Ask Kelly Gately to explain the rather abstract title of the new Fireballs of Freedom album, Welcome to the Octagon (Estrus Records), and you’re likely to confuse yourself even further.
“Well, there’s this fuckin’ kung fu movie, The Octagon, and it’s pretty much just Sammy [Adams, the band’s drummer] fuckin’ casting off all the false prophets, and it’s just like, fuckin’, ‘welcome to the octagon,’ you know?”
Uh huh. Despite the endeavor of wading through the guitar-slayer’s distinct vocal mannerisms and his seeming reluctance to offer any sort of straightforward answer, his response becomes somewhat more accurate upon listening to the record. Only the title seems less about Adams’ fascination with kung fu (he lists his chief drum influence as Bruce Lee) or his personal battle with “false prophets” than about the Fireballs themselves casting off the false prophets of rock.
Any attempt to convey the Fireballs’ sound to the uninitiated is difficult. Comparisons have been made to Clawhammer and Nation of Ulysses, but with each passing album these already shaky approximations sound even less appropriate. Suffice it to say that the Fireballs have certainly carved out their own sound, a fusion of a heavy dose of rock/punk madness swirled with some jazz and funk (and mind you, that’s funk in a Jay’s Upstairs sense rather than the literal funk of the Top Hat). Granted, it is a much smoother “fusion” than that to which the modern ear is accustomed. While most bands these days who openly describe themselves as “fusion” opt for the simple, haphazard positioning of two styles of music side by side, whether they “rap” over “metal” or make half of their song “punk” and the other half “ska,” the Fireballs’ fusion is so subtle and expertly executed that it is not so easily recognizable. Welcome to the Octagon captures the perfection of this fusion and is unmistakably a Fireballs album, complete with the customary cooler-than-thou choice of cover: The Flaming Lips’ “Fryin’ Up” receives the ’Balls treatment this time around.
While the title of the album implies an entrance to another level, the music on this record does not speak of any major departure for the band (with the exception of Von Venner’s unexpected, tortured, and lovely ballad, “Got My Soul Back”). However, the music does speak of the Fireballs’ permanence in relation to other bands swept up in the dirty-rock revival of recent years. The Fireballs were there before any fad, and they fully intend to remain standing long after. As Kelly hints in his description of the album title, there is a definite “us versus them” vibe to the whole album, as in the Fireballs of Freedom versus everyone who is not a Fireball.
Consider their words. On the opening track, they seem to defy the weekend rock ’n’ roll stars, sneering, “We do it everyday,” while the next song, the soul-stomping “Out of My Head,” reveals their utter disgust for the false ones, with Gately and Von Venner tearing at their throats, screaming, “I’m so tired of wasting my time on you.” This attitude pervades all 11 tracks, culminating with a final showdown in the magnanimously titled, “Vs the Universe,” which is most assuredly meant to be read as “Fireballs of Freedom vs. the Universe.” While no one is sure they would want to witness such a battle, the Fireballs seem quite certain they know who the victors would be. Goddamn Gentlemen, Sex-Caliber Horsepower
Speaking of battles, it’s always unwise to miss the brawling rock shows of Fireball-brethren and fellow Portland scenesters the Goddamn Gentlemen. The name says an awful lot: five lushes in suits trying to maintain an air of civility, but goddamn if it ain’t an ordeal. With guitars sailing through the air over the audience, band members alternately slapping and choking each other, and the odd occasion where one of them decides to take leave in the middle of a song and grab a beer at the bar, every Gents show is an experiment in drunken debauchery. As the artwork suggests on their newly released second album, Sex-Caliber Horsepower, the band is a veritable muscle car careening towards the listener trapped in awe of the headlights.
The northwest buzz surrounding their self-released Greasefire EP caught the attention of Estrus Records, which expressed interest in seeing the band audition for a possible release. In typical Gents fashion, the band showed up more than two hours late for the gig, reeking of alcohol. The only explanation they could offer was that they “found a way to pee on the road without pulling over and without using a jug.” After purchasing a new van, the boys—Mark Gastar, who hollers and strums, bass-ace James Winters, drummer Kyle Huth, guitar/Farfisa hero Jason Fleming and sometime singer/full-time guitar-beater David Rives—were snatched up by Uppercut Records, who, presumably, were unaware of the band’s more dubious achievements. Uppercut sent the band into the studio to flesh out their EP into a full album. Sex-Caliber Horsepower became the second album released on Uppercut.
The album is packed with the same raucous energy, squealing guitars, and manic pacing that defines the Goddamn Gentlemen’s live shows. Guest appearances include Starantula’s hedonistic madman Seantos on sax and the Fireballs’ Sam Adams providing ever more decadence to the final track.
In the world of dirty rock, there are only a certain number of conventional phrases a writer can use to relay the sound of a band on the page, and almost all include some form of the words greasy, trashy, or sleazy. Indeed, the Goddamn Gentlemen embody each of these terms, but they are by no means conventional. They are the dirtiest of dirty rockers.