First-time listeners to the debut album from rock act Asphalt Ballet are in for a few minutes of immediate confrontation: roaring guitars mixed with scenes of grave-robbing, violence and miscellaneous acts of dementia.
But what follows is not continued heavy metal psychosis, even if the opening track, "Hell's Kitchen," inspires images not unlike those conjured up by accused mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer or the film "Silence of the Lambs." Instead, the new "Asphalt Ballet" album offers a collection of songs that travel through the blues, hard rock, acoustic balladry and pop.
"We wanted to call the album 'Mood Swing,' because that's what it is to us," drummer Mikki Kiner said.
Still, opening the record with the band's hardest and most aggressive song could have been risky, songwriter-guitarist Julius Ulrich said. Sitting in his North Hollywood apartment with Kiner last week, Ulrich said, "I don't know if that was the wisest thing."
The band was simply looking to provoke a stunned response from listeners with that opening track, Kiner said. More important to the band, though, was establishing hard-rock credentials from the very beginning.
The members of Asphalt Ballet are perhaps a bit sensitive about that, particularly because an earlier version of the group spent a few years playing music on the Sunset Strip and leaning heavily toward the overtly commercial sounds of Warrant and Bon Jovi.
In those days--before recruiting singer Gary Jefferies in 1989--the band called itself Mistreated. It was fresh from San Diego with plans to capture the Hollywood club scene and a record deal with its new pop sound.
"It wasn't a believable thing and sounded kind of contrived," Ulrich said. "It looked like the band was a 9-to-5 job. We weren't playing from the heart. We were doing it to make a buck."
When Louisiana-born Jefferies was added to the renamed Asphalt Ballet, the quintet decided to embark on a more organic, blues-based sound.
"We figured that more than likely you're not going to make a lot of money in this business," Ulrich said. "We already tried it the other way and that didn't work, so we now just do it as believable and down-to-earth as possible so people can relate to it."
Crowds responded positively to the rawer sound, Ulrich said. And the band was awarded second place in last year's Pure Rock Search competition at FM Station in North Hollywood.
It was during the competition that one of the contest's judges--Myron Grombacher, drummer for Pat Benatar--suggested that Asphalt Ballet contact a friend of his at Virgin Records. Some months later, the band was signed to the label and was in a Canoga Park studio recording "Asphalt Ballet."
With producer Greg Edward, a longtime engineer for John Cougar Mellencamp, the band recorded the album's 13 tracks, adding horns and backup singers to its rock sound for the first time. Among those tracks was "Tuesday's Rain," an anthemic rock ballad that adopts several smooth pop touches, but without relinquishing any of the band's hard-won rock foundation.
Also recorded was a new version of Mellencamp's "Scarecrow," with Kiner banging out the song's simple and distinct drum rhythm on the very same snare drum used in the original. The Asphalt Ballet version didn't make it on the album, and the band members said it's unlikely to appear anywhere else soon.
"It was cool," Kiner said, laughing. "But I have so much respect for the recording Cougar did himself I wouldn't want to release something that would have people saying, 'You guys ruined that tune, man.' I would just feel bad."
Asphalt Ballet performs with Bang Tango on Nov. 7 at Florentine Gardens, 5951 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For information, call (213) 464-0706.
GUITAR HEROES: When acclaimed concert guitarist Vahbah Olcott-Bickford founded the American Guitar Society in 1923, the small group conducted its monthly meetings in members' homes around Los Angeles.
The American Guitar Society now has more than 100 non-student members, including some renowned local players and active fans of classical guitar music. It has been officially based at Cal State Northridge since 1976. Besides numerous educational programs, such as inviting students and university guitar professors to perform for the society, the AGS offers an annual series of concerts featuring acclaimed guitarists from around the world.
"The series is designed to provide entertainment for the San Fernando Valley, and also to provide students who are studying the instrument the opportunity to see people who are performing in the field," said Ronald Purcell, who heads the CSUN guitar program and is president of the society.
The next performance in the series, which began this month, is Nov. 30. Steven Novacek, a CSUN graduate who has led a successful touring and recording career as part of a duo with Gary Bissiri, will perform.
"The series is usually planned a year in advance with various managing agents across the United States," Purcell added. "And we reach out to Europe, South America and Japan."
Upcoming performances include David Starobin on Feb. 15; the Falla Trio on March 7; Roberto Ausel on April 4; and the L.A. Chamber Singers and guitarist Gregory Newton on April 11.