The Ascension of The Angelus

A drone oscillates into life; quivering and incandescent, maybe an organ of some description? The tone shimmers for a bit, bells are intoned in the distance. The certain urgency of ceremony. Voices enter, benedictine harmonies sounding with not a small amount of friction and tension between the singers. A creeping dread takes hold as one cries the words“All is well,” followed by a scraping dissonance of voice doubling the line. Cymbals rise to meet an eerie whine issued forth from a place lonely and forboding.

Steeped in the Southern Gothic tradition, and combining the bombast of post-rock, the tenor of Appalachian folk, and vernacular of gospel song-craft, The Angelus stands apart and unique among its peers in the North Texas music scene. With its new album On A Dark And Barren Land, the band has constructed a narrative of loss and redemption balanced on the edge of the metaphysical and nakedly emotional. This is the sound of our cancer year, our decay of self and spirit, and ultimately, the sound of our ascension beyond the struggle of human experience.

Built around the core duo of Emil Rapstine and Justin Evans, The Angelus has spent the better part of six years working toward this album, often in a regularly-fluctuating group of backing musicians. It is to their credit that their sound has maintained consistency and been focused, even if out of necessity, owing to the group dynamic.

Rapstine: “The songs have always been really important to me and Justin. We’ve released one EP in six years, all this stuff has happened in our lives that kept pushing the band to the side. It’s kind of miraculous in a way. Justin and I started together and that we’re finally getting this record out ... a lot of people would have just done something else.”

The uncommon chemistry between the two is particularly evident in the vocal harmonies they create. An amalgamation of pentatonic, eastern-tinged melodies slide into place alongside ordinarily staid, evangelistic harmonies creating an incredibly rich sonic framework for Rapstine’s sturm und drang lyricism. Recent San Francisco transplant Ryan Wasterlain fits neatly as the group’s new bassist. His solo project, Summer of Glaciers, shares a mutual aural ideology with The Angelus.

Rapstine: “I really love the structuring and layering he does in Summer of Glaciers, I think it shares a little bit of common space with what we do, and it hopefully will lend itself to our new stuff.”

While the band claims Land was not written with a unifying concept in mind, it’s difficult for my ears to hear anything other than a deftly realized song cycle rooted in the grieving process. Whether by accident or design, the album is also structured in an operatic manner. To be clear, we’re not talking Tommy or Operation: Mindcrime. Progressively theatrical, the opening triptych of songs “All Is Well,” “Latin I” and “Turned To Stone” form an overture, fading from one track to the next, and providing a thematic backbone for the record. An emotional arc in miniature, these songs are the Rosetta stone to understanding the intentions of Rapstine and company. Uncertainty and dread give way to anxiety and rage, culminating a release of tension that reassures only slightly before an ambiguous resolution.

Stemming from his Catholic upbringing, Rapstine’s lyrics are full of phraseology biblical both in reference as well as scope. In “Gone Country,” he uses the story of Abraham’s sacrifice as a metaphor for human loss. Lyrics such as “With an ear to the ground/it will come without a sound/the bells ring, the birds sing, it won’t be long now/so sing like a lark/into that dark and empty heart/there’s no one to hear you any how,” showcase the sinister creep of fatalism inherent in these songs, almost a devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear. Elemental language and references to transubstantiation, both as a physical metaphor and as an emotional transformation play a significant role as well. In “Turned To Stone,” the refrain pronounces “As we wither we turn to stone,” inferring that though our earthly vessel may perish, our souls remain immortal in hearts and memories.

The instrumentation built around the songs reinforces these themes. Evans’ restrained percussion and the propulsive, post-punk bass lines add distinctive color and shape to what could otherwise easily pass for Burzum lyrics. Piano and strings are strategically placed throughout, lending an almost regal feel to the proceedings.

Make no mistake, The Angelus is assuredly a rock band, and are fully capable of summoning a clamorous wall of guitars when necessary. But in a song such as “Let Me Be Gone,” the band wisely chooses to step back a bit in order to create a spare and stark canvas to provide a stage for the heart-rending vocal interplay. It’s in this song that we get another taste of operatic engineering, as the listener is introduced to an aching minor-key melody that returns later in a recognizable, yet altogether different context.

“Let Me Be Gone” stands as the centerpiece of the record – both the most emotionally devastating and tragically beautiful. The pleading refrain, “release me/of my body/let me be gone” illustrates Rapstine’s grasp of the sublime. Who has never pined for escape — from sickness, from sadness, from yourself?

