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In the middle of Harvard Square, Boston metal quartet RULE is set up in a corner table upstairs at Charlie’s, a kitschy bar that would have probably been filled with cigarette smoke before the Massachusetts smoking ban of 2004. They’re sipping beers, reflecting on how metal has changed since the ’80s and how bands today are failing at recreating the genre.
For one, says singer Mike Soltoff, it’s the “Cookie Monster” vocals heard on some newer extensions of the genre. “Screaming,” he says, clarifying. “It’s screamo. People don’t sing anymore.”▼ Article continues below ▼
The blending of contemporary metal with hardcore, thrash and screamo has, for some, unfairly changed the definition of what used to be a straight-up powerful, harsh and rebellious sound. They’re not exactly fathers of ’80s metal, but RULE can be considered its older brothers, taking it upon themselves to show the younger kids who try, sometimes in vain, how to recreate a now-classic era in which they never existed. The guys in RULE, however, saw it all.
“This sort of genre is so pertinent even nowadays,” says drummer Greg Beadle. “The old-school, classic British heavy metal – a lot of younger kids, younger generations are picking up on it. But it’s the difference between taking something like that and interpreting it in the here-and-now, and the fact that you find four guys who actually grew up with that. [That’s when] you get the truest nature…of what it is.”
For RULE, the “truest nature” of metal means what guitarist John Brookhouse calls “basic big four,” building off of the template that Van Halen and Metallica and other greats left us. But where younger bands often use these classics merely as initial inspiration, RULE is continuing a legacy. “We’re drawing directly from [these bands],” says Soltoff. “Rather than little hints of it, we’re going straight to the source. And that’s what a lot of us listen to regularly, anyway.”
“Classic metal hasn’t gone away,” adds bassist Jim Zavadoski. “Some of the stuff we’ve listened to back then is now in that lexicon of ‘classic’ just because of the fact it’s old.”
Rounds of laughter aren’t uncommon among the guys when they talk about how “old” they are. While they exaggerate (Zavadoski gets hounded for sounding like they’re 70 when he reminisces about the old bands and labels they were a part of), RULE is part of a different time. But the age gives them a certain advantage of looking at ’80s metal in retrospect and isolating what does and does not work.
Part of that advantage is knowing what gear gets that ’80s classic metal sound. Brookhouse does it right with Peavey VTM 60 and Van Halen 5150 tube amplifiers, and a 1980 Les Paul. “It’s straight from back in the day,” says Brookhouse.
“I could probably sound like that on anything, but I feel like I have the advantage of old wood and old tubes in there.”
Zavadoski says he takes a late-’70s approach with an Acoustic 220 bass amp to compete with Brookehouse’s gear. “For me, bass has to be loud to keep up with people with Peavey 5150s,” Zavadoski says, laughing. Beadle keeps it minimal, and while he says he’s a fan of the vintage Ludwig Slingerlands, he’s preserving the older gear and using a modern drum set that can handle the abuse of metal rhythms.
With their gear, RULE has been able to replicate the power of many of their idols, adding to it all the down-tuning to E-flat like Guns N’ Roses and Jimi Hendrix, among others. But there are certain parts about the 1980s the band is trying to avoid. “We’re looking at a form of music that, in some ways, hit its greatest achievement in the late-’80s,” says Zavadoski.
“It became this arena thing, and sort of became so popular that it wasn’t fun anymore. We’re trying to get back to the point where it was fun.”
The major stadium tours of heavy metal hair bands of decades past ballooned into a larger-than-life persona for a genre of music that oftentimes started in teenagers’ bedrooms. In a sense, it became so massive that it collapsed on itself; the rock star lifestyle handed to musicians by their major label contracts and the cash flow it brought in ended up killing the music, sometimes literally.
Now, RULE sits together at the bar and wonders whether that would even be a part of the band’s future – and whether they would even want it.
“I’m not even sure what being on a label means these days,” says Soltoff. “Maybe I’ve been out of the game for a little bit, but are we even attractive to a label? Is it even a good business?”
It’s not the first time the topic has been hashed out over a few beers, and the four seem to, once again, come to the consensus that getting signed is not the life they’d like for the band. “On our way back from the CD release show – actually, I think we came back here [to Charlie’s] to booze more – and we had a boozy conversation about what our hopes and dreams for the future of the band were,” says Soltoff. “We sort of came to a consensus because we might feel a bit differently about what our ultimate aims would be as musicians.”
He’s referencing their album release show at Cambridge’s T.T. the Bear’s Place in August for their debut, self-titled EP. The event was the epitome of how RULE has, in ways, distanced themselves from the giants of the ’80s, turning to the modern DIY approach for everything: booking shows, releasing music, merchandising and promotion.
Most of this is handled by Brookhouse, though they all collaborate on promo and booking. “I just try and take care of as much stuff as I can,” says Brookhouse. “I just figure, the more work I put in, the more return, hopefully, we’ll see.”
Return has been seen in the form of unanimously positive local press. It translates to a fanbase, but you won’t see RULE on the road anytime soon. “Not to sound like the old band on the block,” says Soltoff, “but we’ve slept on concrete floors. We’ve pissed in water bottles and Gatorade bottles while the van was going 80 miles an hour down the highway.” It’s not the sort of thing they’d like to do anymore.
These days, the band looks at younger musicians living their life on the road in a constant struggle to establish their careers. For many, those tours come packaged – along with a publicist and a manager – with the record deal. But for RULE, it’s just not worth it. A major label contract is no guarantee for success.
“There was an era, in my experience, where I knew a ton of dudes in Boston that had been on major labels – signed, the whole nine years. And then they got dropped,” says Zavadoski. “People in Boston will talk about it all the time, in this air of, ‘Oh, this band should have been something!’”
Instead, RULE collectively decided to stay local and work hard to play the music they want to play. And as far as they can tell, it’ll stay that way for as long as it’s fun. In the corner of a familiar local bar, the members of RULE raise their Cuervo Silver tequila shot glasses cut with lime juice as they discuss the future of the band, explaining how too much pressure and too many expectations would ruin the moment. They pause to cheer.
“Here’s to living single, seeing double, and sleeping triple,” says Soltoff. And with that, the band laughs into the night…
photos by Kelly Davidson