(Full disclosure: Since 2006, the author of this piece has performed recreationally with Pinkish Black drummer Jon Teague in a "proto-punk repertory band." In his defense, the author says, "I was a fan of Jon's creative output long before either of us ever contemplated such foolishness.")
To the multitudes that got wind of Pinkish Black's self-titled debut LP via online tastemakers such as Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan and Cvlt Nation, the Fort Worth-based duo's new album must have seemed like a bolt from the blue. Released on Handmade Birds, the imprint of Denton musician R. Loren (Pyramids, White Moss, Sailors With Wax Wings), Pinkish Black is a fully realized piece of work by musicians in command of their materials: dark, brooding, intense and ultimately cathartic. It's also the culmination of more than 20 years of music-making for two of the most prolific musicians the Metromess has produced — a refinement and distillation of all they've done before.
For singer/keyboardist Daron Beck, the tonal half of Pinkish Black, the buzz surrounding the release is "welcome, because it's always nice when people appreciate what you do, but also pretty weird, since I've been playing music since 1988, to little or no attention."
The music sounds both brand-new and very, very old. There's Gothic horror here, but it's as referential of '60s and '70s TV and movie kitsch as it is of Poe and Lovecraft, which makes it no less haunting. (In a just universe, which exists only in this writer's imagination, it'd be Beck, not Johnny Depp, playing Barnabas Collins in the remake of Dark Shadows.)
It's worth remembering that Goth's twisted romanticism is a literary construct, a way of sublimating Victorian sexual repression and a morbid curiosity about the forbidden. But in Pinkish Black's music, it's intertwined with another strain, one that first germinated when Brit war babies armed with Gibsons and Marshalls made metal out of scraps of the blues, substituting the dissonance of the "devil's interval" for the syntax of the flatted third and seventh, and has since mutated into something even more primordial and atavistic.
For Jon Teague, who provides Pinkish Black's rhythmic propulsion, making music has always been about "my friends and me, exorcising demons."
Teague was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 1975, and moved to Fort Worth with his mother when he was 10. There he met Tim Cowden, a budding drummer (now with reggae-rockers Sally Majestic) who influenced Teague to take up the drums. At 15, he joined his first band: Crucified Choices, a DIY punk outfit fronted by Brian Waits (who now leads recently reunited Fort Worth metal juggernaut Garuda). A scene coalesced around Shawn's Subs, a deli on University Drive near Texas Christian University, where Teague worked and was able to book some shows.
He also played in Little Boy with Chad Percy, a colorful character who subsequently left Fort Worth to hitchhike and ride the rails around the country; worked at Stanley Marsh's Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo; and played in Ghostcar and his own band, Cadillac Fraf & the Mockingbird Cartel, before dying in 2010 from injuries sustained in a traffic accident.
In 1998, Teague was playing in a band called Yeti, which included bassist Tommy Atkins and guitarist Eric Harris, while occasionally jamming with Atkins and Doug Ferguson, a slightly older music aficionado who'd worked with Teague at Shawn's Subs. When Yeti's lead guitarist quit, Ferguson was invited to join. He was a persuasive advocate of European progressive rock, a collector of vintage analog electronic keyboards and a veteran of musical projects including Frankie Teardrop, Ohm and Vas Deferens Organization. Atkins was a self-described "smart fat kid," whose bond with Teague sprang from their shared alienation, intelligence, sardonic humor and connoisseurship. Harris was an intuitive player, whose penchant for sonic surprise made up for his unfamiliarity with musical structure.
Yeti's 2000 album, Things To Come, is the sound of a young band flexing its musical muscle and reveling in its power, but not quite transcending its influences. While four tracks are listed on the sleeve, each side really functions like a long suite, with shifting tempos and lengthy extemporizations by Ferguson on his arsenal of keyboards and Harris on acrid-toned guitar. Yeti's sound is highly evocative of '70s prog, space rock and fusion, anchored by the telepathic communication between the rhythm section players.
