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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Head On Electric's Different Kind of Grunge

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Head On Electric's Sleep Slaughter Sheep isn't a debut album, but it could easily be mistaken for one. It's the band's first release for the Milwaukee rock 'n' roll clearinghouse Dusty Medical, and it's the band's first wide release, following some long-out-of-print cassette tapes and small-run CDs. So unless you've diligently frequented their merch table, it's probably the first Head on Electric album you've had a chance to buy. Just as importantly, Sleep Slaughter Sheep has the feel of a debut album, capturing the excitement of a band with more ideas than they could squeeze into a reasonable playing time as they realize how to pare them down and make them cohere into something powerful.

Although Head On Electric has been performing since 2005, when singer-guitarist Erik Oley, bassist Steve Deau and drummer Cole Juntila were members of the seven-piece noise circus The Kind of Jazz Music That Kills, it was only fairly recently that the trio began to regard itself as something more than a side project.

“The three of us have always taken the band fairly seriously, practicing every week,” Juntila explains. “But I guess until two or three years ago, this was always our secondary band. There were times when we were all in two or three, sometimes even four, bands at the same time. Once this became our main band, we started to put a little more effort into it.”

Not coincidentally, it was during that time that Head On Electric began to distinguish itself from its many peers in Milwaukee's magnificently fertile and very crowded garage scene with a sound that filtered the pure melodic sensibilities of garage-pop through the muddy angst of first-wave grunge. There's a bit of the Meat Puppets in the band's punky, bruising rhythms and a shade of J. Mascis in Oley's emotive yowl, as well as a whole lot of Kurt Cobain in his feral screams. The resemblance was at times uncanny when the band performed a Nirvana tribute set this Halloween.

“We all went to high school together, and me and Erik got really into the whole Nirvana thing, although we were hilariously a little late to it—we all only found out that Cobain was dead two years after he had died,” Juntila says of the band's teen years in Pulaski, Wis. “We sort of built from that when we got to Milwaukee. We really loved what was going on with The Catholic Boys and all the other guys here, and we've developed from there.”

What thrills so much about that seemingly basic template—the grunge of America's collective youth by way of a very Milwaukee-specific form of garage-punk—is how it leaves so much room for variations and tangents. Throughout Sleep Slaughter Sheep, the band breaks form regularly, detouring into twitchy psychedelia, oddball Americana and unflinching hard-rock.

“Erik is the one who writes all of our songs, and he doesn't have a set style,” Juntila says. “He would be the first to admit he's not a singer, which is why our vocals have about 20,000 gallons of reverb on them, but he has such an ear for melody that it doesn't matter.

“He's really prolific, and has a new song or five every practice, and they're always a little more impressive and eclectic than the last batch,” Juntila continues. “They never sound like something you'd expect. He'll have this barrage of heavy songs, then he'll break out this beautiful country song. Being in a band with him for so long and watching his songwriting develop has been really incredible.”

Head On Electric plays an album release show on Saturday, Jan. 14, with Static Eyes and Mayday at Linneman's Riverwest Inn at 9:30 p.m.