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Man Over Machine

Stabbing Westward masters the art of human noise

"It's amazing and terrifying at the same time."
Christopher Hall is basking in the weirdness of a soon-to-be real scenario -- his band, Stabbing Westward, opening for the infamous anti-legends the Sex Pistols. Somehow, he admits, it sounds even more astonishing coming from someone else.

"The Sex Pistols definitely brought in a new era," Hall says. "They gave us an option to dinosaur rock."

You'd trust that Hall is referring to the Pistols of 1978 and not the traveling punk rock museum exhibit of 1996. But Hall would rather put integrity issues aside and ponder the more discreet ironies of the pairing. The music closest to Hall's heart is industrial rock, a form influenced (to an extent) by the synth-driven excesses of '70s progressive rock. And here is Stabbing Westward getting set to warm up the stage for the Sex Pistols, whose original mission was to stomp out such poofy, overburdened nonsense.

"It's a bizarre thing, but bands like Styx were a big influence on our genre," says Hall, Stabbing Westward's 31-year-old co-founder. "The Grand Illusion, Steve Miller's Book of Dreams and any of the old albums that had those Moog synthesizers."

But it would be a mistake to overemphasize Stabbing Westward's more opulent artistic pretenses, especially when its leader is given to the kind of raw, plasma-curdling anguish that dominates the group's latest CD, Wither Blister Burn + Peel. Troubled, soul-baring sentiments are as much at the dark heart of Wither Blister Burn + Peel as is its quaking, passionately delivered music, which takes the programmed synth-and-drum-machine motif of industrial rock and aims it in a more humanized direction. The four musicians in Stabbing Westward place just as much -- if not more -- emphasis on playing their instruments as they do on fiddling with electronics, which amounts to rock and roll that draws freely on technology while never allowing the music to be defined by it.

"I feel like [industrial artists] just keep doing the same things over and over again because they know there is a certain audience that will appreciate their efforts," says Hall. "Personally, we need to be a bit more creative and do things for ourselves."

If, despite Hall's call for independence, everything Stabbing Westward stands for seems somewhat secondhand, you can blame it on Nine Inch Nails; Hall does. Although he's grateful to NIN's Trent Reznor for snatching industrial rock from the outer fringes of the underground and jamming it down the throats of millions, Hall is disturbed by the prospect of forever kicking at another guy's heels. Reznor got signed, pumped out two full-length CDs and two EPs, hopped the Lollapalooza train and went from a cult curiosity to the Bela Lugosi of MTV in the time that it took Stabbing Westward to move to Chicago, find a label and release its debut. That CD, Ungod, couldn't have surfaced at a worse time -- 1994, the same year NIN broke huge with The Downward Spiral, ensuring that Hall would have to endure the persistent accusations that he's nothing more than Reznor rehashed.

Still, whether he's comfortable admitting it or not, Hall does have a lot in common with Reznor. Neither artist is hung up about exposing himself -- so to speak -- to his listeners with songs that often draw from an intensely confessional, first-person perspective. It gives both the ability to melt away industrial's armored layers of manufactured, larger-than-life anonymity, even as they off-puttingly dress their music with loud, unforgiving guitars.

Hall and Reznor also led equally miserable lives as socially inept teenage loners from small towns. Both got serious about music in the mid-'80s, turning to keyboards, electronic beats and various sampling techniques as a tool for devising their nightmarishly dense version of rock and roll -- thoroughly modern and completely self-absorbed in its expressions of pent-up rage.

In the end, though, it took Hall longer than Reznor to get his act together, and for a while, Stabbing Westward was an immensely confused project.

"During the mid-'80s, we were a very, very traditional industrial band," says Hall. "We were heavily influenced by Revolting Cocks and Ministry. And I just got really tired of it. I thought that we were doing a cheap imitation of other things."

Stabbing Westward's initial cluelessness over where to steer themselves led, predictably, to a wide assortment of lineup changes. It wasn't until the early '90s that Hall and his longtime partner, keyboardist Walter Flakus, were able to bring some semblance of normalcy to the group. They recorded some demos, and label interest in those tapes led eventually to Ungod. The CD caught on better in England than it did in the States, earning the band an appearance at Britain's prestigious Redding Festival, as well as tours with Prong and Killing Joke.

After yet another round of roster changes, seasoned drummer Andy Kubiszewski and bassist Jim Sellers joined Stabbing Westward for the recording of Wither Blister Burn + Peel. Originally thought of as a temporary component, Kubiszewski has become a contributing force in the band; the infectious single "What Do I Have to Do?" revolves around a hook of his creation. All of the cuts on Wither are credited to the band as a whole, which supports Hall's contention that Stabbing Westward has become the sort of free-flowing democracy that control freaks like Trent Reznor seek to avoid.

"We are under the genre umbrella that Nine Inch Nails pioneered or, at least, marketed the best," says Hall. "But I think we definitely stand on our own merits simply because we are the most live rock band. We're a bunch of guys, not just one guy and a backup band."

Stabbing Westward opens for the Sex Pistols at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 3, at the International Ballroom, 14035 South Main Street. Tickets are $25. Gravity Kills also opens. For info, call 629-3700.

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