Mecca Normal – “Calico Kills The Cat” (1988)

One woman said,
“I don’t like the way things are going.”
One woman said,
“I think I’ll change it all.”
— “One Woman”

This encapsulates the Riot Grrrl dream. The Riot Grrrls didn’t get there, because society moves slowly, like a glacier. But it was a step in the right direction. Today we have #MeToo. We’re continuing to make progress. It’s just sad that after this many years we still have so far to go.

Mecca Normal were a duo from Vancouver, BC, and their sophomore album Calico Kills The Cat was released on Olympia, Washington’s forward-thinking label K Records. I’m not sure I can truly say that Mecca Normal remind me of anyone else. The songs are simple – David Lester on guitar and Jean Smith doing vocals. That’s basically it. You don’t even notice the true simplicity of their sound until you focus on it, because you’re so focused on Smith’s forceful and agitated singing.

Their songs are forceful and message-driven. There’s an honesty here that runs deep. And I like everything about it.

N.M.E. – “Unholy Death” (1986)

My friends over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records have been making my mouth water in recent months with the FB videos of them flipping through their New Arrivals section – they’ve been getting in a ton of great stuff, especially metal, punk, and indie. Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I decided to head down there a few weeks back since it had been a while and there was a new burger joint down that way we wanted to check out, plus I was excited to get my hands on some of those new arrivals.

One thing that caught my eye was this crazy looking record with a black-and-white cover that was clearly a drawing. There was a post-it note attached to it indicating it was a 1986 self-release of a metal band from Federal Way, WA, which is right up the highway a few miles from Tacoma. It checked off all my boxes – 80s metal, obscure, local. It wasn’t cheap, but a quick check of Discogs indicated the price was spot-on, plus I was treating myself to some early birthday vinyl so into my stack it went. When I got to the counter the guy working there smiled and showed it to the woman who was also working, and they were both stoked that I was picking this up. They asked if I’d looked up the backstory of the band and I admitted I hadn’t. A brief debate ensued about whether or not they should tell me the story, but ultimately they decided to let me learn it for myself and assured me it wouldn’t be hard to find online.

At this point my mind started doing that thing it does sometimes where I seem to manage to connect some seemingly unrelated data in a way that is both correct and sometimes freaky. “Wait,” I said. “Is this the guy who killed his mom and then drove his car off the bridge?” Silence and stares, including from Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, though she has experienced this before. Sheepishly they admitted that indeed yes it was, which then prompted me to start a fast-talking dissertation about violence and extreme metal, particularly the Norwegian scene and the whole Varg Vikernes / Mayhem / church burning thing. I do this at work too (not about extreme metal (usually), but instead about data), so I’m used to the wide-eyed looks that sometimes result. I just can’t help it when I’m excited about something.

Some (probably most) of you are still stuck on the quote above and wondering why I felt the need to blather on about my personal quirks instead of getting down to this whole murder thing. All good things to those who wait, my friends. I’m getting there. Most of the info available online contains the same basic set of facts, though with a few discrepancies here and there. I actually went to the local library last weekend and pulled a couple of Seattle Times articles from the days immediately following the crime, and I was considering trying to get my hands on the court records when I came across a three-page reference to the events in Pamela Des Barres and Paul Kemprecos’ Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (1996, p. 288-90). Des Barres and Kemprecos quote the 911 calls and court records, so I’m putting a lot of stuck in the veracity of their account and that seemed to eliminate the need to track down those details.

The crime occurred in an apartment building on South 281st in Federal Way, Washington on April 7, 1986. In the days and weeks prior to that fateful day, N.M.E. guitarist Kurt Struebing had been acting strange. He cut off his long hair, a very un-metal thing to do in the 1980s, and drank an entire container of carpet cleaning fluid to “clean himself out”. He began suffering from paranoia and delusions, thinking that people around him were robots and following him, going so far as to hit one of his friends in the chin with a bat. We don’t know precisely what transpired that evening and into the early morning hours in the apartment Struebing shared with his 53-year-old mother Darlee Struebing (♠), though friends later indicated the pair had a great relationship and that she was very supportive of her son. However, Kurt called 911 shortly after midnight and told the operator that he had killed his mother, describing it as a “God job”. The police arrived at the apartment building and encountered a naked Kurt Struebing outside waiting for them. When they made contact with him, Struebing is reported to have said, “I killed my mother and then I killed myself.”

