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By Craig Hlavaty
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Coal Chamber's second album, Chamber Music, which was released in September 1999, sold like crazy for a few weeks, basically coasting on favorable prerelease buzz. Five weeks later it fell off the charts, apparently when pissed-off fans discovered the disc did not sound at all like the group's gold-selling self-titled debut, which just happened to sound an awful lot like Korn.
Earlier in March, with the chart-disappearing wound still fresh, Coal Chamber and its manager, Sharon Osbourne (wife of Black Sabbath-bankrolled, eye-shadow-wearing, pasty-faced Ozzy Osbourne), parted ways after three years together and several public scoldings from Osbourne, who laid into the band for its goth makeup and bizarre stage behavior. The way drummer Mikey Cox skirts around the issue when pressed, you get the impression that the breakup was not as pretty as people said. "Everyone ran away from the problems rather than dug in," he says. "And we started not connecting on anything, even stupid little things. Everybody ended up just out for themselves, and unfortunately we all got into it."
Still, there is no hesitancy when Cox says things couldn't be better, now that the group -- including vocalist Dez Fafara, guitarist Meegs Rascon and bassist Rayna Foss-Rose -- is together again on the road, where it can seek shelter from outside problems. Sales of Chamber Music (Roadrunner) are picking up as new fans who like the group's heavier sound come aboard.
"The reaction was something we didn't really expect," says Cox. "A lot of our fans hated this album, after not getting more of the same as the first one. The second MTV played our video, that's it, they said we were sellouts."
Korn and Coal Chamber honed their chops at the same time on the same breeding ground in the mid-1990s, roaming the parking lots of L.A. clubs and handing out flyers and band stickers like a thousand other metal wanna-bes. Since Korn broke out first, Coal Chamber was seen as derivative, even though the similarity of sounds suited the mosh-pit mooks who were turned on by Korn and Limp Bizkit's dysfunctional views of the world.
"We don't really have anything against rap-rock, but there's so many bands doing it, we wanted to go in our own direction," says Cox. "We were little kids going crazy on the first record. Then, when you're out on the road for 19 months, playing almost every day, you grow up. [The slow album sales] were a reality check, but we're sure this is the way to go."
The radical departure of Chamber Music, with its droning two-chord riffs, keyboard overdubs, Cox's kick-ass pounding and Fafara's throat-ripping banshee screams (thanks to a new vocal coach), lumped the band in the same heavy genre as labelmate Type O Negative.
Lyrically Coal Chamber left the nookie chasers behind, taking a kinder, gentler approach to the craft. The group reviewed broken relationships that had left their ugly marks or dumped on ego-driven peers -- all the while telling kids it was okay to be individualistic. Just be nice, the band seemed to say, a quick-fix message in this post-Columbine world.
Coal Chamber's sound relied heavily on the ubiquitous metal penchant for dissonant chord structures and down-tuned guitars, shifting from the standard rock E tuning down to B or A. The group also took a sound geek's approach, playing guitars through crappy speakers or hooking up multiple distortion pedals in series and stomping away at random. As metal ground into a new millennium, guitars were no longer musical instruments, they were electronic sound machines to fuck around with.
Cox says the band added so many effects to create the album's best cut, "My Mercy," with its sweeping synthesizers, string sections and backing vocals from Aimee Echo and Elijah Blue Allman, that the band can't play it on tour. And that was even with Cox's having to key in guitar and keyboard samples via Roland pads and five foot-pedal triggers for other Chamber Music tunes.
The return of bassist Foss-Rose, who took time off recently following the birth of her son (the dad is husband Morgan Rose, Sevendust drummer), also contributed to the group's aural renaissance. Cox was so freaked out by playing with a replacement (Nadja, formerly of Tail) that he wouldn't run the bass lines through his monitor. "This is good now; it's like we're really playing again," he says. Foss-Rose took a slightly more melodic approach to her bass lines, preferring not to merely blast out distorted Godzilla farts.
A makeup-wearing lad in high school, the baby-faced drummer jokes that his mom gives him tips on applying lipstick now that he's a rock star. Cox is well prepared for the argument that it seems contradictory that a band urges its followers to be individuals yet has mosh-pitters sporting Coal Chamber's album-cover makeup. "When you're young, you don't have the nerve to be totally individualistic right off the bat," he says. "So you copy a look until you mature a bit or gain confidence. That's why we change our look all the time, to keep 'em on their toes. But you know what? The best thing is when I'm in the mall with no makeup on, and kids can't believe it. It's kind of disappointing to them that I'm not spitting on myself or punching myself in the head like on stage."
Coal Chamber performs Friday, March 31, with Type O Negative, Full Devil Jacket and the Deadlights at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place. For more information, call (713)629-3700.
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