Fallout Shelter

"George Bush says a lot of shit. It's a lot of bluster," says Nuclear Assault bassist Danny Lilker. "He has to say stuff so all the flag-wavers can go, 'Oh, yeah, we ain't gonna take no shit.' " Lilker's pace accelerates. "I feel that it would be disastrous for us to -- you know. I mean, look, when it came to the Gulf War, we went in there and cleaned up pretty well without having to use any nuclear weapons. It's really hard to say anything about what's happening now, because that Saddam Hussein guy is definitely a megalomaniac dictator who is out of control. But at the same time, with all the shit that happened September 11, I think that George Bush is probably just looking for Arabic scapegoats."

The time for a Nuclear Assault reunion tour is ripe: The use of nuclear weapons in any number of contexts -- including President Bush's open threat to use them against Iraq -- is a more realistic possibility than at any time since the cold war ended, roughly the same time Nuclear Assault's original lineup disbanded. What's odd about the reunion is the fact that the band's old music sounds so new.

One could be forgiven for having put thrash metal on life support. Leading lights like Metallica and Megadeth gave up performing anything even remotely describable as such years ago, and underground bands such as Death Angel and Sacred Reich either passed from existence entirely or stagger along purely as a novelty diversion. Occasionally, a young band like Pissing Razors will emerge and take a resonant stab at the form, but while these new arrivals help keep the blood circulating, the style itself remains in a coma.

Imagine the surprise, then, when one puts Nuclear Assault's 14-year-old Handle with Care opus into the CD player and it sounds not just musically, sonically and lyrically good, but also like a record made in the past six months rather than at the beginning of the elder Bush's reign. Part of the reason for this anachronism is the increasingly metallic path hardcore has taken in the intervening years. Chunky, downtuned riffs now sit cheek-by-jowl with their punk-derived brethren, not just in a particular song or passage, but over the course of entire albums and even careers. In short, Nuclear Assault sounds current because it was making what would now be termed quintessential metalcore well before the term even existed. Thrash metal's dead, long live metalcore -- same music, new name.

Lilker sees the cross-pollination of metal and hardcore as something that adds depth and freshness to both pools. But while outside observers, and to a degree Lilker himself, may see Nuclear Assault as a prime mover in this regard, he is also acutely aware that there always will be snobs in the hardcore scene. " 'Oh, metal. It's just about fucking white trash guys with fucking bandannas and Oakleys and whatever,' " he mocks. "But those people would also be hypocritical, because if a band has the right look and sound, then they'll totally pick up on their lyrics, but if a band looks like metalheads and makes those kind of lyrics -- like we did -- they think, 'Oh, they're just trying to fit in.' "

As Lilker suggests, Nuclear Assault's lyrics are as important as their genre-melding music, and somehow both still sound up-to-the-second topical. In light of post-9/11 developments, hardcore staples like political tyranny, environmental devastation, capitalistic excess, and human and animal rights have more resonance than ever.

Lilker is keen to point out that -- lyrically, at least -- the band started off in far more traditional metal territory. It was their subsequent exposure to hardcore and punk rock that started the activist wheels turning. "Obviously, there's always been protest music, ever since Bob Dylan and stuff," Lilker says. "But that's a little far afield as far as something you can relate to as a metal musician. So hearing angry, aggressive music that had lyrics like that was very inspiring."

Principal songwriter John Connelly was always opinionated about world events, Lilker explains, though he was long reluctant to set his thoughts to music. "Once he realized that it was okay to put them into the lyrics, and not just write about killing people and stuff, we kind of pounced on that," says Lilker. "But we were never one of these super-politically correct bands saying, 'You can't eat this' or 'can't drink that' or any ridiculous crap like that. If you suggest it, it's one thing. But people who chastise you for how you live can just fuck off."

The band's name nicely reflects this evolution. "Originally it was made up just because it had a very powerful connotation," says Lilker. Later, however, it became a theme, though Lilker adds that the band tackled environmental and racial issues as well.

A newer concern for Nuclear Assault is the watering down of metal. Lilker hopes to bring the real-deal gospel to America's youth. Today's metal "offers no challenges to the listener," he says. "It's either on or it's off. The less challenging music is, the more apathetic people will be, because they can just sit there and not even have to use their brain while they're listening."

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Chris Smith