The scene inside the apartment was gruesome. Darlee had been stabbed in the chest with scissors and struck about the head with a hatchet. (♣) She had also been raped. Kurt was sent to a psychiatric hospital (Western State) for evaluation and a few days after the murder tried to kill himself. He told the doctors that he thought he and his mother were robots sent to earth by aliens to somehow prepare the planet for the arrival of other forces. His assault on her was an attempt to prove that she was indeed a robot. She was not.

It was clear to everyone involved, including the prosecutor, that Kurt Struebing was mentally ill. Ultimately he pled guilty to second degree murder and sentenced to 12 years in the mental health unit at the penitentiary in Monroe, Washington, which is only maybe 10 miles from Life in the Vinyl Lane World Headquarters. He served eight, and was released in 1994.

By all accounts things went well for Struebing after his release. N.M.E. re-formed and Kurt organized various benefit shows when those in the local metal community who needed help. He got married, had a son, and worked at a printing company.

And then on March 9, 2005, he drove his car off a bridge.

Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge connects Harbor Island and West Seattle. Some sources online have described it as a drawbridge, leading to speculation that Struebing may have been trying to jump the span. However, it is in fact a swing bridge, with two sections supported on piers that can rotate to allow ship traffic to pass through. We took a field trip to the bridge this weekend to see it for ourselves. It’s the lower one on the right side of the photo. The two cylindrical vertical supports you see on ether side of the waterway are the piers on which the two bridge sections spin.

Whereas the motion of a drawbridge is vertical, a swing bridge moves horizontally, which can be quite strange looking if you’ve never seen it before, and could lead to confusion as to whether the bridge was open or shut. Witnesses report that at roughly 1 PM Struebing passed a number of cars stopped for the bridge opening, crashing through a wooden arm and metal gate and falling into the gap left by the open bridge. I’ve seen the height described as anywhere from 40 to 100 feet, and seeing it today I’m more inclined to believe the 40 foot figure. Regardless, it’s a long fall and one that proved fatal. Kurt was 39.

Many have asked if this was an accident or an intentional act. Friends indicated nothing was amiss, but we’ll never know for sure. We walked out onto the bridge from the Harbor Island side and took this photo of the spot where the stop gates are today. There are two things that struck us about the view from here. First is the area where the pivoting section of the bridge separates from the road isn’t that far from these gates – maybe about 30-40 feet away. And second, the area where you’d stop is actually fairly close to the apex of the bridge, which would make the separation of the segments harder to see until you were right up on top of them.

This was our first time at the Spokane Street Bridge. I’m not sure if Kurt had ever used it prior to the incident, or if he had ever seen it open before. If not it isn’t hard to imagine a car accidentally going off the open bridge, though of course that’s exactly what the gates are designed to prevent, providing a pretty clear warning that you shouldn’t continue forward. We’ll just never know.

Musically N.M.E. have a reputation for being an early and influential black metal band. Ian Christie lists Unholy Death as an early inspirational band for the genre, putting it alongside releases by seminal bands like Bathory, Hellhammer, Morbid Angel, and Venom. (♥) That’s some pretty high praise. And in fact quite a few bands have covered songs from Unholy Death, the band’s only output prior to a compilation that came out in 2012. (♦) Abigail, Skeleton Blood, Toxic Holocaust, Sacrificial Blood, Nunslaughter, Decayed, and Bunker 66 have all paid tribute by playing versions of N.M.E.’s songs.

The two sides of Unholy Death are labeled as “Eternal” and “Hate”, mirroring the message on the jacket reverse, “Praise the Eternal Hate”. Lyrically the message is clearly aligned with black metal:

We are of hell, born to sin.
To us, none is sacred.
We rape your mind and torture your soul.
Bleed upon the altar of God.
Wait not for his son.

So it’s a bit dark.

Musically, however, this feels a lot more like early thrash. Ignoring the words, songs like “Louder Than Hell” are some killer metal jams. The sound is raw, lacking sonic density and range, though this kind of flatness is fairly common on OG (i.e. that haven’t received the modern re-mastering treatment) metal pressings from he 1980s. It’s especially notable on the low end, which is not as low and rich as you’d expect to here from contemporary black metal. “Speed Killz” has some solid guitar riffs, as does “Stormwarning / Blood & Souls”, though the latter presents itself as more hardcore in the vocal pacing. There are a few weighty tracks here as well, most notably “Warrior” with it’s rasped singing and driving guitar.

