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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Metal Face: Dox 2005 and Justice Lake on Lemons

The Scrath Sessions

The years following the loss of Metal Face I were a Golden Age for the collective of young Billings musicians affiliated with the band. Although MF I never saw the light of day, we used the momentum from those sessions, as well as the discovery that we could burn our songs to discs from my computer (which was our equivalent of the invention of movable type) to branch out and pursue other musical avenues we couldn’t with Metal Face. The result was an outpouring of material — some interesting, some funny, but mostly all bad — from bands/projects such as 2%Tipp/Margo Foorehead, O Man, The Patrinal Symphony, Muscles and a handful of solo “albums” under the moniker Redd Watters.

By late 2004, I had been involved with Margo Foorehead (formerly 2%Tipp) since the demise of the original Metal Face. The focus of Margo was to establish ourselves as a perennial power among the fledgling Billings, Mont., pop-punk/emo/ska/whatever scene by gigging well and gigging often (more to come later), so that required most of my musical efforts. But I always yearned to record the double disc that never was. Deep down, I always wanted Metal Face, and I think the world did, too.

It wasn’t until a sleepover on New Year’s Eve 2004 that, after nearly four years of silence, the rusted corpse of Metal Face was brought back to life. Alex, Caleb and I — along with fellow church friend/musician Will Ballew — had just capped off a night of Halo multiplayer action and throwing old fireworks into random peoples’ backyards (it seems causing mayhem was the catalyst the band needed both times). Caleb and Ry had received Jay Tursers guitars and Prime amplifiers, which we played during much of the previous night and the following morning. What started as mindless tinkering led to an impromptu recording session resulting in four songs: two new (“Starship Down” and “Far Away Place”) and two originally from I (“Dangerous” and “Road to Milwaukee”). Each were done in one take and captured via Sound Recorder, but that was all it took. Metal Face was back.

Well, sort of.

The start of 2005 was a busy time for us high schoolers, so the band took the banana seat in the trunk until Mid-July. Spurred by mysterious forces (the nice weather? teen angst? artistic inspiration? nostalgia? boredom? who knows) the new Metal Face (including another fellow church friend/musician Thomas Anderson on some songs) recorded the 32-song, two-hour double album Dox 2005 in three marathon sessions over the course of a week. We mainly focused on new material, but managed to re-record songs from Metal Face I, sometimes to lesser results (and that was hard to do). Although the fatigue really shows at the end, Dox was the album we always wanted — sprawled out, excessive, uneven, but ultimately goofy and fun (at least for those involved). In other words, it was signature Metal Face.

Artwork for Dox 2005, disc two. (Art by Alex Miller.)

We released Dox to limited fanfare on Myspace (to a greater response than anything Margo Foorehead ever did, though) but hid our identities as to not completely embarrass ourselves with this sub-amatuer-but-still-enjoyable collection of songs. Once the secret was out, however, there was no stopping Metal Face Mania — a state in my mind where I believed people actually listened to and liked us. A somewhat delusional state, I might add. But hey, I was still proud of Dox.

By November ’05, we had started our mini-followup: The Dot Balloon EP, named for the other halves of mine and Alex’s desired band names (reminder: Dot Face + Metal Balloon = x). At 10 songs and 50 minutes, it’s significantly shorter than Dox — but still longer than most EPs — Dot Balloon and was better than its predecessor in terms of focus and accessibility, as heard in the Creed satire “Stapp’s Spiritual Song (From the Motion Picture The Passion of the Christ )” [not really] the Jack Johnson inspired “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Daydreams” (also a satire) and the 12-minute “(Peanut Butter and) JAM BAND!” These, too, were met with limited, but positive, fanfare, particularly “(PB &) JB!”

We also made our live debut in December of that year, playing a song or two at Christmas party hosted by Caleb’s parents, as well as at our church’s annual Christmas pageant. The resultant mini-EP, “St. Nicholas Church Extravaganzer,” featured the improvised “Santa Came to Town,” and a holiday-ized version of our song “Tonight … I Wish” renamed “Tonight … I Wish (It Was Christmas).” Our performance, however, was immediately overshadowed by a rousing reading of “This is the Star in the Sky.”

We decided to start from scratch for the official sophomore album, which may’ve been a bad move, seeing how some of the Dot Balloon material was actually better than some of the songs we would soon write. Recording the second album proved to be much more difficult this time around, and it showed in the finished material. After a series of unsuccessful afternoons at Caleb’s house— recordings now known as The Scrath Sessions — we had a breakthrough of sorts with “Mexican Town,” a spicy, south-of-the-border number, inspired by the latin-rock fusion of the Mars Volta, replete with poorly conjugated lyrics worthy of a basic high school Spanish course, and a refrain parodying the douche-y growl of J.D. Fortune on INXS’s “Pretty Vegas.” (It’s also worth noting “Mexican Town” was mostly us playing along to a generic demo on Will’s digital drum pad). Thanks to the addition of fellow church friend/musician Anthony Thompson (who proved to be vital in the band’s later material), we recorded three more songs that day: “B4Hand,” “Take a Step Back” and “Pour Noir.” It appeared we were well on our way to a second album that would easily top Dox. But things got complicated.

Artwork for the "Mexican Town" single. (Also by Alex Miller.)

It was spring 2006, and there was an absolute smattering of new music from bands I adored: the Flaming Lips‘ At War Wit the Mystics, the Secret Machines’ Ten Silver Drops, Prince’s 3121, Tool’s 10,000 Days and, of course, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium. I was heavily influenced by the scope and ambition of each of these albums —even though 10,000 Days was, and still is, a major letdown, much like the Chilis’ followup five years later — and wanted to accomplish something similar for this album. The problem, though, was that we were still using very primitive recording methods — Windows Sounds Recorder and a generic LogicTech microphone — making it almost impossible for the finished product sound good, let alone halfway decent; no matter how we positioned the mic in respect to our instruments (or vice versa), and no matter how many different layers we crammed into the mono file, it was going to sound terrible. And it did, mostly.

By August, we released Justice Lake on Lemons to our usual circle of Myspace listeners, plus a few additional friends on the side. While we were initially pleased with the outcome, Justice Lake certainly hasn’t aged well. The unpleasantness of the recording sessions — particularly with the botched Chili Peppers ode (“Greasy Tree”), the abysmal title track, the even-worse Tool rip-off (“Cultist at My Door”), to name a few — compounded by the horrible sound quality and inexplicably dark tone of the album, left Justice Lake almost completely devoid of the goofy charm of Dox. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment — and greatest challenge — of Justice was “Woodstocker Shocker,” a song I still consider one of the best we’ve recorded.

In that sense, Justice wasn’t a complete failure, but it left us drained, nonetheless, and as I went away for my freshman year of college (a sentiment made apparent by the anti-climactic album closer, “It’s Time”) it once again seemed like Metal Face was a spent non-force.

Then came GarageBand.