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Out of a Dead Planet

"Is this going to be a story about Planet Shock! or Aftershock?"
It's an innocent enough question. Yet when Aftershock guitarist Ray "Bone" Herrera poses it, he does so with a hint of finality -- his polite way of implying, "We're through with that unnerving chapter of our existence. Let's get on with the rest of it."

The trouble is, "it" makes little sense without delving into pre-Aftershock lore -- i.e., the turbulent Planet Shock! years. Only then does the whole thing begin to make some sense; only then does Aftershock's seamless hybrid of sample-happy hip-hop, full-force rapping and heavy-metal guitar hysterics begin to take on a human dimension. Aftershock's story is not unlike many heard around Houston, a city where band dissolutions and lineup changes occur at a dizzying rate. In that sense, the Planet Shock! story was typical: A bunch of kids with common tastes and goals get together, those tastes and goals change, new personalities enter to muck things up even further and a splintering occurs. But in another sense, Planet Shock! was something apart from the local norm: a local band on the verge of something resembling success, whose seemingly charmed fate took an unfortunate turn.

"We worked our butts off. We went out to Los Angeles, and we literally had nine record companies offer us deals," says bassist Lee Leal. "Half the band didn't want to sign with a label; they felt like it was selling out. Bone and I and Lyonel [Gonzales, a.k.a. Audio III], our DJ, were like, 'Damn, this is what we've been doing our lives; it's like an honor to get a deal.' "

Leal, Herrera and Aftershock drummer Kid Beat are wedged into a tiny booth at Luke's Hamburgers during a recent weekday lunch break. Attracting stares from the mostly white-collar patrons are Leal, with his goatee and scraggly dreadlocks, and Herrera, his wire-framed specs and frizzy mass of black hair partially shielding his Anglo-Hispanic features. Beat, however, is too unassuming and clean-cut to warrant a second look.

In a matter of weeks, Aftershock went from schmoozing and boozing in L.A. to foundering back home in Houston. With nothing to show for its efforts, Planet Shock! discreetly disbanded in May 1995 -- just a few months before winning Best Rap Act in the Press Music awards. "The last day of practice with Planet Shock!, we almost got sick to our stomachs," recalls Leal. "We looked at each other and knew this was the last time we were going to be walking in here and doing this."

After the breakup, strangely enough, Planet Shock! manager Edward Maldonado and drummer Ricky Partiva joined the Hari Krishnas. Less strange, perhaps, was rapper Joe B. and DJ John C.'s decision to oversee their own mini-rave experiments as the Rebel Crew. When the dust cleared, Leal, Herrera and Audio III resigned themselves to rebuilding their vision for Planet Shock! under the name Aftershock.

Leal equates the whole mind-numbing experience to being flattened by a tractor trailer, with the driver spinning his wheels over you a second time to ensure he finished the job. "All the deals fell through, and we were like, 'Shit, what happened?' Everything was good, then everything isn't good."

Leal and Herrera are half of Aftershock and were a quarter of Planet Shock!, while Beat is Aftershock's latest edition. True to his handle, Beat (formerly of Wax Gruve) is a cement-solid timekeeper who doesn't take offense at competing with sampled rhythms. Not in attendance at Luke's are Audio III, vocalist Julio Alonzo (also a Wax Gruve alum) and multitalented K-LA (keyboards, samples, vocals), who have day jobs that won't allow for a leisurely lunch. Such restraints will fall by the wayside when Aftershock hits the road this month to support its self-titled debut CD, released nationwide in October on Retrograde Records.

Aftershock inked its deal with the Phoenix label through rather informal channels. Retrograde co-founder Jay Lean, a producer/engineer who has worked with everyone from Rage Against the Machine to Sting, caught Planet Shock!'s show in L.A. and was suitably impressed by the band's hard-willed, often preachy fusion of hip-hop and metal.

Back in 1992 -- when Planet Shock! came together under its original moniker, Maggot Flesh -- teaming rap and samples with live music performed on actual instruments was a shade more revolutionary. Now, thanks to the Beastie Boys and other mainstream hip-hop acts showing off their (sometimes limited) musical chops, the idea has become less novel. Still, Lean saw something different in Planet Shock!, something he continues to see in Aftershock: an uneasy union of sophistication and gut-level intimidation that he hopes comes across in all its glory on the band's slickly potent debut.

"I was impressed with the grooves and the energy, and the fact that it wasn't just an urban hip-hop crew; it was a mix of metal guys and the urban stuff," says Lean, who produced the new CD at Retrograde's Phoenix studio. "The content of the raps has nothing to do with what your typical raps are. If I were to compare them with anyone it would be Public Enemy -- real political."

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