The album concludes with “Sudden Burst Of Hope,” a flat-out triumphant and joyous affair. Echoing the introductory drone, we’re instead shown the converse path. Sweeping and ornate in its arrangement, it concludes the narrative with, if not exactly a happy ending, at least a resolution of having survived the worst and come out the other side. Interestingly, “Hope” has a singular status among the other songs present.

Rapstine: “(‘Hope’) ... was one of the first songs I wrote with The Angelus in mind. I’m glad that we finally got a recording. Some of the songs are really old, and some are comparatively new. Hopefully they don’t sound like two different bands.”

The band looked to longtime supporters and local scene promoters/advocates Michael Briggs and Brent Frishman of Gutterth Records to help with the release of the album.

Briggs: “We've been wanting to release this record for years now. We love The Angelus and are very proud to be able to work with them.”

Wasterlain: “I think their enthusiasm and the way they help the Denton scene is awesome ... in other cities, you don’t see that. To see those guys really try to champion the stuff they enjoy and Denton, it’s hard not to want to be associated with them.”

Evans: “They’re just good friends to have, and they’ve supported us since the beginning. It’s good to have them on our side.”

On A Dark And Barren Land stands as a powerful statement of purpose, confident and sophisticated well beyond what any ‘local’ band has any right to claim. To not be affected by their music is surely the sign of a heartless cur, or at the very least, terrible taste.

Gutterth Live presents the Angelus’ record release show with special guests Sans Soleil, Diamond Age, and Summer of Glaciers at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios on Saturday, October 8th.

On A Dark And Barren Land is available here through Gutterth Records

-David Willerton


We recently had the chance to get slightly deafened by local/kinda-local noise-pop band, YALL. We talked with them about what it's like to be 19 years old and playing clubs in Texas, what bands they like to play with and fast food tacos. If you'd like to listen to a recorded version of the song Gum that is played at the end of the video you can download a single from YALL below, or click on the Soundcloud embed below. 

YALL - GUM by wedentondoit

Lyric Leak: Hares on the Mountain


Last Sunday I went to see the resident band Hares on the Mountain play at Dan’s Silverleaf and I was impressed with the band’s energy and sound. But more than that, being the total literature nerd that I am, I was blown away by the lyrics they sang. Storytelling seemed to be at the core of their music and they brought the bard tradition to life. So I sat down with front man George Neal to talk about lyrics—about the musician as a poet. We talked about lyrics in general, but focused in on one song, Matilda Jones, and here’s what the troubadour had to say:

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Ghosts of Denton Past: Brutal Juice

Editor's Note: 

This is the first of our monthly Ghosts of Denton Past column. In this column, we will look at different Denton bands of yore. If you have a specific old band that you'd like for us to cover, send us an email. Also, if you have a great story on any band that we have covered, please tell us in the comments!

Brutal Juice

It’s sometime in the fall of 1996. I’m a junior in high school in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Dallas and Waco. I’ve really only been listening to decent music for about two years; I was way into … And Justice for All coming into my freshman year, mostly on the recommendation of my best friend, who was way into Lars Ulrich at the time. I also briefly fooled myself into believing that big band music held some intrinsic value in anticipation of joining the school jazz ensemble. Beyond that, I was as interested in grunge and the burgeoning ‘alternative rock’ scene as anyone else in the ’90s, but I was only beginning to explore music at large. 

Locally, my knowledge of area bands consisted of Pantera and the Toadies, who I only knew about thanks to sitting next to a faux-bisexual pothead skate rat in algebra who decorated his notebook with “Fuck the Toadies” stickers. They had just started to get some heat off of ‘Possum Kingdom’ on the radio, and before not too long, they were a big deal, even among people who didn’t abuse spray paint. I was invited by a friend who had an extra ticket to go see them in Dallas one night, and I was psyched like a mug-until we got there. 

Being sixteen, going on seventeen, I was fully immersed in my awful antisocial/misanthropic phase, and was super bummed to arrive at the venue to see the collected student councils of the greater North Texas area, people who were only there because their parents owned lakefront property name-checked in a song. My spleen went into overdrive. 

We arrived a little late, but just in time to see opener Brutal Juice take the stage, and I watched in a state of euphoria as they proceeded to hate-fuck this audience of shirt-tuckers for what seemed like an impossibly long set. Writhing and shrieking onstage, this was my first live taste of a truly dangerous band. Almost immediately after they finished and the house music came up, some intern from Interscope wove his way through the crowd of horrified children with a bag of cassette tapes and shoved one in my greedy little fist. It was a promo single of ‘Nationwide’ backed with ‘The Vulgarians’ aka ‘The Vaginals’. We went home after the show, I popped that tape into my stereo, and completely surrendered. Even at just two songs, it found its way into my regular car cassette rotation. If I ever gave you a ride in my ‘88 LeSabre, you listened to Brutal Juice.

