of their instruments.
For an album that strips away the most metal elements of the band's sound, however, Polar Shift still shreds pretty hard. Songs like "Ghost Hunt" and "Common Denominator" are built on intricate harmonies and aggressive rhythms, and the intensity rarely lets up. Patzner says they challenged themselves to stay fierce without falling back on effects.
"Every record is an experiment to see how cool of a record we can make with just violin, cello and drums," he says. "We wanted to try just actual violin, cello tones, and make it as live as possible. ... On our other records, you can't really tell we're playing violin and cello. They sound like guitars or—you can't really tell what they are."
The Patzners grew up in a musical household. Their parents are both classical musicians and music teachers, and younger brother Graham is the songwriter and frontman of Bay Area folk-rock outfit Whiskerman. In 2007, Lewis earned his degree in cello performance from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
Despite the talented bloodline and level of musical accomplishment in the band, Judgement Day rarely rehearse. They take a loose approach to developing songs, which mostly grow out of a road-testing phase.
"We don't really need to practice unless we're working on material," Patzner says. "I'm a big proponent of going on the road and beta-testing the material. The songs all evolve on the road. They're not really that complicated."
The atypical nature of Judgement Day's music has found them playing to a wide variety of audiences, opening for the warm-and-fuzzy indie-pop duo Mates of State, but also the modern progressive rockers Dredg. Some people don't know quite what to expect when watching the band for the first time, but Patzner says they're up won over by the end of the set.
"A bunch of people will come up to us and say, I've never seen anything like that' or, I dunno man, I thought that was gonna be lame, but it was awesome,'" he says. "Some people don't want to like us, but then they do."
As Judgement Day tackle new musical challenges, their status as a string-metal band—solidified by their web address, stringmetal.com—becomes less of a wholly encompassing part of their identity. But they're not likely to mellow out anytime soon.
The term "was appropriate at first, because our first album was a lot more metal," Patzner says. "I wouldn't say we make metal anymore, though.
"We should probably get a new URL."
Judgement Day play with Pinback at House of Blues on Friday, Feb. 1.
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