"It's like metal has been sucked dry of all that it can be," said Mercy Street guitarist Mike McHan. "Metal has either got to evolve or it's got to die. (Those are) the only two ways it can go, because metal is fucking gun-metal gray in so many ways anymore."
"A lot of metal bands around here, I'd go see them and it's just kind of the same thing," he continued. "They're trying to take the same formula and just make it bigger, faster, more, and that doesn't work."
"It's the misconception that metal needs to be screamy and it needs to be fast," drummer Steven Davidson added. "I mean, I thought Ozzy Osbourne was heavy metal. Since when (does) everything have to sound like Lamb of God?"
Those may sound like bold words, but they're spoken by a couple of key players in Tulsa's metal community, people who know from experience and have learned the hard way what to do and what not to do. They've played the game, survived the machine, and lived to tell about it. They're ready to move forward, with a band that promises to not only reignite their love and passion for music, but potentially give local metal the jump start that it has been so desperately needing.
Can metal survive?
Enter Mercy Street, potentially the great, steel blue hope of Tulsa metal. With a changed perspective, the life and spontaneity have returned to their music, and, with their new project, they are ready to deliver a swift kick to the status quo of Tulsa's metal scene.
Even as Tulsa's music scene is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with a handful of rock bands and a burgeoning indie scene drawing national attention, local metal acts have been thinning. Certainly, the past few years have been dire days for metal music, especially on the local level. Not only have national acts struggled to retain their fan support, but even the most hailed local bands have outlived their shelf life and folded under the pressure of the market and listeners' expectations.
A Matter of Metal
"Take for instance, Trivium, who I consider the ultimate example of why metal is dying," McHan said. "When the band came out, I thought, 'This band has potential. They're young kids, they've got the chops.' It's not a matter of chops anymore. Everyone's got the chops, everyone can play. It's an issue of none of them can write a decent song.
"Ascendancy came out and I thought, 'You know what?
This isn't a great record, but it's got a couple of cool things about it,'" he continued. "I think, with the next record, if they keep their heads on straight, they could wind up being good songwriters. And the exact opposite happened--the next record came out and every lyric was cheesy. It's like they were ripping off Master of Puppets and Iron Maiden and everything '80s metal.
"Case in point: 11 songs, 22 solos. Give me a break," McHan groaned.
"It's like someone gave them a metal pamphlet," bassist Adam Lair pitched in, "and said, 'Now go do this 11 times.'"
"Entirely too many bands quit worrying about trying to evolve and write something that's personal to them," McHan said, lamenting of the state of metal, "as opposed to going 'This band is intense, so let's do that, only we're going to try and be more intense.'"
"I think you have to allow yourself room to evolve and room to try different things," he continued. "I've played in so many situations where--and this is one thing that will drive me nuts--I'm in rehearsal and writing a song and someone says 'That doesn't sound like us.' I'm like, we determine what sounds like us! And I've actually been in situations where I've heard that."
"If you're the songwriter, you can do whatever you want. There are no rules," McHan said. "The moment there are rules is the moment it's not rock'n'roll."
"My Dead X, for instance," Davidson interjected.
"Yeah, that's what we were doing," McHan agreed.
"Because how many times did we hear 'That doesn't sound like us'?" Davidson continued. "Too many."
If anyone has seen the underbelly of the local metal scene and the pressures and expectations it can put on bands, it's McHan, Davidson, Lair and guitarist Jonathan Wilkerson, four-fifths of former metal darlings My Dead X. And although whatever project they work on next will be indelibly linked to My Dead X, the quartet is ready to learn from its past, evolve, move forward and create something new.
The proof that Mercy Street is for real occurred on Dfest's R.U.R. stage on Saturday, July 26, of this year. With the blazing sun scorching the horizon and temperatures approaching 100 degrees, the band drew a slowly expanding crowd that eventually reached 250 to 300 people total, despite the fact that the festival was just getting started.
By and large, those who did stop--even if merely out of curiosity and to see what the ruckus was about--were less likely to leave as the quintet captured the ears and imaginations of an audience that spanned three generations of listeners and challenged the preconceptions of what heavy metal must sound like in an age beyond Y2K.
Yes, the guitars are loud and searing and the music brutally heavy, but unlike what has become the stereotype, Mercy Street is not afraid to abandon the screaming "Cookie Monster" vocals that have become synonymous with modern metal. As a result, the heaviness is balanced with real singing, including harmony vocals, along with the occasional screaming passage, as it fits within the context of the song.
