Back in the early 1990s, I spent a hell of a lot of time going to shows at Lounge Ax in Chicago. That place was one of the best clubs ever in the world and at that time they were getting the coolest bands. During the late 1980s/early 1990s I was splitting time between listening to industrial music like Skinny Puppy and the Wax Trax bands, and listening to grunge type music on Sub Pop and noisy punk bands on the Amphetamine Reptile Label. The noise bands were the new punk rock for the drinking age crowd. I think an entire book could be written on that scene and it was responsible for the resurgence of the 7″ single to such a huge degree that stores were flooded with those things. I was buying handfuls of new 7″s every week for awhile (but of course buying handfuls of records is nothing new for me, it’s been happening since I was a little kid).
One of the greatest bands I ever saw play at Lounge Ax during that decade was the Dazzling Killmen. To this day they were one of the most intense live bands I ever witnessed, so much so that I thought at any given moment they would physically explode on stage. The first time I saw them, I swear to god they were so powerful I started losing control of my bodily functions and was a drooling mess by the end of their set. Their signer, Nick Sakes, beat the shit out of his guitar with a fury I never saw in a human being before while screaming his head off. I swear I thought he’d burst a vein in his head while singing, it was that intense. Their bass player, Darin Gray was an extremely skilled player who would stalk around the stage with this odd smirk on his face that either made you think he knew something you didn’t, or that he was going to kill you. He played that bass with surgical skill and was a sight to behold. The drummer, Blake Flemming, pounded those drums so hard and so precise that you would think he invented the instrument and the other guitarist, Tim Garrigan, was like a punk rock guitar virtuoso. Every single time I saw the band, which in my mind wasn’t nearly enough for one lifetime, I left so impressed that I would talk about the show for days and wish I could go back in time and see it again.
The music of the Dazzling Killmen was like some sort of calculus equation made up of punk rock, jazz, and indie rock. There was this term, math-rock, that used to get thrown around to describe bands like Slint but it’s quite possible that the Dazzling Killmen invented it, and those other bands saw something in the long-division and just went another direction with in entirely. The Killmen’s records have totally withstood the test of time and to this day there are few bands who have managed to copy their formula with any degree of accuracy which is why those records sound as amazing now as they did back then, the band were innovators and truly ahead of the curve. They had these really odd tempo changes and really intricate parts to their songs that they were somehow able to play very fast. It was truly a sight to behold.
The Dazzling Killmen started in 1990 when Nick Sakes was living in St. Louis, MO and was bored of the punk rock scene there, or lack thereof as there really wasn’t one at the time. Nick decided to buy a drum kit and try and start a band. He soon learned how hard it was to be a drummer and try and lead a band so he gave it up and picked up a guitar instead. He was friends with a bass player named Darin Gray and talked Darin into showing him how to play the guitar. This led to the two of them along with Darin’s friend, drummer Blake Flemming, to form the band that became the Dazzling Killmen. The band practiced up a storm and wrote some songs, but never played any shows at the time. Instead of playing shows, Nick thought they should put out a 7″ first so it would look like the band had been around longer and with a record out it would be easier to get shows.
Nick put up some money and they went into a studio and recorded “Numb” and “Bottom Feeder” which became their first single. Nick released this 7″ on his own label, Sawtooth Records, and sent copies of the single around to some zines and clubs which led them to finally playing some shows. The music on the single was kind of crude, but you could tell from it that the band had something unique about them and found a good sound even that early on. “Bottom Feeder” featured more speaking than singing, but the music underneath was repetitive and heavy, when they re-recorded it for their album it became one of my favorite Dazzling Killmen songs. When the band used to rehearse before this single was made, they never had a P.A. so Nick never sang, it wasn’t until they went into the studio to record the record that he had to sing and at the time he wasn’t even sure what to do with the lyrics he had written. He figured it out pretty damn quick though because “Numb” really did show what was in store for the people.
Right after that first single came out a French label, Intellectual Convulsion, contacted the band with wanting to put out their album. The band ended up signing a contract with the label and tried to book studio time with Steve Albini to record the album. This began a two year ordeal of trying to get the album out. In the meantime, they went into another studio and recorded a few songs that would end up being their next 7″ releases, all while waiting on this album deal they had to do start to take shape.
That recording session resulted in two releases, the first being a split 7″ with Mother’s Day that was also a split release between Skin Graft Records and Sluggo Records. This project got off to a couple of false starts as the Sluggo Records guy really dropped the ball and it turned out the first couple bands he attempted to get to share the record with the Dazzling Killmen didn’t want to work with him. Mark Fischer and Rob Syers who were doing an underground comic book company, Skin Graft, loved the Dazzling Killmen and wanted to start a record label and have them be their first release. This lead to them teaming up with Sluggo as Skin Graft were tasked with doing the comic book packaging for the record. If Skin Graft had their way, they’d have ended up doing the whole thing themselves and would have done a better job with it. The Dazzling Killmen song on here was, “Killing Fever” and the Mother’s Day song doesn’t matter because they really weren’t that good anyway. I think I played their side of this single exactly one time. There was 500 pressed of this record and they were on green vinyl.
In 1991, two weeks after the split single came out, the second Dazzling Killmen 7″ was released by Crime Life Records. I’m not sure if that too was Nick’s own label or if it was someone else they knew. The single featured two songs: “Ghost Limb,” and “Torture”. The sound was a bit muddy on the recording but you could tell the band had already progressed quite a bit from the first single and that they were on the path to greatness. This single also featured Saxophone on one song and some additional guitar and it was a good mix of intensity and experimentation.
