New Music Threads – Murder Ranks and St. Elias add new life to Denver music

New Music Threads – Murder Ranks and St. Elias add new life to Denver music

August 26, 2010 Off By Billy Thieme

At the end of the day, it’s the tunes that never stop looping in and around your head and become an inextricable part of you that shape your world, often for the better. These two bands have left some permanent grooves in my head in the past few weeks.

Murder Ranks is creating a huge, flammable mixture of punk and dancehall, right down your street. Prick up your ears and catch on! (Logo: Murder Ranks/Bird)

Murder Ranks is creating a huge, flammable mixture of punk and dancehall, right down your street. Prick up your ears and catch on! (Logo: Murder Ranks/Bird)

Murder Ranks – Murder Ranks

You may have been among the lucky bunch that caught the Warlock Pinchers reunion dates earlier this August, or maybe you were an old fan from their heyday – or both – which means you got to see a resurgence of some of the early genius of the Dan Wanush (King Scratchie)/Andrew Novick (K.C. K-Sum) phenomena – a musical/social juggernaut from our own backyard that’s lasted more than two decades, and that still carries weight.

As far ahead of the crossover rap game as those two were in the ‘80s and ’90s, that was only the beginning. While Novick has many exciting projects going on – mostly around pop art – Wanush continues to revel in his musical prescience with his latest project, a distorted, punk rock dancehall outfit Murder Ranks.

Taking the infectious sounds and ideas behind old school dancehall and reworking them with a decidedly punk rock sensibility and D.I.Y. attitude, Murder Ranks is poised to spark a musical movement, one that will hopefully be magnified by the turgid Denver scene. Fueled by humor, sex, provocation and a smattering of social commentary, their latest record (now already about a year old) is as exciting as it is unique. But to be true to their energy, this band is best seen live, in the wild. Murder shows are aggressively fun – even addictive – and with a little luck, this genre-bending group could also end up bending musical tastes and trends as much as just ears.

King Scratchie (Dan Wanush) uses his mastery at toasting - old school style - and his deep-rooted punk rock sense to drive Murder Ranks. (Photo: Murder Ranks/MySpace)

King Scratchie (Dan Wanush) uses his mastery at toasting - old school style - and his deep-rooted punk rock sense to drive Murder Ranks. (Photo: Murder Ranks/MySpace)

After the demise of the Pinchers and a few years of bouncing around with other musical projects, in 2008 King Scratchie pulled together a talented trio – drummer Nate Weaver, bassist Ben Williams and guitarist Mike Buckley – to back up his well developed toasting abilities and create something to expand on his love for the dancehall style. For the uninitiated, “toasting” is the pre-hip hop style of ranting over repeated rhythms and progressions that originated in Jamaican music in the early 20th century. For the years they were active, Scratchie and K-Sum traded “toasts” with wild and aggressive abandon onstage and in studio and branded the Pinchers with their characteristic style.

Murder Ranks released an eponymous record recently – exclusively for download originally, and now only available on vinyl (a beautiful, clear blood red vinyl, in fact) – that showcases their reworking of dancehall, and since I got it, it’s been nearly impossible to both pull it off the turntable, and to replace the catchy tunes constantly running inside my head. To be fair (as I said above), the record is not as exciting as the live product (which is a sight anyone and everyone needs to see, as soon and as often as possible, to restore your faith in the explosively of punk, or any, rock), but I highly recommend getting a copy and taking a lesson from the masters.

Reaching back to the tradition of dancehall, the updated, stripped down and visceral outgrowth of reggae that revitalized that already tired genre, Murder Ranks uses its basic musical tenets to distill a sweet, strong and minimalist – but sickeningly catchy – punk/dub concoction, and layers it upon modified (sometimes completely transfigured) dancehall riddims. But, where dancehall deejays may use horn sections, other instruments and/or background singers to enhance riddims that they chant and toast over, Murder Ranks reworks these parts with their instruments, and with Scratchie’s vocals, to fit their own aggressive and fun style.

Parts played traditionally by entire bands are reduced and transformed by Buckley into brilliant guitar riffs – positively ensconced in reverb as deep and sonorous as mine shafts. Meanwhile Weaver and Williams use the riddims to inspire and build a wickedly potent rhythm section powered by characteristically complex and addictive bass lines. And in front of all of this, Scratchie’s guttural howls and gravelly snarls spit, shout, scrape and explode across your ears, and dig directly into your brain. Rhythmic, infectious, often highly erotic – this seems to be the language he was born to speak. Theirs is a mix that enters your bloodstream and, like a powerful virus, alters it genetically, and then never leaves.

