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Brain Surgeons NYC Rock The Big Questions

A Canaveral-esque countdown kicks things off, ushering in a deafening roar of guitar, bass and drums, a sound that will remind you of the face-melting, ear-pummeling metal of your misspent youth. This is "Rocket Science," the first track off Brain Surgeons NYC's Denial of Death, and if it brings back memories of mid-1970s parking-lot gropes and tokes, there's a damned good reason. Drummer Albert Bouchard is the one who put the cowbell into Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," among other headbanger classics. Bouchard and his wife, Deborah Frost, ex-drummer for Flaming Youth and a well-known rock journalist, started Brain Surgeons in the early 1990s. Since then they have released seven albums on their own Cellsum record label. The latest, Denial of Death, is a heavy rock triumph, full of crushing riffs and spiraling solos. Yet beyond that, it's melodic, soul-searching and intelligent as it grapples with the big questions like death and the morality of war.

Denial of Death is, in part, the Brain Surgeons' coming to terms with the death of their guitar player Billy Hilfiger in 2001. Hilfiger, the brother of designer Tommy Hilfiger, had played rhythm guitar for the band since its second album, Trepanation, in 1995; he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997. "Billy first got sick... right before we did our first West Coast tour, and his participation became more and more limited as his illness progressed," Frost said. "But as it became clear that he wasn't going to get better, it wasn't really helpful to tell him, 'You've got a brain tumor, you're out of the band.'"

Hilfiger's illness and eventual death, and the passing of long-time friend Helen Wheels, made the early 2000s a dark and difficult period for Brain Surgeons, but there was never any doubt about whether the band would continue. "There was a question of whether we would regroup as a different band or keep the same name," Bouchard said. "It's something we're still dealing with, hence the 'Brain Surgeons NYC' tag that we're using now. That way it's the same but different."

Moreover, continuing to play is one way of defying death. "But we don't need anyone who's literally on his deathbed in order to go out play every show like it might be our last," Frost said. "We made the album the same way. We don't want to leave anything in the locker room. That's the constant challenge."

The band toured as a trio to support the 1999 double CD Piece of Work, but recently added guitarist Ross "The Boss" Friedman" of the Dictators and Manowar to the lineup, a change that shaped Denial of Death in several key ways.

For one thing, Friedman can shred with the best of them. His solos, majestically slow in "Tomb of the Unknown Monster," and Eddie Van Halen rapid in the break to "1864," give the band an extra dimension, a more credibly metallic sound. "We've done more metal songs in the past and they didn't come out as well," Bouchard said. "Ross helps us sell the metal aspects of our sound in a big way."

But, as the delicate, almost Spanish-sounding guitar work of "Strange Like Me" shows, he's versatile, too. "Ross started that when I brought out this nice little nylon-string guitar and suggested he try that for the lead instead of the electric he had been using. We knew after 10 seconds it was the right sound," Bouchard said.

Frost added, "The song just cried out for it. It's very ‘Never on Sunday.' And we were really happy to finally get a chance to use that guitar, which is really great but was relegated to storage for decades. It didn't even merit a place under the bed! Now it's redeemed itself."

Friedman also transformed the songwriting process, making the Brain Surgeons' latest album their most diverse and collaborative ever. "He's really the first person who brings as much to the party as Albert or I do," Frost said. "He's just in an entirely different league in terms experience and a distinct voice. And he's helped elevate our game — and vice-versa."

She added that past efforts to involve other band members in the songwriting process had fizzled. "It was like pulling teeth, except at the very end with Billy, when he was just grateful to participate in any way," she said. "Ross is the other extreme — he's the fountain of spurt. And every idea he gave us, we made a song out of."

Having three songwriters instead of two meant that there was more than enough material for Denial of Death, she explains. "For the first time ever, we wrote way too many songs or instead of having to include something we weren't totally 100% about, we had to leave some out. All of this material was really fresh — it wasn't stuff that either Albert or I had lying around in various states of undress forever. And for the first time, there were no what I would call specifically Albert songs or Deborah songs. We really worked together on everything, which hasn't always been the case, and then we worked together on the ideas Ross brought us."

Many of those ideas had to do with the war in Iraq, a conflict brought into Frost and Bouchard's home, literally, with the daily postal delivery. "It's very difficult for us, who grew up during Vietnam and have a son who just turned 17, and is getting mail daily from every branch of the military offering him some cheesy premium you get for opening a bank account — you know, just give us your name and potentially your arm, leg, or life and you can get these cheap sunglasses absolutely free — to look at the daily carnage and the heartbreak," Frost said, adding that concerns about the war informed songs like "Jimmy Boots Fetish," "Constantine's Sword" and "Change the World, Henry."

There's also a Civil war song on the album in "1864," with lyrics about a young soldier's watery escape from death rising above a frantic punk metal beat. "That's a true story about Albert's great-great grandfather, who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the Civil War," Frost said. "Albert mentioned it to a librarian type friend into Civil War research, who found several accounts. We took the song pretty directly from a newspaper article. [He was] interviewed near the end of his life — y'know, like when they'd trot the local hero out to shake hands with General Pershing on the 4th of July. A lot of it is verbatim."

"It presented a new kind of experience in terms of writing, which I really loved, and telling the story from a different character's perspective," Frost added. "Before I ever wrote anything else, I thought I was going to write plays, which is what I did when I was 15, 16 — and this might have been the first time I felt like I'd really let someone else talk in a song, and I was very proud of finally figuring out what to do with the chorus, 'cause it took a while."

Brain Surgeons NYC are playing a handful of shows in April and May, with stops in New Jersey, Brooklyn, Detroit, Canada and Philadelphia. For more complete dates and other information, check the Web site — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, March 30, 2006]


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