Intrepidation is not a word. Nor, for that matter, are decimy or centrifugion. But that didn't stop Rob Elba, songwriter-vocalist of the Holy Terrors, South Florida's most explosively erudite and least compromising post-punk band, from using them in the songs "Nude," "Palm Beach," and "Turn," respectively, on the Terrors's new Pound Records CD, Lolitaville.
Elba smiles when called on the verbal trickery. "I like decimy," he protests. "If it's not a word, it should be." He also likes the way centrifugion sounds. He's not married to intrepidation, but changes are unlikely now given the fact that a thousand or so multicolored CD sleeves featuring Elba's lyrics already have been printed up.
"I'm a real stickler for the way words go together," Elba continues. "I agonize over words. I want to conjure up strong impressions. If you say something too matter-of-factly, it takes the power away."
And power is the Holy Terrors's metier. They are a crack hard-edged quartet who speak softly off-stage but whip up a sonic maelstrom when they perform. Guitarist Dan Hosker, bassist Will Trev, and drummer Sam Fogarino flex the instrumental muscle that, in combination with Elba's idiosyncratic talk-sing-scream vocal spasms, gives the Terrors the musical equivalent of Mike Tyson's one-punch-knockout capability. Hosker's guitar leads are at once primitive and controlled, a throwback to the styles of such six-string antiheroes as the Clash's Mick Jones and the Replacements's Bob Stinson. Trev's bass thrumming is as insistent as a high-priced defense attorney's closing argument, and Fogarino is such a manic blur behind the drums that he makes the Tasmanian Devil look like a victim of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Their sound hearkens back to the prehistoric (i.e., pre-grunge) era when such dinosaurs as Hsker D, Black Flag, and X stalked the countryside preying on unsuspecting herbivores. Lolitaville opens with an incoherent death scream and closes with an obscene rant against the band by gonzo noise-rocker Tom Smith (lifted from an answering-machine tape at the studio where both Smith and the Terrors were recording their most recent releases). Sandwiched between is a 50-minute slice of sonic fury broken down into twelve corrosive tracks that can best be put into perspective if viewed as an attempt by the Terrors to refute two persistent knocks against the band.
The first rap is that they sound like the Pixies. To the extent that both bands emphasize a wide range of dynamics, from lyrics whispered over portentous bass lines to shrieking over convulsions of choppy power chording, similarities exist. Elba openly admires the Pixies and readily admits that Doolittle is one of the three albums he would want with him if he were stranded on a desert island (the other two being the Clash's Sandinista! -- "three records in one; that's a lot of bang for your buck" -- and the Sex Pistols's Never Mind the Bollocks). But the line between "influenced by" and "derivative of" is a mighty fine one, and the Terrors are careful not to cross it.
"The Pixies are great. They're definitely an influence. But so are a lot of bands. Some people say we remind them of Elvis Costello," Elba says with a shrug. "It takes all kinds. Depending on the stupidity level of the person asking, I usually say we sound like whoever's popular at the moment. Like Stone Temple Pilots. Have you ever seen a band so uniformly reviled? I'll tell someone, 'You know Stone Temple Pilots? We sound just like them!'"
The second complaint is that the Terrors are less than prolific when it comes to releasing new material. Although they've been together for more than four years, the sum total of their output prior to Lolitaville added up to two singles and a six-song cassette, Live Six. They are the quintessential "great live band" inadequately represented on record.
Lolitaville is no overpowering remedy. The CD resurrects three cuts from Live Six -- "Cigarettello" (the song that will not die; it was on one of the singles as well), "Rape of the Vespers," and "The Chicken Won't Stop." "Fixed" was one of the highlights of the Churchill's Hideaway Music Generated by Geographical Seclusion and Beer CD, and "Angel Killer" is but one of 30-odd reasons to own the Live at the Square, Vol. II compilation. So, technically, only seven of Lolitaville's dozen tunes are previously unreleased. They don't take as much time between albums as Boston, but no one's going to accuse the Terrors of cluttering up record stores with a steady stream of new stuff.
Elba makes no attempt to exaggerate the band's yield. But he does take exception to the notion that the lean body of work is indicative of anything but stringent quality control. "I work hard on my songs," he explains. "I change them a lot before I'm happy with them. I might get stuck on a single word and have to shelve a song for months."