Unholy Death definitely exceeded my expectations – this is something I can imagine getting some additional play on my turntable, and I’m tempted to buy the CD collection of the band’s complete works. If you’re a fan of thrash and the heavier end of hard rock, this is definitely worth a listen… and you can check the whole thing out below for free.

(♠) Darlee Struebing is described in some accounts as Kurt’s mother, in others as his adoptive mother, so I’m not entirely sure which is the most accurate description. Also, sources vary in the spelling of her first name, citing her as either Darlee or Darlene. The Seattle Times articles from the period, as well as those from the time of Kurt’s own death two decades later, refer to her as Darlee, so that’s what I’m going with.

(♣) Some reports refer to a hatchet, others an ax.

(♥) Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History History of Heavy Metal (2004), p. 109.

(♦) Released on 2 CDs or 3 LPs, Unholy Death / Machine of War includes the entire Unholy Death album, the versions of four Unholy Death songs that comprised the band’s 1985 four-song cassette Machine of War, and a bunch of rehearsal recordings.

Executive Slacks – “Nausea” (1985)

It drives me a little nuts when I see posts on some of the vinyl boards on Facebook about how someone ran across some amazing batch of wax at some kind of thrift store or garage sale and got it super cheap. If I’m being completely honest, my reaction is tinged with more than a hint of jealousy, because that never seems to happen to me. To be sure, I’ve found some outstanding stuff at the flea market in Reykjavik over the years… but the sellers knew exactly what they had, so while I got to pick up some rare records, I certainly paid the price. To be fair, I don’t do a lot of thrift shopping, so much of this is on me (OK, 99.9% of it). Back in the 1980s and 90s I used to be involved in a collectibles business and I knew plenty of guys who spent their entire weekends cruising yard and estate sales and storage locker auctions, some even going so far as keeping tabs on the obituaries. Now, I love a great score as much as the next guy, but…. you know what? Obviously I don’t, because otherwise I’d spend more of my time on the hunt.

One place that always raises an eyebrow when it comes up on these kinds of posts is Half Price Books. I love Half Price Books. I’ve literally been going there for over 30 years. And it isn’t uncommon for me to pop down with a couple of boxes of books to trade in, and whenever I do I look through their vinyl. And it’s usually an assortment of beat up 1970s rock and easy listening, with a smattering of terrible soundtracks thrown in for good measure. And a lot of it is pricey for the condition. But I still look. And a few weeks back I was rewarded! I’d hardly call it a score, but I picked up three cool records in decent shape (dirty as all hell, but they cleaned up great) and for very good prices – Skinny Puppy’s Remission, Alien Sex Fiend’s Who’s Been Sleeping In My Brain?, and today’s turntable occupant, Nausea by Executive Slacks.

Founded in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, the Slacks were influenced by the burgeoning electronic scene, but also by funk and hip hop, which is evident right out of the gate with the scratching open to the album’s first track, “In And Out”. The title track “Nausea” got some mainstream exposure when it appeared in an episode of Miami Vice during the show’s second season (episode title “Phil The Shill”). There’s definitely an IDM feel to Nausea, especially the B side with its snappy and almost sterile percussion over-layered with what are often shouted vocals. (♠) “Cold” is the most unusual track, a quiet instrumental featuring nothing but guitar… which doesn’t even remotely fit in with the rest of the record.

If you’re interested in checking out Executive Slacks, look no further than their Bandcamp page HERE, which currently offers a 36-track double CD of the band’s early output for a mere $14. You’re not going to find a better bargain than that anywhere. I bought one.

(♠) The record actually labels the sides as Side 1 and Side A, with no Side 2 or B. To add to the confusion, the track listing on the jacket reverse isn’t in the order the songs appear on the sides. I went with “In And Out” as the opening track based on the way the album’s listing appears on Discogs, though this may not be right as the first five tracks on the CD version are from the other side (opening with “Electric Blue”).

Deception Bay – “Deception Bay” (1989)

Last month I picked up this copy of Deception Bay’s self-titled debut while digging at Seattle’s Daybreak Records. The 1989 release is one of those “tweeners” that at five songs is too short to be called an “album”, but too long to be a single. To complicate things even more it clocks in at 33 minutes… which is certainly closer to album length than it is to that of an EP. Discogs categorizes it as a “mini-album”, which I suppose is as good as anything else I can come up with, so let’s just go with that.