Imagine, if you will, Denton twenty years ago. It bears little, if any resemblance to the city today. The universities were present, as well as the Pancho’s, but for the most part, that was it. If you got on Loop 288, you either wanted to go to Wal-Mart, or get drunk in a field. If you had any type of creative inclinations, restless energy, or simply had a low tolerance for boredom, your options were limited: make music, take drugs, or experiment with combining the two in varying quantities. From out of this pharmaceutical ennui came Brutal Juice. 

Coalescing in and around the University of North Texas in 1991, the band took their name from an incredibly prescient Hertz car rental commercial featuring O.J. Simpson and Arnold Palmer. Hitting the ground running, the band began writing songs and honing their sound. Bassist Sam McCall recorded the earliest demos before eventually joining up full-time, combining with drummer Ben Burt to form a crazy tight, muscular rhythm unit. Guitarists Gordon Gibson and Ted Wood lashed from prog-laced arena punk riffs to spaced out lysergic solos. And Craig Welch scared the shit out of everyone within arm’s reach, taking equal time to scream lyrics full of sex and violence as well as smash beer bottles against his head and put lit cigarettes out on his tongue. 

They quickly began documenting their perverse style of acid punk, releasing How Tasty Was My Little Timmy, followed by the Cannibal Holocaust and Black Moment of Panic singles, the latter put out by Alternative Tentacles. It’s on Black Moment of Panic that the first concrete signs of what was to come showed up. The A-side plays almost like a foreshadowing of where the band would eventually end up, with a heavily psychedelic front end bolstered by a chaotic and crushing bridge and coda. The B-side “Rock Town” is largely forgettable; a stiff mosh-funk tune contractually required of any band operating between 1989-1997.

Recorded at Emo’s in Austin in 1994, I Love the Way They Scream When They Die is essentially a live concert demo version of the band’s only proper full length. Most of the same songs appear on both releases, albeit in very different guises. Overall, the live album is naturally looser and more raw than the polished studio effort. It is obvious on the live album though, that the musicianship is already top-notch, and most of the puzzle pieces have already been placed.

In the wake of every band in America with access to a distortion pedal being signed by a major record label, Interscope Records released Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult in 1995. Originally conceived with the working title Everything’s Coming Up Toilets, the album was an uncompromising conglomeration of metal heaviness, punk riffs, pop vocal harmonies and general weirdness. Leading with the seasick lurch of “Kentucky Fuck Daddy,” all the way through to the best twenty minute Tool song Tool never wrote in “Whorehouse of Screams,” it manages the neat trick of sitting comfortably at the crossroads of noise rock and power pop, and remains an unfortunate casualty of a saturated alternative rock market. 

Brutal Juice toured relentlessly throughout the mid-’90s. Their final record, released with Man’s Ruin, was the All-American City single. Both a departure from the Mutilation album, and a totally logical endpoint to their music, “All-American City” is extremely psychedelic in comparison to the majority of other BJ songs, passing for straight-up hippie rock for the first minute until pedals and balls both get stomped at the chorus and atonal squeals begin issuing forth from the guitars. The B-side, “Bound for Glory,” is cast more in the classic Brutal Juice mold. A thrashy, melodic kiss-off, it’s the kind of song that you hum as your mugshot is taken.

Brutal Juice dissolved in 1997, though reunion shows have been plentiful and semi-regular in the years since. Gibson and Burt formed the Tommorrowpeople, which continued the more pop-oriented psychedelic sounds BJ was beginning to explore. Ted Wood went on to become a member of Hand of Onan, and later Magnum Octopus and with Welch, was a member of the Banes. Welch went on to be a member of International Sparkdome as well as the Fabulous Badasses, and currently performs as part of electro/hip-hop outfit NEEKS. McCall continues to produce and record other bands.

If you have any good Brutal Juice stories, please tell us in the comments!

Brutal Juice:

Ben Burt - drums

Gordon Gibson - lead vocals, guitar

Sam McCall - bass, vocals

Craig Welch - lead vocals, guitar

Ted Wood - guitar, vocals

Fry St. Fair 93

reunion show @ Dan’s:

-David Willerton