Ferguson died unexpectedly on February 23, 2002, following a brief illness. His bandmates never missed a beat; keyboard duties were simply split between Atkins and Teague. On Volume, Obliteration, Transcendence, released in 2004, their sound had become noticeably heavier. Teague was now attacking his kit with the most precisely controlled violence imaginable, Atkins' bass sound had taken on gargantuan proportions, and Harris would often sync up with him to hammer the hypnotic ostinatos home. They'd added vocals, which were growled or whispered with unintelligible menace, but the anguish was palpable and real.
Angry young men often deal with grief and loss either by turning on each other, or by turning away from each other. In Yeti's case, they took the latter course. Things came to a head on a tour of the West Coast. Harris was plagued with drug problems. Atkins, moody and prone to depression, quit the tour in San Francisco, leaving Teague and Harris at loose ends. When they played one final show at the Wreck Room in Fort Worth (where Teague had worked as a doorman, booker and soundman), Harris kept playing the same few notes over and over, while Atkins stood for most of the set with his hands locked behind his back. You could have cut the tension with a knife. After the performance, Daron Beck approached Teague and told him he'd like to collaborate. The two began writing together, and soon enlisted Atkins for their new project: The Great Tyrant.
A Bicentennial baby, Beck had grown up in the Mid Cities (as the 'burbs between Fort Worth and DFW International Airport are known) and developed an early fascination with the macabre. When he was 10, he taught himself guitar out of a Fleetwood Mac songbook. "I was a nerdy outcast weirdo loner, and I figured that if I learned to play, I'd have something to hold onto," Beck says.
At 12, he started Thunderfoot, a punk/New Wave outfit with a girl singer that played original material, "because we were too terrible to play anybody else's," he explains. Beck taught himself to play drums, bass and keyboards, "so that I could show other people how to play my songs, since most of the people I played with didn't know how to play; they just had instruments."
In 1994, Beck moved to Denton and immersed himself in the music scene there, playing in a succession of bands that included Thorazine Dreams ("a learning experience in what not to do in a band"), Maxine's Radiator ("I was the drummer, but Sean Kirkpatrick taught me how to play the piano") and the Meat Helmets, with John Freeman of Dooms UK fame.
Pointy Shoe Factory started as a solo project in 1998 and expanded to include as many as a dozen members, the most consistent of whom were bassist Kyle Cheatham and drummer Tyler Walker. For eight months in 2001, the band decamped to Los Angeles. "We got a three-story, five-bedroom house in Echo Park," Beck says. "We decided to come back [to Texas] on 9/11. We didn't like the music scene or have any friends there." Back in Denton, Beck hooked up with Freeman and Corn Mo in the Golden Vipers. When Doug Ferguson — a big influence on Beck's keyboard style — died, Beck briefly considered offering his services to Yeti before deciding it would be "inappropriate."
In the summer of 2004, Beck left Denton with $30 in his pocket, got on a bus and traveled to New Orleans. There, he auditioned for American Idol with cabaret versions of Tom Jones' "Delilah" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You."
"It was a sort of Tony Clifton-Andy Kaufman kind of thing," Beck explains. "I didn't tell anybody I was going. It was supposed to be a segment on so-called bad singers, and I figured that maybe I could be the best of the bad singers. When they ran the show, they used my bit for a preview before The Simpsons and I got 20 calls from people who'd seen I was going to be on."
Beck possesses one of the most distinctive and expressive voices one is likely to hear, but frequently chooses to obscure it behind layers of reverb or bury it in the mix. Those who've heard the cover of the Motels' "Only the Lonely," which he performs as his country alter ego D. Wayne Grubb, can attest to the Orbisonic beauty Beck invests in the song's last falsetto note. With the Tyrant, however, his onstage persona was alternately funereal and mock demented, declaiming his lyrics in a low growl or uttering the wails of a tormented soul.
His theatricality and effect-laden keyboard gave The Great Tyrant's performances a focused intensity and visual flare that Yeti's lacked, while Atkins and Teague's accompaniment added dimensions of power and drama. As a result, the trio was described as "a heavy rock band using keyboards instead of guitars" and "a vampire backed by two monks."