ANYWAY… I really dug this the first time I listened to it. While it was spinning I was poking around online to see what else I could learn about Deception Bay, and it turned out there wasn’t a whole lot. In 1991 they put out a pair of releases, the 10″ Fortune Days and the full-length My Color Flag, but that was it. However, I did find a video on YouTube. For whatever reason the comments section caught my eye, and that’s where I saw a comment from Deception Bay guitarist/vocalist Jay Dunn. After a few searches I was able to put two and two together and thought that I found the right Jay Dunn online, so shot him and email, and sure enough it was the guy. Jay was great to correspond with and agreed to answer a few questions about the band for the blog. He also sent along the great photo below, one of the very few of the band together and I believe the only one that shows all three members who were on this particular record.

Deception Bay at The Rat in Boston
L to R: Carl Boland (bass), Jay Dunn (guitar and vocals), and Michael Evans (drums)

Photography by Paul Fay

 

So without further ado, here’s the man himself, Jay Dunn.

Jay, thanks for taking some time to talk to Life in the Vinyl Lane! Tell us a bit about how Deception Bay came to be and who was in the band.

Jay Dunn: In the mid-eighties, Carl Boland of October Days and I started playing together at my house in Central Square in Cambridge, MA. These were heady days for musical and artistic experimentation of every kind. Think WZBC’s landmark programming “No Commercial Potential” 24/7. Zoviet France, Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, Skinny Puppy, hundreds of truly avant-garde artists just quietly playing on the radio in the background. We used no amps, no drummer, and often recorded right in my room or onto a portable cassette 4-track. Carl played bass and provided percussion literally by hand on some drums we got from the alley. We made some tapes, and sent them around. Playing with a real drummer happened only at our first show, in Johnny D’s in Allston, I think. Over the following years we played with a number of awesome drummers, including Michael Evans, Terry Donahue, Him Arhelger, Danny Lee and Rich D’Albis.

How did the band comet to record a session at WERS, and how did that recording eventually become your five-song self-titled debut with Independent Project Records?

JD: I don’t remember how we got the radio station’s attention, but at the time, that live broadcast was only the third time Michael Evans (drums), Carl and I ever played in public, as it were. Together with our producer Douglas Vargas, and recording engineer Car Plaster, we just gave it our best that night, heard it was a success, and eventually managed to the master tapes from a DJ there. We’d played in Boston with Savage Republic, Bruce Licher’s band at the time, and as Independent Project Records, he was interested in the film aspects and moody environment we’d managed to create around our songs. After mastering the record at Capitol in Hollywood, we played a few great shows in Los Angeles, reuniting Carl with October Days drummer Rich D’Albis. For a guitarist, it was a dream come true to have a rhythm section like that.

I’ve seen “Deception Bay” described as goth rock, and that’s somewhat fitting given the overall darker feel of the songs. What strikes me the most about it is the way the rhythm section played. Normally you expect the drums to set the pace, generally in conjunction with the bass. But to my ears it’s the bass that sets the blueprint for the songs, holding steady and occupying a prominent place in the mix. The drums seem to follow, but with some occasional tempo changes and flourishes that give the structure some character. On top of that bass your guitar work and the vocals add the more emotional content to the songs. How did the band approach writing it’s material, and were you focused on having a distinct type of song structure?

JD: I was never conscious, really, of composing songs as such – they just happened as a result of our free-form style. Nothing we composed has ever been written down, that I know of. You could think of it as jazz in a way, yet the vast majority of jazz artists are consummate musicians first. I can’t read or write music, but it’s in my blood. My mom and her mother were both classical pianists. We always had music in our lives growing up. In Pakistan I learned about the Sufi and the devotional performers of “qawwali” music. In Urdu the term means to speak, or utterance, but the implication is that the singers are vessels, they are merely channels for something else. In no way am I likening our creative process, such as it was, with such a beautiful form of expression. But our music did just kind of come into being, without deliberate notation or preservation in any tangible way.

Deception Bay went on to put out a pair of albums in 1991, but noting after that. How did those last few years unfold?

JD: Carl had been on track to be a doctor since I knew him in college, so I moved out to LA as a trial, and ended up staying out there for some time. Both “My Color Flag,” our first and only studio album, and the IPR Archive Series 10″ were packaged and sold by Independent Project Records. The art was ours, designed by Bruce Licher, and we did some of the printing ourselves. Carl stayed in Boston to pursue his residency, and I went on to play and perform with a couple of different bass players. For a few memorable shows, including a live show on KXLU, I performed with Dino Paredes of Red temple Spirits and Rick D’Albis from October Days. We even performed with Zoviet France, a highlight of my experience as a musician. In the end, I just had to face the fact I wasn’t making any money or forward progress, so I started devoting myself to visual projects only.