Terrors fans, who make up in devotion what they lack in number, appreciate the effort. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls was an early supporter. (Although Elba admits that a solicitation to sing background vocals on a proposed single titled "Swingin' with Sappho" might have cost the band Ray's endorsement. "We haven't heard from her since," he says.) As one long-time Terror-ist puts it, Elba "should get points just for using panacea in a song. How many other rock songwriters even know what the word means?"
And if Elba's vocabulary is a cut above the usual moon-June-sha-la-la inanities, the twisted subject matter he tackles is more common to short stories than rock tunes. "Cigarettello," for example, tells the Costello-ish tale of a stiletto-heeled dominatrix who passes out while entertaining a date. Bound to a chair, he watches helplessly as her fallen cigarette sets the room ablaze."As the flames consume my skin/So does my desire/As the flames keep rising," Elba croons in a normal singing voice, before bursting into a death shriek to end the song with, "High-yer! And high-yer! And high-yer! And high-yer!"
"The Bad Son," based on a gut-wrenching real-life dialogue between Elba and his terminally ill father (who passed away last year), voices a dying cancer patient's plea to his reluctant son to put him out of his misery ("Take this gun, my only son"); "Angel Killer" is a chilling glimpse inside the brain of a serial killer; "Rape of the Vespers" is a meditation on the infamous Central Park "wilding" incident; "Lolitaville" (the song) is an attempt to fathom the mindset of the man who abducted Polly Klaas.
"What was this guy thinking?" wonders Elba. "People like that must see the world as one big Lolitaville, full of vulnerable, nubile women and girls whose only purpose is to give them pleasure.
"There's so much violence against women," he continues, shaking his head in resignation. "It's everywhere -- in real life, in music, in advertising, in the media. When I read about Polly Klaas I couldn't help thinking about my own little girl up in her room...." His voice trails off.
Elba is a genuine enigma. He looks more like a yuppie jeweler (his day job) than a rock singer. Yet he wears very little jewelry for a man who makes his living selling it. No bracelets, no chains around his neck. A modest gold wedding band adorns his left hand. The only concession to rock fashion on Elba's person would appear to be the two skull rings on his right hand. ("My allegiance to Satan!" he laughs.) There's a slightly deranged glint in his eyes that calls to mind Michael Douglas's computer-nerd-turned-urban-vigilante character in Falling Down. Passionate as a man possessed when he's singing, between songs and off-stage Elba is a Letterman-like master of dry humor and sly put-downs. When he drops a line such as, "Too bad [that Natural Causes broke up]. They could have been the next Counting Crows," you can't be sure whether he means it as a dig or as a compliment. (The smart money rides on dig.)
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The frontman's pet peeve is local critics who confuse acoustic music with good songwriting. "Writers always single out Natural Causes or Mary Karlzen for their songwriting [New Times being as guilty as anyone, although Elba expresses particular displeasure with the Herald in this regard] but they rarely mention harder bands like us or, say, Radiobaghdad. It's always like, 'The Terrors? Oh, they're great live.' That really bugs me," he protests. (To be fair to us lame-o music writers, it's hard to tell how strong a song's lyrics are when the vocalist sounds so agitated he might spontaneously combust. Lolitaville's first-rate packaging, thankfully, includes a hand-lettered transcription of all the songs' lyrics as part of the vibrant Joey Seeman artwork, and should go a long way toward rectifying the situation.)
Caustic ad-libs and sardonic patter may delight Terrors fans, but they have not endeared Elba to many of his peers or to the local music press. He has been known to disparage other well-liked South Florida bands during radio interviews and to lambaste music writers by name from the stage. As a countermeasure, the rest of the band has taken to launching into one song as soon as the previous one ends so that there's no time for Elba to go off. During a recent set at Churchill's the singer had to include a "diatribe break" in the setlist so that the band would let him talk to the crowd.
It's a bizarre mix: the dark subject matter, the biting humor, the over-the-top vocals, and the contemplative, self-described "responsible guy" with a wife, two daughters, and a serious day job. You can't help wondering what sensation his suburban Broward customers would experience if they saw him performing at the Gallery of the Unknown Artists, an exhibition of John Wayne Gacy's paintings adorning the walls, the veins bulging in Elba's elastic neck as he pushed his vocal cords to the shredding point and squealed, "It's the shape of their heads! It's the shape of their heads! It's the shape of their heads!" with the urgency of a madman being dragged kicking and screaming to the asylum.