Run its Course

A decade later, Course of Empire utters its last words

Yet news of Course's demise doesn't come as any great surprise. Indeed, there are probably plenty of people who thought the band broke up some time ago: Three albums in 10 years don't do much to build a fan base. The delay between the second album (1994's Initiation) and the third (Telepathic Last Words)--caused when their label, the major-minor Zoo Records, folded--proved a chasm too enormous to cross. In the end, Course was done in by dumb luck and bad timing.

"Why this happened is going to be one of the great mysteries to me," says Q102 music director Redbeard. "[Telepathic Last Words] is one of my favorite albums of the 1990s--and not just local albums either. I'll be listening to this album into the next millennium easily, and there were four radio-ready singles on this album...I wish I could give you a succinct analysis of why this happened, but I think the truth is kind of murky. It's a shame."

It seems forever and yet not long ago that Course was one of the biggest bands in town, a sellout every weeknight and weekend; theirs was (or is--they have one more show, after all) arena-rock made for the clubs, a post-punk-pre-industrial pastiche that was at once danceable and overwhelming. Live, the band was so in-your face, it was behind you. At their best--say, on the single "Infested!" off 1994's Initiation, or in concert--they proved a band could make metal-machine rock and roll without losing the human touch; at their worst--say, on their 1990 self-titled debut--they were self-serious and pretentious, preachers with guitars.

When Course began in 1988, they were greeted with the warmest of hometown hugs: Almost from the get-go, they were press darlings and a booking agent's best friend. In these very pages in January 1990, former music editor Clay McNear wrote that this local "U2 with a Bauhaus hangover" was an "act to watch"; a month later, he wrote of the buzz surrounding Course, which was then caught in a weird sort of bidding war--between local labels, no less. Fighting over the band were Allan Restrepo's Carpe Diem Records, which to that point had released only Rhett Miller's Mythologies, and David Dennard and Patrick Keel's Dragon Street Records, which would go on to release the debut records from Tripping Daisy and Hagfish, among others. Restrepo won out, insisting at the time that he would "make a big push on" Course of Empire and transform them from a local phenom into a national act.

For a while there, Restrepo's plan looked real: In the fall of 1990, Carpe Diem released Course of Empire and sold "somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 copies," Restrepo says now. "It happened real quick and dropped off real quick." But after shopping the band to various major labels, Restrepo hooked up with Kim Buie, who was working in the A&R department at Island Records. (It was Buie, now a vice-president of A&R at Capitol Records, who came to town and put together The Sounds of Deep Ellum collection in 1987 that featured the likes of the New Bohemians, Three on a Hill, and Reverend Horton Heat.) But Island Records was in the process of being bought by PolyGram and was in a state of turmoil; Buie passed along the band to Anna Loynes at Zoo Records, who eventually signed Course to the label. "We got Zoo's attention," Restrepo says, "but I wish we hadn't."

In 1992, Zoo Records (then home to Matthew Sweet and myriad artists no one has heard of or heard from since) re-released the Carpe Diem debut with a few insignificant modifications; none but the hardcore noticed the difference. The national release got the band a little extra press here and there, but from the get-go, no one really seemed to know what to make of Course of Empire: Were they industrial or Goth or, for that matter, new-age metal? And more to the point, was this band--with its vegan sloganeering and into-the-mystic lyrics ("I flew to the summit in the mountains of the spoken")--for real?

"We're the aftermath of industrial," Stevenson told the El Paso Herald-Post in 1992 (getting press in such minor markets as El Paso might have been one of the reasons the record didn't sell too well). "We're a post-industrial, anti-rock and roll band." (Or it could have been statements like that.) In the end, Zoo's rerelease of Course of Empire didn't do as well as the band or label had hoped: "I was looking at Zoo's reports," says Restrepo, "and they didn't sell much more than I did."

But there was no way Zoo could have been expected to sell a record like Course of Empire: It was too scattered, too schizophrenic, and often too silly. It was the antithesis of their live show, which was enormous even in the smallest setting. "The record turned off a lot people who liked the live show," Restrepo says. "The band got slammed for being pretentious, but I think some of their best songs are on that record, like 'Coming of the Century.'" (The band probably agrees: Telepathic Last Words features a remake of "Coming of the Century.")

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