Odd Men In

Two years back, L.A. emo-core flag-bearers Open Hand performed to a strangely sparse crowd at Hollywood’s now defunct Opium Den. The problem: The club was 21 and up, so not only were most of Open Hand‘s teenage fans excluded, but the youthful band members barely scraped in themselves, and their underage merchandise guy had to peddle his wares from the sidewalk. But where young bands are typically one-dimensional and influence-transparent, Open Hand brought forth a bewildering bevy of studiously arranged progressivehardcore anthems built of post-metal riffage, ultradexterous drumming, incongruously angelic vocals and sudden crystalline plateaus of arpeggiated guitar.

An answering-machine segue on their debut EP, Radio Days, compares Open Hand to “Failure with Smokey Robinson singing,” which proves pretty close to the mark. Vocalist-guitarist-leader Justin Isham describes the genesis of their mongrel sound: “I’ve always had the vision. Alex [Rodriguez] helped out, ‘cause he’s an amazing drummer -- I couldn‘t have imagined those kinds of drums when I was writing everything. He and I were in hardcore and metal bands before this band. But one of my all-time favorites is Peter Gabriel . . . and King Crimson and Yes. So I just kind of combined everything that I was into and then gave it all to Alex and said, ’Come up with the drums.‘”

Still in his early 20s, the blond, burly, fresh-faced Isham resembles the hearty lad next door who drops ’round to mow your lawn. Yet he mixes a potent cocktail of abilities -- a gifted songwriter who‘s also a savvy underground businessman and a driven organizer. Isham formed American Propaganda Records with a friend as an outlet for Open Hand, and though he no longer has time to be actively involved in the label, its premises, opposite the El Rey Theater, still serve as the band’s HQ and the studio where all their recorded work has been captured.

Asked what Open Hand‘s been doing since that Opium Den show, Isham doesn’t hesitate: “Just tons of touring -- that‘s actually all we’ve been doing. We had a couple of lineup changes [Isham and Rodriguez are now joined by bassist Jeff Meyer and roadie-turned-guitarist Sean Woods], which always sets things back. But not too much -- the guys who joined learned the shit in a week, and then we‘d leave for a tour. We just got back a week ago, and we leave in five days for another three months . . . and we got signed!”

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After three years and two self-released EPs, Open Hand have inked with the New Jersey hardcore label Trustkill. Almost every major label has tracked the group, but they all either felt the band was “too indie-rock” and needed to develop, or demanded a multi-album commitment that Isham was uncomfortable with. Even in the midst of this, he had his sights set on Trustkill, because he knew and respected label owner Josh Grabelle.

Trustkill began by releasing The Dream -- basically Open Hand’s two EPs combined, plus a couple of demo versions of newer songs that will appear on a full album to be recorded this December, all of which will benefit from juicier distribution than American Propaganda‘s hand-to-mouth operation could muster. The Dream is an effective whirlwind introduction to Open Hand’s short-attention-span song structures, sprawling, sub-Tool percussion, and optimistic, almost wistful melodies bookending spasms of multilayered wrath. Though it‘s far from easy listening, the collection’s ceaseless musicality makes the brave dynamic undulations palatable.

Isham identifies with misfit, genreless outfits: “Shiner, Failure, Quicksand -- bands that could have been a lot more, that were pushed aside.” Open Hand themselves are constantly the odd men out, either befuddling crowds at straight-ahead hardcore shows or rudely awakening emo audiences. Though they‘ve thrived when paired with the similarly eclectic Glassjaw and Thursday, Isham is unaware of any acts that actually resemble Open Hand. “But there are bands that we could play with easily,” he muses. “Shiner, Houston, Code 7 -- bands that don’t really have a scene to support them, because they‘re kind of in their own world.”

With Glassjaw and Thursday translating critical acclaim into high street recognition, expect Open Hand to gatecrash “next big thing” lists soon. Not that they’re aching for acceptance, claims Isham: “Our goals aren‘t to make it big, but just to survive . . . I gave up my apartment, I gave up my car, everything. So I just keep this place [American Propaganda], and if I get to the point where I’m not worried about the rent here, then I‘ll be happy!”

Talent, originality, youth, work ethic and ambition -- Open Hand have the whole package, but they’re not about to neuter their hybrid beast to reach a radio audience. Ironically, this very stubbornness may yet be what sucks the masses in.

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