When the band’s scheduled dates with Steve Albini to record their album approached, they couldn’t get in touch with the owner of the label who was financing it, Intellectual Convulsion. It took six months from when the band said they’d do the album until they actually received a contract, which they signed and had to wait something like six more months for Albini to have an opening. Unable to reach their label, the band was forced to cancel their recording session with Steve. They tried one last time after cancelling to reach the label and finally got in touch. The label then sent the band some money but they had to wait months again for Albini to have another opening for them to record with him. Getting that album out was the worst experience of the band’s short career.
The album in question finally came out late 1992. The album was called Dig Out the Switch and while the band ended up not being very happy with their playing on it, the album was great. The songs were well written, very intense, and powerful. This really showed how the band had found their sound (at least their sound at the time) and was a huge step up from their singles. I’m not sure how many they ended up pressing of this but for being manufactured and distributed by Revolver it was awfully hard to find back then and I couldn’t even tell you the last time I saw a used one for sale so either everyone is smart like me and holding on to this wonderful record or there just aren’t that many of them around (on vinyl or CD, it came out on both). Most of the songs on here were only a few minutes long, but the album ends with the 12 minute epic, “Code Blue” which showed a more experimental side to the band and was a taste of what would soon follow. This album also featured newly (and much better) recorded versions of songs from the first two singles.
In what would be a huge turning point in the band, they added a second guitarist Tim Garrigan and that is when the band really took it to the next level. At this point, Skin Graft was becoming a “real” label and they booked more studio time with Albini to record a new single, “Medicine Me” which featured a PiL cover of “Poptones” on the other side. The record came on dark red vinyl and was housed in a comic book sleeve done by the Skin Graft guys. That comic book/record gimmick was really cool and was a staple of that label for a couple of years before they started only doing CD’s and LP’s (and eventually only CD’s as the market changed). “Medicine Me” is two and a half minutes of the tightest and most powerful music pressed onto a vinyl record in that decade with these crazy stop on a dime breaks at the beginning which segue into a flurry of controlled chaos. That song along cemented their legacy of greatness and showed a whole new side to this band as far as intensity and songwriting went. Their cover of “Poptones” was equally awesome and anyone who knows me will tell you how much I hate when a newer punk band covers old punk songs, but this cover is so good that I fully endorse it! Unlike the PiL version however, the Dazzling Killmen’s version is only four minutes long. Shortly after this they recorded a new song, “My Lacerations” that was meant for a compilation that never came out and that particular recording sat unused until after they broke up.
Next came a limited edition cassette of the band live at Lounge Ax in 1993 on Skin Graft Records. This recording featured pretty much the entire Dig Out the Switch album but since it was recorded after the band added the second guitarist, the songs were even more full sounding and powerful than those LP versions, not to mention the ended up playing them faster! They only made 300 of these cassettes and it stands as the rarest Dazzling Killmen item despite the inferior medium on which it was released. I found it rather humorous that inside the J-card it says, “Sorry No Comic”. This tape stayed in my car for most of that year that it came out and I’m shocked it’s still in one piece, and in great condition.
At this point the band was starting to get a good buzz going about them and Skin Graft sent them back to Albini to record what would become one of the best albums of the 1990s and the best record of their career, Face of Collapse. This album was a giant leap forward from even the Medicine Me single. The songs were really intricate and full of tempo changes with odd timing but the songs were also heavier and more intense than ever. Nick ‘s voice really sounded fuller and angrier but there were quieter times in some songs when he would speak parts instead of yell. The two contrasted nicely together and some of the longer songs were really like roller coaster rides of sound. The longer songs were pretty amazing and even more epic than “Code Blue” was on the first one. This album was a perfect listen from start to finish, something very few bands were able to achieve and had the band stuck around longer, I bet they would have blown up and become bigger than some other great bands from that era who got big (I’m looking at you Helmet and Cop Shoot Cop), and I bet after they got big they wouldn’t have started sucking either (I’m still looking at you Helmet).
After the album came out, the band played a whole bunch of shows and toured, and then my greatest fear for them came to life, they exploded. The band called it quits right at their peak of awesomeness, right before they probably would have gone to the next level and possibly either taken over or destroyed the world with their intensity. A band that explosive couldn’t have lasted and they didn’t. By the fall of 1995 they were done. I remember Mark Fischer from Skin Graft breaking the news to me that the band had just broken up and I was heartbroken. A year or two after the band called it a day, Skin Graft post-humously released a CD that compiled the Louge Ax cassette with all the singles and the unreleased version of “My Lacerations” (the version on the Face of Collapse album was a newer recording and the only one people knew until this CD). It was a nice gesture and a fitting tribute to a great band, but sadly the first album is still out of print and unavailable anywhere in any format. Someone really needs to fix that.
After the band broke up, Darin played in Brise Glace and some other bands, Nick was in Collosamite, Blake played in The Mars Volta and some other bands and Tim became a solo performer. I liked some of the post-Killmen stuff I heard, but none of it to me was as special or great as the Dazzling Killmen. A band like this only comes along once in a lifetime.
All the Dazzling Killmen material with the exception of Dig Out the Switch is available still on CD from Skin Graft Records. I highly suggest picking the two discs up, this band still sounds better than most music coming out today.
By the way, I would damn near kill a man for test pressings of all the Dazzling Killmen vinyl. Please send them to me!
I’ll leave you with a few photos I took of Dazzling Killmen at Lounge Ax way back when, shot on film no less!