Perhaps one of the most enduring themes in rock music is the one about new bands assembled from the broken pieces of old ones. From Led Zeppelin’s rise from the ashes of the Yardbirds to Operation Ivy’s growth into Rancid and every Mother Love Bone-becomes-Pearl Jam in between, the rock ’n’ roll phoenix saga is as prevalent a trope as trashed hotel rooms and groupie memoirs.
While the dudes in Unraveler may not be tossing TVs out the windows of the L.A. Hyatt (yet), the quintet’s brand of proggy, heavy rock is an outgrowth of a former band fronted by a friend who passed before his time.
In the mid-1990s, when Fort Worth’s thrash-metal scene was in its death throes, a few teenagers formed a heavy band called Magnus. Made up of Kenneth Thompson on bass, Andrew Tipps on drums, and the late Merck Crandall on guitar and vocals, Magnus was a fixture on the Cowtown rock circuit, playing with heavy hitters like Garuda and Yeti at long-gone clubs like The Wreck Room and The Tattoo Bar. Magnus’ brutal sonic assault drew respectable crowds at a time when heavy music was unavoidable in town. And then there was the band’s puking drummer.
Tipps, according to Unraveler guitarist Ben Schultz, hit so hard that he literally made himself vomit. “He would exert himself so much that he’d have to throw up,” Schultz said. “The first time I saw him play, he kept having to get up and go outside. I thought, ‘Man, that guy must be fucked up!’ ”
Tipps wasn’t inordinately wasted, but the combination of hot, smoky clubs and heavy pounding would trigger epic bouts of reverse peristalsis. While Tipps’ peculiar (and totally hardcore) malady was a minor hallmark of the band’s shows, it was a different sort of sudden illness that changed the course of Magnus permanently, when Crandall died in his sleep in 2003. “As far as anyone knows, it was sleep apnea,” Schultz said. Whatever the reason, Magnus dissolved. Thompson moved to California, and Schultz and Tipps went on to form another heavy band, Caddis.
Eventually, Thompson returned to Texas after five years on the West Coast, and he and Tipps got together to jam on their old band’s tunes. Needing a guitarist, they recruited Schultz, who, as a fan, was already familiar with Magnus’ material. Caddis eventually folded, and in 2010 the trio added vocalist Ben Holmes, who had lived in California with his friend Thompson in the mid-2000s.
“We started playing the old Magnus songs with [Holmes], because we felt like the band ended prematurely,” Thompson said. “We loved those old songs so much, and we played them to get comfortable with [Holmes], but after that, we started writing new songs and decided to change the name, to make the band its own thing.”
Holmes, who also writes the lyrics, tied together the band’s music and its name. “Unraveler refers to unraveling the meaning of existence, of losing your mind or falling apart,” he said. “I’d been to many practices and had ideas of what I’d do lyrically before I even joined the band.”
Unraveler’s sound includes a little Magnus, a heavy alt-rock crunch popular at the time, but the new songs have evolved into technically challenging, mid-tempo bone-crushers similar to Mastodon’s recent music. Holmes’ lyrics are personal in nature but fantastical in execution. Check out “Cephalopod,” in which a civilization that worships a Lovecraftian demon is thrown into chaos after grossly insufficient sacrifices are offered. “That one was fun to write,” Holmes said.
The band’s creative process is largely collaborative, with each member bringing riffs to practice that the others help shape into cohesive songs. “I’ll come up with a bunch of riffs,” Schultz said, “and then I’ll sit down with [Thompson], and he’ll figure out the glue to put them together.”
Though Unraveler’s current incarnation has been around for a couple of years and has played many shows, its debut album has been a long time coming. Recorded in the fall of 2011 in the band’s practice space, the self-titled disc wasn’t finished until this January after finally getting mastered at Dallas’ Crystal Clear Sound. “I was still in school at the time, and none of us have a lot of money, and we were doing the album ourselves, so it took a while,” said Schultz, an x-ray technician.
The show also will mark the debut of the band’s second guitarist Peter Hawkinson, an Oregonian who moved to Texas in 2005 after his wife took a job here. Along with Thompson and Tipps, he is a voice recording engineer at FUNimation, a Mid-Cities-based production company that dubs English over Japanese anime. Hawkinson used to play guitar in the Denton-based instrumental band Magnum Octopus but now devotes all of his music time to Unraveler. “We’re just now starting to write music with me in the band, so that’s pretty cool,” he said.
While Merck Crandall’s untimely passing was certainly tragic, his friends’ continuation of his band’s legacy is a testament to the bond that forms under the haze of amplifiers and stage lights. And some beer. The Magnus/Unraveler story might not be as well known as, say, The Minutemen’s, but it’s the sort of thing that makes rock archetypes riveting.
Unraveler CD release
Thu w/Raging Boner, Black on High at The Grotto, 517 University Dr, FW.