"The first few months were rough," Beck adds. "I was pop and those guys were metal. I had to learn how to sing with that."
In short order, the new lineup was documented on a 7-inch, "Candy Canes," released on Fort Worth's Dada Drumming. The record came with a four-song CD-R that included a cover of "Weidorje," by the French operatic prog band Magma — a seminal influence. The Tyrant was restlessly creative; the musicians were constantly writing and recording new material, so if you missed them for a show or two, you'd generally be greeted by an all-new set the next time.
Atkins' moodiness continued. At one point, he actually quit the band before Beck talked him back in. "I was good at talking him down," he says. "He and Jon had this intellectual relationship, but he and I had a different kind of connection, almost childlike."
On February 25, 2010, Tommy Atkins committed suicide at home in Fort Worth. Teague and Beck were stunned, but through welters of anger, tears and whiskey, they managed to write a new set of material, which they performed at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff a month after Atkins' death. A hastily organized benefit to raise funds to cover the cost of Atkins' cremation was held three days after his death. There, Beck performed "I Put A Spell On You" with one-man blues band Will Kapinos, aka Dim Locator.
"We took the Kessler show to give us a deadline to focus on," Beck says. "Otherwise, we'd just drink."
More than a year later, Dada Drumming released There Is A Man In the House, the first Great Tyrant full-length. On it, Teague lays down grooves worthy of two of his idols, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, while the band as a whole displays an expanded dynamic range, with plenty of light-and-shade to be heard on "Adorable," and the closing track, "Still Birth," which builds to a climax that's downright uplifting. Taken as a whole, the album is a fitting epitaph for Atkins. (A second Great Tyrant album still awaits release.)
In the two-plus years since Atkins' death, Pinkish Black has continued redefining itself. The original set was supplanted almost immediately by new material, and since then, Beck and Teague have continued writing at a furious pace. Over the years, they've developed a good working relationship with engineer Matt Barnhart at Denton's Echo Lab, and their mutual respect is evident in the sympathetic framing he gives their sound on the LP.
The album's seven tracks run just over 33 minutes; Teague thinks that's optimal for the average human's attention span. The orchestrated doom-metal of "Bodies In Tow" maps out the territory that Pinkish Black will explore, from the opening washes of Beck's synthesizer to the crushing heaviness of the beat, reinforced by a grinding bass line played on the keyboard. Here and elsewhere, when Beck plays his synth obbligatos, the presence of Doug Ferguson is palpable. Listening, it's sobering to realize that just two musicians created this monolith of sound.
When the material was still in its developing stages, Beck and Teague joked that every song on the album would be called "Everything Went Dark." That track opens with a vocal snippet the band uses as background noise between songs when they perform live, giving way to a sinister waltz with a cinematic sound. "Passerby" begins with an icy synth ostinato before the drums enter, a heavy kick-snare figure contrasting with filigree cymbal work. The groove builds relentlessly, while Beck's chanted vocal paints a picture of a desolate inner landscape.
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"Fall Down" pummels the listener with backing so turbulent it's possible to miss the soaring melody until the second or third spin. "Tell Her I'm Dead" is the most brutal, culminating in anguished shrieks. "Tastes Like Blood" is the album's zenith, a masterful example of light and shade, its simple piano-and-untreated-voice intro giving way to a majestically ascending finale. "Against the Door" ends the album on a discordant note, juxtaposing an insistent riff and punishing drums with an arcing long-tone melody. When it ends abruptly, you'll breathe a sigh of relief, then reach to restart the record. The influence that dare not speak its name here is pop.
"Standard song structures just work," Beck stresses. "You can add weirdo aesthetics and textures or anything you want on top of that. It's all just music. If I can listen to Magma, then put on the Three Suns or Dionne Warwick, then maybe somebody else can, too. We don't want to be genre-ified."
Beck pauses, then adds, "Darker music just lasts longer. It speaks to everyone on a deeper level. Everyone experiences sadness or melancholy feelings — a sense that something is missing here — on a more regular basis than they do happiness.
"Maybe hearing music like ours lets them know they're not alone."