My friend Ike is a straw-haired substitute teacher and musician excessively fond of retro leg warmers, weapons-grade weed, and the captivating allure of a superlative rock and roll concept. Despite his ability to shred a six-string with considerable skill, Ike has always proven far more adept at constructing colorful paradigms for music he's imagined creating than he's excelled at crafting actual albums to support his elaborate, constantly evolving visions of pop music glory. Some aficionados take enough pleasure in affixing labels to fissures in semi-obscure sub-genres; Ike elevates the process to a higher plane, unfurling hefty predictions with lengthy anecdotes and stunning declamations that require flow charts, footnotes, and, at the very least, a working knowledge of body armor conventions in pre-Saxon Britannia to thoroughly digest. Because any milquetoast connoisseur can insert hyphens with straightforward descriptive or practical connotations; it takes a daring soul like Ike to sketch in truly ambitious strokes.
What's more, his latest conceit could be the most beguiling yet. He calls it conquer-rock but, unlike many monikers for trendy concoctions -- think of pimp-rock, the common alias for that leaden hybrid once championed by oafish disciples of Durst -- its components are, for lack of concrete reference points, initially unclear. If his stream-of-consciousness hype sessions, routinely conducted, drippy bong in hand, from a precarious coffee table perch, are any adequate indication, persistent parallels to trench warfare play a key role.
Actually, to paraphrase Ike, conquer-rock is, on the surface, a vague update of the MC5's confrontational approach to rock performance, only expanded and stripped free of contrived youthful swagger, over-sexed bravado, irony, fashion, and the other dated trappings typically associated with bands that merely pay retro tribute. Indeed, Detroit's second-finest saw each concert as an opportunity to bludgeon a crowd into submission with head-splitting riffs, choreographed onstage antics, and sheer, unadulterated rock energy; bands sharing the bill were forced to either take a confident stand on unfamiliar terrain or risk wilting beneath the weight of a superior rock monster. In contrast, conquer-rock retains the implied violence -- it's still a declaration of sonic war on a hall of willing victims -- but jettisons traditional arena-rock preoccupations to vividly evoke, as both a stylish final product and, as Ike would have it, a self-conscious work of process-art, military campaigns as realized in cinematic epics like The Lord of the Rings, Apocalypse Now, and Gladiator.
Fanciful in spirit, yet ominous in tone; complex in form, yet taut in delivery, conquer-rock is the wretched sound a weathered Roman battlement makes as it crumbles, over-run by a horde of foul-smelling Picts, the eerie roar of fighter planes buzzing down a runway, and the purposeful cacophony of a bloody coup channeled through the hum of a Marshall stack; it's a call to arms, really, a battle cry, a bitter retreat under heavy fire, an icy, unwavering advance, and the final, triumphant ascension in spite of crippling losses.
Funnily enough, as compelling as Ike's descriptions are, I've never heard him once refer to a band that already embodies the characteristics of this sub-genre. Of course, I've endlessly speculated as to what he has in mind, and long since come to the conclusion that Ike's quiet unwillingness to acknowledge an existing practitioner of conquer-rock has something to with his determination to handle the implementation himself.
Common sense would dictate that the King Cobra has never met my friend Ike; yet, somehow, the Olympia-based rockers managed to deliver a most lively approximation, at least, in feel, of the very intent he's so eloquently voiced. Perhaps Ike's indiscrete self-laudatory tendencies have afforded these more industrious musicians the opportunity to make good on a concept he's secretly incapable of articulating on his own. Or, perhaps, the King Cobra has just independently honed a similar formula. Whatever the link, after one listen, I was floored, if not by the overall quality of the album, but by the consistency of its vision.
The King Cobra is a brand-new super-group comprised of real-deal luminaries: Tara Jane O'Neal (ex-Rodan, ex-Sonora Pine), Kwo (ex-Slalom), and Rachael Carns (ex-Need) are the three corners of this rock triangle, and the resulting project synthesizes the members' well-documented affinity for unconventional song structures with a brutal, superbly-feminized conquer-rock sensibility, coughing up a messy, ramshackle prog-metal stew of sinister, heaving drum-beats, spare, hiccupy vocal chants, and, of course, delicious riffs courtesy of a dull, fuzzed-out guitar tone uncannily reminiscent of vintage Iceburn.
While the production suffers greatly (at times, I can't even begin to hear O'Neal's bass), a few songs do considerably more than just heighten this 18-minute mood piece. A long-winded grind shot through with jarring horn squawks, "March on Pompeii" is an immediate pleasure, but "Spook the Butcher", a swirl of bell-chime coos sung in a round and layered over the relentlessly witchy groove, is most impressive. I'm listening to it now, and, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can easily envision a fearsome Orcish army straight out of Ike's wildest dreams donning spiked armor and prancing lightly into battle. Now if I can only get him to listen to it.