The hard rock band Red Fang is an ambitious act in an often unambitious genre.
Their third album, the new Whales and Leeches, positions Red Fang among a growing league of smart, hooky and heavy groups—such as Miami's Torche and Louisville's Coliseum—whose heft sacrifices neither hooks nor complexity. Red Fang favors anthemic rock structures, heavy metal thunder and big-room choruses, all guided by an undercurrent of complicated post-hardcore. For rock-radio listeners, Red Fang is a potentially invigorating alternative to, well, alternative.
"I like that you can be simple, but without being dumb," explains guitarist David Sullivan. Red Fang has been described as appealing to the "thinking and banging head," a point of pride for the entire band. "You can use minimal or less complicated things, and it doesn't mean it's dumbed down. There's a little bit of weirdness in there, but we try to keep it pretty straightforward."
In the same breath, Sullivan cites Wire and AC/DC as influences. The former he praises for their minimalist but rocking post-punk, the latter for finding a formula that "just feels good."
But the Portland, Ore., band's accessible hard-rock hybrid arrives through a knotty backstory that starts in Raleigh, where Sullivan began his first bands while a student at N.C. State University in the '90s. In its short existence, Willard picked up a following and a contract offer from Mammoth Records. When Willard dissolved, though, Sullivan took some songs he'd been working on to drummer Brian Walsby and started Shiny Beast. Heavier and more serpentine than Willard, Shiny Beast took cues from Honor Role, Bastro and The Minutemen. They married the thickness of Shellac to the agility of Polvo. The songs immediately floored Walsby. "It almost sounded like [Sullivan] had been saving that stuff," he remembers.
Shiny Beast's heavy and abrupt instrumental rock earned a strong local following, but the band never took off, despite tours with Polvo and Erectus Monotone. They broke up after a half decade. Sullivan then joined Red Fang drummer John Sherman's Greensboro-based Mercury Birds. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, they moved together to Portland. The four musicians that would go on to form Red Fang began to overlap in various other outfits: Sullivan joined Red Fang's current guitarist and singer Bryan Giles (actually born in Durham) in Last of the Juanitas, a band incidentally influenced by Shiny Beast. Sullivan, Sherman and Giles later started Party Time.
In the midst of those moves, Sullivan briefly returned to North Carolina to join infamous sludge-metallers Facedowninshit. That band headed west to Portland, which Giles had left momentarily for San Diego. Party Time's breakup prompted the formation of a new project, called Special Princess, which united Sullivan, Sherman and bassist Aaron Beam. Before Special Princess even played a show, Giles returned to Portland and joined the new band, which they called Red Fang instead. It's a tangled mess of past associations, but those missed connections and side trips have proven pivotal to Red Fang's sound.
To wit, Sullivan admits that Red Fang often lifts from its members' collective catalogs. "DOEN," which opens Whales and Leeches, actually began as a Special Princess song. So did Murder the Mountains' "Hank Is Dead."
"I would call it a natural progression," he says. "We do tend to cannibalize old riffs. When I was playing with Bryan in Last of the Juanitas, we reworked a Shiny Beast song. And there's probably been a few Red Fang riffs that we were like, 'Is that a Party Time riff?' But we're like, well, fuck it. It's never the exact same riff and nobody knows those songs anyway."
But a lot of people have started to learn them as Red Fang songs. The band debuted in 2009 with a raw, self-titled effort on Sargent House. Their next outing, 2011's Murder the Mountains, pushed them to metal titan Relapse Records and found the band working well outside the realm of metal. Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk produced the album, while Vance Powell (whose credits include the Kings of Leon and The White Stripes) mixed it.
If the album's bold choruses didn't show it, their indie-rock A-list production team did: Red Fang set its sights on big stages. Spots at major festivals and big-name tours opening for Mastodon and co-headlining with Black Tusk followed. The band sold more than 50,000 copies of that album, a remarkable number for a band still left of the radio dial.
While Red Fang owes plenty to its members' pasts, the band's current path seems potentially much more lucrative. Shiny Beast and Last of the Juanitas represented conscious efforts to push against typical song structures. Red Fang is more attuned to the appeal of basics. Metal mostly by association, Whales and Leeches is a momentous sludge-pop trip. Take, for example, lead single "Blood Like Cream." Borrowing cues from the critically acclaimed hard rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age, the song's lumbering riffs are the ballast to a driving rhythm section, its shout-along hook a counterpoint to moody, engaging melody.
"I like stuff that's not typical, but sometimes that stuff is not as much fun to listen to as to play," Sullivan says. "[In Red Fang], we're not really setting out to do a specific thing. We're just trying to write songs that we enjoy."
For a band that was so loud, the output of Shiny Beast has remained remarkably quiet since their breakup in 1996. When the boutique Oklahoma record label Little Mafia Records issued Stop Looking At Us ...We're Waving Goodbye, a 37-track Shiny Beast retrospective, in 2011, it was the third attempt to give that old material new life.
At first, the Shiny Beast collection was to be a comprehensive two-CD collection of every track the band ever recorded. That fell through. The next label to attempt the release went as far as claiming the CDs were en route. But somehow, the label owner missed the delivery. "And that's pretty much all he said about it," drummer Brian Walsby remembers.
The third and final attempt stemmed from a simple MySpace communication Walsby had with Little Mafia. The process was very matter of fact, and the CDs were out a month after they struck a deal. "But," Walsby adds, "I think it took six or seven years for that to finally happen." What's more, the disc earned almost no press.
The fits and starts behind the compilation actually behoove Shiny Beast. During its lifespan, the band released only 1991's self-titled EP and a split with math-rockers Regraped. They toured only twice, supporting Polvo and Erectus Monotone. But beyond those outings, the band mostly played locally. People seemed to respond, but Walsby thinks Shiny Beast's career ambition might not have matched its musical audacity.
"Other musicians and other bands seemed to really like what we were doing. If we actually tried to pursue touring more than we did, we probably could have ended up doing something," Walsby says. "There was always somebody in every town that really liked the band and knew about us through our very small output."
Among those inspired by Shiny Beast were West Coast trio Last of the Juanitas, a band Shiny Beast guitarist David Sullivan later joined. He played on the Juanitas' final album, In The Dirt, which includes a reworking of a Shiny Beast number. Sullivan now plays with Juanitas guitarist Bryan Giles in Portland's Red Fang.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Red Fang's path back to Raleigh."