You’ve established an amazing career as a photographer and artist. How did you get into photography, and what was the journey like as you transitioned into being a professional?

JD: I first became interested in multimedia in high school, but didn’t get started taking photographs until I went to Alaska as a youth. those days it was all about the light, and it still is, in a way. I was shooting black and white stills and film in my early days as an artis, and went on to incorporate film in our public performances. Those were dark and personal days, though, and while formative, they lacked any real perspective on the greater world outside our country. It was only after leaving the US and starting to experience some of the world’s less fortunate places that I realized how lucky I’ve been, and how much I wanted to contribute to a better understanding between us humans. I think photography can do that, and the best photojournalism and video lets people tell their stories without judgment, with dignity. I never consciously set out to make a career of it, it just happened.

Last but not least, are you still playing the guitar? And what are you listening to and loving these days? Any artists or releases that might be flying under the radar that you think folks should check out?

JD: I wish I could say I still played. In fact, a guitar teacher at one of the nonprofits I’ve been working with surprised me the other day when he showed up to a kid’s class with a vintage Gibson SG. What a beautiful instrument. I strapped it on, just to get the feel again, but I would have needed a few hours, a lot of electricity, and a room by myself in a deep dark cave somewhere to really communicate with the thing. If anything, I’ve learned to appreciate much more about the world. There are so many kinds of music out there, and every one of them can stir up something primeval in us.

 

One of the most intriguing aspects of Deception Bay is that it’s a live, in-studio recording. The guys didn’t get any re-takes or do-overs; it was one-and-done. For a young band to sound this great in that kind of environment is pretty special. In fact, it doesn’t “feel” live at all in the way some of the Peel Sessions do; the entire thing sounds very intentional.

The rhythm section is trance-inducing on the opening track, the nearly nine minute long “Since You Followed”. That flows directly and seamlessly into “Hook This Chain”, which brings a similar rhythmic pattern but one played at a much brisker pace, replacing the post-punky gloom of the opener with a sense of mildly anxiety-inducing urgency.

The vocals take on a more prominent role on the B side. “Not Far From This” is perhaps as close as Deception Bay get to a radio-friendly song, though even here it’s one that would only be getting play on college stations. There remains an insistent quality to the music that carries over from the A side, with the lyrics following in a more structured pattern. “Ride” is the only song clocking in at under five minutes, and it’s driven by a powerful and restrained bass line, one that feels like it’s straining against the leash, desperate to lunge for your throat but being intentionally held back. The album closes with “For The Season”, and this is the one time that the vocals step right on up to the front of the stage and say, “hey, listen to me!” There’s a desperation to the repeated line for the season, one that by the end of the song moves more towards resignation.

I’ve probably played Deception Bay a dozen or so times since I bought it, which is pretty unusual for me and speaks to how much I enjoy this record. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for their other two releases. Jay has some Deception Bay LIVE TRACKS and VIDEO posted online, so follow the links if you want to check ’em out. And I recommend that you do, because they’re pretty great.

Big thanks to Jay for taking some time to answer some questions and send along some images!

S.B.S.M. – “Leave Your Body” (2017) Cassette

I’m a big fan of Greg Harvester’s Remote Outposts Blog. He doesn’t post as often as he used to, but when he does it’s always something interesting and unique. I’ve picked up a few of his zines over the years, including the awesome Out Out Out – The Story of Ice 9 and Count Vertigo. Remote Outposts also functions as a label, most recently putting out the four-song cassette Leave Your Body by Oakland’s S.B.S.M.

S.B.S.M. are often described as hardcore punk, but that seems a horribly lacking description of their sound. Punk in attitude, no doubt, but with strong undercurrents of industrial and noise and power. Their songs are synth-sonic assaults on your mind, ripping away layers of what you thought you knew and getting to something deeper and more primal. “Work” is my favorite track, a relentless and deep bass power drill hitting you right in the hippocampas, boring a hole into your memories and perceptions and replacing them with something new and unsettling.

In addition to this cassette version, Leave Your Body also got the vinyl treatment this year from Thrilling Living and you can check out all four songs on the label’s Bandcamp page HERE.