What was most apparent at Dfest, however, was the fact that Tulsa's hard rock and heavy metal fans are ready for something new, something fresh to pull the local scene out of the ditch that so many bands have gotten stuck in. Perhaps the big the biggest irony, then, is that the core of the band had to escape that very ditch themselves.
Caught in the Machine
Just a few short years ago, My Dead X was the buzz band of the local metal scene. The group evolved out of roster changes in Suffer the Masses, bringing in drummer Steven Davidson and vocalist Matt McHan from Rook to complement guitarist Jonathan Wilkerson and bassist Adam Lair, along with an additional guitarist. Realizing that the band had evolved with the lineup change, the group decided a moniker change was due and ended up straddled with My Dead X, a name that was initially tossed in the ring as a joke.
"Well, none of us here can take credit for that," Davison said.
"Yeah, that was actually Scott, at the time our guitar player," Lair continued. "He was making jokes about exes and stuff and there was one in particular, that he said 'I wish she was my dead ex.'"
"We all chuckled and wrote it down on the list," McHan concluded, "and then Danny (the band's manager) came back and said 'Hey, every label loves that name!'"
"The thing is," McHan went on, "He was shopping us around to labels. This was when Opiate for the Masses came out and he was like, 'Nobody likes Suffer the Masses. They like the music, but they don't like the name.'"
To the disbelief of the band, however, the overwhelming favorite from the group's list of potential names ended up being the one that was added as a joke.
Against its better judgment, the group soldiered on as My Dead X for a year and a half, becoming one of the most popular metal bands in Tulsa's music scene, even as tensions were building within the band.
"My Dead X had quite a few perks," shared Davidson. "There was quite a bit of label attention for a little while and a lot of shopping going on."
Amid the perks, however, the band lost a measure of its freedom and got caught up in formula and expectations, which pushed the band to its precipice.
"We were beating a dead horse by the end of that band, we really were," explained McHan. "We weren't being creative anymore. We all felt like we were stagnating, and all it took was one bad show for it all to explode. And that was the end of it."
Everyone agreed that, in hindsight, the performance for the Cancer Sucks benefit at the Cain's Ballroom wasn't the problem; it was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. It was the culmination of stress, preconceptions and expectations piling up on a band that was following a charted path instead of its heart. Once the implosion occurred, however, the heart of a true rock band was allowed to reignite and everything started coming together.
New Beginning, Change of Perspective
Truth be told, Wilkerson and Davidson had already started writing new material before My Dead X breathed its last breath and had brought (former Wreckless Process/current My Solstice) singer Brandon Davis in to jam with them on occasion in the months prior.
"That was pretty much the band's conception, and the end of My Dead X ended up birthing what would inevitably become Mercy Street," Davidson explained.
Looking to fill out the new band's line-up, the drummer and guitarist asked McHan if he'd like to join in the project, this time as a guitarist, to which McHan said his initial response was "Yes. Thank God!"
"I liked being a front man. It's a lot of fun, and I really do like to sing and write lyrics. But let's face facts--I'm a guitarist," he said. "That's where I need to be."
McHan and Lair remained in close contact as music instructors at the same studio, and eventually McHan brought up the fact that he was jamming with the guys on weekends again, to which Lair immediately responded (somewhat surprisingly) with interest in participating.
"I was just excited about doing something besides My Dead X," Lair expressed emphatically.
"I think, more than anything, we had a lot of smoke blown up our asses with that band and didn't see a whole lot in return," explained McHan.
"And we spent more time focused on trying to 'make it' and less time worried about having fun playing music we liked to play," continued Lair.
According to McHan, that was an initial agreement going into Mercy Street.
"It was supposed to be a band that was not trying to appease a record label, not trying to be big and famous or do anything of that nature. It's more like, 'Hey guys, remember when we did this because we loved it? Remember that period when it was fun? Can we go back to that?'"
"The instant we stopped giving a shit about going anywhere was the instant that everything started working," said Davidson.
"All of a sudden, our writing was much more fulfilling and we seemed to be a whole lot more gratified at the end of a writing session," explained McHan. "All of us were in a better mood, a better place mentally and emotionally."
"There was just a bad depression that came with My Dead X," Davidson shared. "We associated (that band) with too much stress and even though it was a slight change going from My Dead X to Mercy Street, at the same time it was night and day."
