"The lyrics are about people's way of perceiving reality," says Matus, puffing on a cigarette at the South Miami offices of Space Cadette. "People see things their way, and they believe they have to beat other people down with it. We didn't really have a concept in mind -- [former drummer] John [Lopez] and I would just write lyrics, sometimes ask each other to write about this or that. But it turned out that way."
Subliminal Criminal offers a cohesive mix of driving guitars, double-time drums, and driving bass grooves, starting first in a breakneck punk style, then veering off into more ambitious territory. The first half shows off the band's hardcore prowess, with a sound akin to a melodic version of Helmet, but the trio is also capable of impressive arrangements and clever instrumentals. "Armor" opens the disc with a heavy, churning groove, and lyrics calling for awareness and conscience in a violent world. Next up is "Hide Behind the Bloodline," a swirling, corrosive tune that does with expert playing what Ministry does with the aid of tape loops and sequencers. "Suburban Manipulator," perhaps the most memorable track, is infected with screeching, distorted guitars, fuzzy vocals, and a disorienting choral break. The tight-fisted instrumental "Orto" showcases Ferry-Lucas's intricate bass runs, moody cuts such as "Crisis 35" and "Cinnamon Coffee Ice Cream" recall the Police circa Ghost in the Machine, while "Morrison" gives the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" the Henry Rollins treatment.
The CD's packaging concept, created by artist and Space Cadette cofounder Rafael Galvez, enhances the vision of misery and mayhem that's detailed throughout the album. The cover art folds out into a poster that resembles a "Where's Waldo?" picture but depicts a brigade of armored soldiers in smiley-faced helmets bludgeoning people in the vicinity of Sunset High School (the much-loathed alma mater of Matus and Ferry-Lucas) as bystanders happily go about their business.
"We wanted to go for something like Hieronymous Bosch, but we didn't want it to look too somber," Matus explains. "I always thought the idea of someone wearing a happy-face helmet with an armor suit is symbolic of the way a lot of people see reality, like 'nothing's wrong, everything's fine.' This is just the embodiment of that." To carry the concept even further, the disc is wrapped like a present, in paper printed with drawings of toys, complete with ribbon, inscribed gift card, and bow, and contains a crayon and coloring book. "The package is childish and playful, so when you are greeted with it, you are filled with joy and happiness," explains Galvez. "Then, when you stick it in your CD player, that joy and happiness is shattered." In fact the label has described the disc quite aptly as "a nicely wrapped birthday gift for the liberation of subconscious dominion."
The album closes with four untitled cuts that borrow the guitar parts from "Hide" and "Suburban" and lay them over backward tracks. "Take the Stand," one of the finest pieces, is a searing indictment of people's inability to choose sides. The lyrics both spoof that mentality ("It's the thinking of a closed mind/To take a stand on anything/To be certain is so limiting/So take a stand on everything") and issue a warning ("Foremost check your fundamentals/Before you stand at all"). Bassist Ferry-Lucas says the song is just one of the jabs the band takes at society's corruption and hypocrisy. "That song is about how you can't hold two contradictory principles, because one will have to give in to the other, and if you try to live by both of them, eventually everything will collapse."
Subliminal Criminal neatly caps six years of toil and struggle for the group, the genesis of which goes back to when Matus and Ferry-Lucas met in eighth grade. The following year the two started an old-style thrash-punk band called S.W.A.T. After a few years of playing high school parties in several different bands, the pair wanted to pursue a more experimental direction. Enlisting drummer John Lopez (who performed on the disc but departed amicably just after its release), they formed Subliminal Criminal in late 1990. Even though their music has evolved, influences still rise out of Subliminal Criminal's musical miasma -- King Crimson, early Rush and Corrosion of Conformity, Shudder to Think, Killing Joke, as well as avant-garde jazz and classical music.
After admittedly slacking for the better part of two years, the trio decided to take its project more seriously, and in early 1993 released a split seven-inch with Timescape Zero on that band's Feast of Hate and Fear label. The band made it into the studio again in 1994 to begin recording its debut disc between steady live gigs at a variety of local and regional nightclubs. The record took two years to release, Matus says, owing to a series of Spinal Tap-like incidents that had him convinced that the band was cursed.
"It was one disaster after another," he recounts. "I thought the worst thing that could happen was that we'd run out of money, but there was all sorts of crazy shit. Like, our bass lines got erased. It wasn't incompetence. It was just being in the studio for so long that we didn't know if we were coming or going. We almost lost track of what we were trying to get done, but when we heard the mastered version, we were really happy with it. I felt like I'd graduated from college -- which is what I could have done in the time it took to put this out. One good thing about spending that much time in the studio is that now we know exactly what we want to do next time we record."
Subliminal Criminal performs tonight, Thursday, November 28, at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th St, 857-0041, with Load and Swivel Stick.