For good or naught, heavy metal music has always been about excess. Bands vie for the titles of world's loudest, fastest, slowest, sludgiest, doomiest, horniest, filthiest, drunkest, and most in league with Satan. To the casual music fan, metal still means the butt-rocking '80s with its bulging codpieces, boys with teased hair and groupies who would do anyone to get a look under Bret Michaels' bandana. But excess isn't all bad. Excess in spirit and energy can drive people to make great art. Missoula's ridiculously belligerent genre-defying metal duo Lb.! ("pound!")has taken the bar of excess and razed it with bruising beats and fretboard wizardry. The duo's instrumental music is a brutal alchemy that crosses genres of grindcore, doom, and dubstep. Yes, dubstep.
"Metal is such a flexible genre," says guitarist Ryan Schutte. "It's like the New York City of music—a melting pot."
Schutte and drummer David Stickney each sport a beard that would make a Civil War reenactor proud. While Schutte's is a dark, foreboding mass nearly masking his face, Stickney's is a blonde wispy thing that somehow makes him look younger than his 23 years. The yin and yang of the beards are like their musical relationship, which Stickney describes as "two warriors sparring." And it often does feel like a complex battle plan of infantry and cavalry trying to outflank and outfight one another. Songs are built based on complicated number formations, which Stickney says, "a music major would have no way to understand." Via effects pedals, the guitar kicks out bass parts and, simultaneously, shrieks with finger tapping riffs. On the drums, floor toms may deliver the bass line while the snare accents act as melody. The guitar and drums may meet up after 15 measures only to split off again after a brief alignment. With songs clocking in at around 13 minutes and built with dozens of riffs and odd time signature changes sometimes occurring after each measure, a system was necessary to keep it all in order.
"The best thing to ever happen to me was when I discovered that Post-it makes giant pieces of graph paper you can stick to the wall," Schutte says. Songs are mapped out like a campaign with each riff numbered. This is a war of attrition where, Stickney says, "The only limits are speed and the limitations of the human body."
Upon arriving at a Lb.! show the array of gear might lead you to believe that a large posse group like P-Funk was about to bring the funk. Not so. To start with there are two drumsets. Stickney calls the first his "doom kit," which features a bass drum turned into a floor tom and an extra-large bass drum for pounding out the slow, heavy parts. The second drum set is more lithe. "It's built for spastic speed grindcore stuff," Stickney says. He smoothly transitions from one set to the other by simply spinning his throne 90 degrees. Schutte's "small rig" includes an enormous multi-speakered bass cabinet as well as a traditional guitar stack. He plays a specially tuned eight-string guitar, enabling him to cover an enormous sound spectrum via a pedal set-up that could befuddle some electrical engineers. "I knew I wanted those notes that aren't available to other guitarists," he says.
Schutte passionately speaks about his modified active pick-ups the same way chefs talk about foie gras. "Two batteries for a total of 18 volts to up the mids and cut the top end slightly..." And so on. He dreams of "being able to hang out on my porch with people and talk about strings and pick-ups all day." The gear doesn't cover up sound or hide poor musicianship, it only makes things more complicated, which the band loves.
"If I hear a riff in my head and I can play it the first couple of tries then I throw it out," Schutte says.
"When we write a song it takes us two months to learn to play it," adds Stickney.
That's what makes the live shows pay off for Lb.!. After 25 to 35 hours of practice per week these perfectionists are stoked to share their efforts with the people. A show in Great Falls caused a bit of commotion because Stickney's sets wouldn't fit on the drum riser. But that was fine by Lb.!.
"We hate stages a lot. Our favorite place to play is on the floor," Stickney says. "We want the audience as close as possible."
Schutte echoes his bandmate: "I really don't like the separation between the musician and the audience...I want them to feel like they're a part of it. I want people experiencing the full force of my rig. I want people with their heads by Dave's toms getting battered by them."
At a recent performance in Missoula, Schutte shouted, "Come in!" after all their songs. The inclusion of the crowd in the performance is a bit at odds with metal's typically exclusionary fans and musicians.
There are no more diehard fans in the world than metal fans. And it seems as though they go to shows just to see if a band can pull off the musical acrobatics live. They hate. They judge. They'll love you for the rest of their lives if you don't burn them.
Lb.! Exists in a universe dominated by sound that only they completely understand.
Schutte says he has no time for fakers or understudies.
"There's always that awkward conversation when you meet someone who says they're into metal. Do you actually listen to metal or are you just into The Blaze? Just because you put distortion on pop music doesn't make it metal."
Lb.! plays the Palace Friday, May 27, at 9 PM with Red Fang and Tidal Horn. $8.