"When we were balls deep in My Dead X. We were going through a lot," McHan expounded. "I mean, all of us, during the last half of My Dead X, had a nervous breakdown at some point, but we were all there for each other. There was so much pressure and tension and now there's not."
A Whole New Game
Along with the newfound freedom came a fresh and more immediate sound and energy for Mercy Street. Sure, there are similarities in the new band's sound, but that's inevitable when four of the members are the same. With all previous walls stripped away, however, the group feels free to explore all its options.
"My thing is, it's nice to think we could play a country song, then go out and play a death metal song in the same set," explained Lair. "Not that we're going to play a country song, but we can be that open."
"It's completely about freedom," McHan added, "and once you give yourself that freedom, all of a sudden it's so much more fun."
"We're not trying to make parts sound a certain way anymore" Davidson continued. "It's just, this is what it sounds like because this is what we like to play."
Granted, the time spent together in previous incarnations have definitely forged a bond and distilled the chemistry within the band, and all of the members agree that they work much better in the writing process now, finding a common ground that blends all of their personal styles and perspectives into a more cohesive whole.
Credit must also be given, however, to vocalist/lyricist Brandon Davis, who has brought a whole new element and perspective to the group.
"Brandon has become a big part of it, whether he realizes it or not," Davidson explained. "His vocals really complement this style."
"The first time Jon and I got together with him, we played him a My Dead X song that had no lyrics," he continued. "And as brutal as My Dead X could be, with Brandon singing--not even screaming, just singing over it--it was one of the best things I'd ever heard as far as mixing a more pop/rock/metal vocal over some half-ass Meshuggah-sounding, death metal shit."
"It was like, okay, this is definitely going to work," said Davidson, "so when we got the whole band together with Brandon included, things started really clicking.
What's truly surprising from an outsider's perspective is what Davis brings to the table on a vocal level. After cutting his teeth in hard rock acts Copious and Wreckless Process, Davis' most recent gig in My Solstice has given him opportunity to open up his voice and sing more.
In fact, Davis admitted to me that "Wreckless only had one mode: intense. It was always balls to the wall, so when the group broke up, I wanted to do something more diverse, chill and mellow. There's still another part of me that wanted to come out and needed an outlet."
"There's a metal kid inside of me and there's a pop kid and a rock kid. I have many different facets, and they're all just different directions of creativity," he continued. "I like to be part of something brutal that kicks listeners in the back of the throat. I like to scream. It allows me to get my frustrations out and express myself in a different manner."
With that said, it's easy to expect Davis to unleash a metal monster from inside and saturate the songs with screaming. Instead, however, he makes the songs more intense by bringing a focused and brooding vocal to the mix, punctuated by the occasional scream.
"I just go with what seems right at the time," said Davis, explaining his approach. "There's one song that we played in the Dfest set (it doesn't have a name yet), where I only scream one or two words. It actually started out all screaming, but it didn't feel right, so I completely changed the way I approached it. With whatever they write, I just try and do whatever complements it and makes that piece of music even better."
The Lithium Test
Especially when compared to the amount of time and attention that was spent pushing their previous band, all of the members of Mercy Street contend that the response to the new band has far surpassed any expectations they may have had. Consider the fact that the band's Dfest showcase was only its third live performance, and you'll realize how quickly the fans have embraced this band.
"Aside from how grateful we were for being able to play on that stage and even getting on Dfest, period, especially being able to play on that stage in front of two practical legends in the rock scene (Clutch and Helmet), the coolest thing was I looked out and there were actually people singing along to the songs that we just put out not four months ago," Davidson said.
"I mean, these people knew the words," he continued, "So that was amazing. These people don't just come to the show because they have something to do now; these people were sitting at home listening and studying and they were figuring out the lyrics to these songs. They genuinely like these songs. It's obvious that they're going home and popping them in their CD player or putting them on their iPod and listening to them. So that's a really good feeling. It's almost better than hearing yourself on the radio for the first time."
That's the true test of how well the band is being received. Even though the group has yet to release a proper CD (tentative plans call for a late winter or early spring release), this is a group that is capturing the attention and imagination of Tulsa's music fans and is ready to re-ignite the local metal community.
While the members of Mercy Street haven't set high expectations for the band, the group's newfound freedom and honesty in delivery have raised the bar on what should be expected of Tulsa's metal acts. Nobody wants the burden of carrying a mantle, but if anyone can revive the local metal scene, Mercy Street is the band to do it.
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