Unlike the rough, fast and inciteful ravings from his  Pinchers persona, Scratchie’s delivery in Murder Ranks is measured, fully intentional – though it remains antagonistic and over the top, and no less egomaniacal. He often mimics the gravelly, low pitched growl  that superstar Shabba Ranks made popular worldwide. Scratchie, however, brings a desperate and knowing punk rock urgency to it. During “Killed A Girl” Scratchie growls about the repeated demise of what must be a one night stand, because, of course, he “. . . don’t need no girlfriend!” You can almost hear a mad grimace peeling across his face as he kills her again and again and again. In “Saturday Night,” his self-assured lyrics are enthusiastically crooned – followed by a giddy and puckish “Whoa-oh-oh!!” – that will invariably inspire a garish swagger full of the cocksure nature of true toasting. And then the almost brutally exuberant delivery of “Broadway” – which is based on a riddim laid down by Barrington Levy (“Here I Come”) – and wherein Scratchie exalts his own godlike largess, claiming to be ” . . . broader than Broadway, Godder than Jah! Way-eh-eh!” Still another personality takes over the band during “Surgeon Technique,” as Scratchie focuses on his sexual prowess, telling a lady friend to ” . . . lay down and let the doctor operate!”

As high energy and raucous as the record is, it’s nothing compared to Murder Ranks’ live show. If you did see the Warlock Pinchers shows recently, you know all the wild antics that stage show represented, and you’re undoubtedly familiar with Scratchie’s live energy. Murder Ranks’ stage show creates the same energy, with more emphasis on the music, and less on hilarity and in-your-face social commentary. Until you’ve seen Scratchie’s stage swagger, backed up by the impossibly reverb-drenched bass and guitar combination and crashing drums, you’ll be seriously shy a soild experience. You’ve got to see the new, stripped-down-until-it’s-amped-up mixture of distorted dancehall and hard dub they’ve created to believe it.

Lucky you – they’re playing THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 27TH, at Herman’s Hideaway, headlining an all local, all innovative lineup. Don’t miss your chance to catch Murder Ranks while they’re still local!

St. Elias' "Altered Beast" offers up a strong, dreampunk-prog mix that's hard to wash off. (Photo: St. Elias/MySpace)

St. Elias' "Altered Beast" offers up a strong, dreampunk-prog mix that's hard to wash off. (Photo: St. Elias/MySpace)

St. Elias – Altered Beast

St. Elias plays an often heavy, but always beautiful style of noisy psychedelia that rubs right up to the edge of prog in the style of early Rush (think “Hemispheres”), heavily inundated with the sound of L.A.’s Failure.  But they shy just away fro Failure’s harder sound in favor of a softer, metal-tinged dreampunk with a prevalent shoegaze influence. Within this mixed genre, they continue to grow in their ability to both maintain the listener’s musical and emotional anticipation, and to deliver multiple satisfying and well-timed gushing, cathartic releases.

On their latest release, the sweeping and often sublime “Altered Beast,” the trio lay down tracks for six compositions that start with simple, catching rhythms based on cool guitar and bass riffs. The band then adds layer upon layer of unusual harmonies separated by waves of chord progressions drenched in distortion, which are then followed by another cleanly arpeggiated set. Throughout, the songs retain enough levity to actually lift you as you listen, and then bathe you in solid and resonating sonic wonder. Slightly recalling some other local bands like Dualistics in their melodic tendencies, St. Elias come across as much less pop-centric, but maintain an easy accessibility amidst their loud and distorted, low-treble mix and solid-yet-safe rhythms.

If this trio misses anything in their sound, it would be an  occasional gut-busting, skull-splitting and desperate howl, strategically placed to finally push the impending catharsis into an overwhelmingly catatonic reverie. There are times that I find myself gearing up for that scream, and feeling a tad disappointed, and perplexed, when it doesn’t come after all. In their defense, that very scream has become almost staid at times, and might push these songs into a more formulaic space.

Highlights from Altered Beast include the long, prosaic “Six Is Good,” which clocks in at just under six and a half minutes but never loses you, and “I Didn’t Ask,” which may only need a few relentless howls to balance out its almost too-quiet-at-times beauty.


  • Billy Thieme

    Aging punk rocker with a deep of all things musical and artistic, enough to remain constantly young and perpetually mystified. Billy has journalistic dreams, but of a decidedly pastoral, Scottish nature.