When Dead Cross’ debut album hit shelves on Aug. 4, its four members had never even all played music together in the same room. The cred-heavy hardcore supergroup fixed this that very evening, assembling in L.A. for their first-ever rehearsal. Good thing, too, because within days they began a six-week U.S. tour (which arrives at the El Rey Theatre on Aug. 21).
Yet such catch-up chaos is nothing new for Dead Cross. Ever since an almost overnight genesis in late 2015, the band have been chasing near-impossible deadlines, cramming in songwriting and recording sessions for their urgent, spastic music from day one.
“We hadn’t performed together or even written a song, and we had a name, we had a logo, we had imagery,” recalls drummer Dave Lombardo, speaking from his North Hollywood home on the morning of that first rehearsal. “That was unheard of!”
In November 2015, Lombardo — best known as a founding member of Huntington Park thrash-metal juggernaut Slayer — disbanded his longtime side project Philm, but had studio time and SoCal concerts booked for the band. Not one to renege, but with just two weeks before the first show, he desperately needed a fill-in act. When he ran into The Locust/Retox bassist Justin Pearson (with whom he’d toured while drumming for Fantômas) and Retox guitarist Michael Crain at the studio of metal mega-producer Ross Robinson (Korn, At the Drive-In), Lombardo seized the moment.
Robinson immediately starting recording the trio’s fledgling efforts, and they were soon joined by The Locust (and former Retox) drummer Gabe Serbian on vocals. On Dec. 1, Dead Cross debuted their skinny-jeaned, borderline grindcore at San Diego’s Casbah club. They were so bereft of material that, on at least one occasion (at Pomona’s Glass House), they played their entire set twice. These early performances were predictably flawed yet wonderfully abrasive, delivered at blurring speed and — intentionally or otherwise — wheels-wobblingly reckless.
Audience response was enthusiastic and more shows were booked — including, on very short notice, two sets aboard the high-profile 70,000 Tons of Metal festival, held on a Caribbean cruise ship last February. Incongruously shoehorned into a bill of mostly death and mainstream metal, alongside the likes of Cradle of Filth and Lacuna Coil, the band found their shipmates were much more interested in taking selfies with Lombardo than actually watching Dead Cross perform. (“I don’t blame the other 4,800 people on the metal cruise for not bothering to see some random band with no music available,” Pearson blogged afterward.)
An album’s worth of Dead Cross material had been recorded and was set to be released on Ipecac Recordings — the label co-founded by Faith No More/Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton — when Serbian stepped aside to focus on family. That’s when Lombardo’s assistant suggested he text his old mate Patton, with whom he’s also played in avant-garde metal project Fantômas, and who is widely regarded as one of hard rock’s most innovative vocalists, to ask him to become Dead Cross' new singer.
“That little [iPhone] icon came up as if he was typing,” the soft-spoken Lombardo recalls of that fateful text exchange. “Then it went away. It came up; it went away. … [Then] he said, ‘I would love to!’”
Lombardo sent the Dead Cross instrumental tracks to Patton, who added his vocals remotely in the basement studio of his San Francisco home. And that’s when what appeared destined to become nine frantic blasts of expertly executed, metalized and mildly mathy hardcore (plus a cover of Bauhaus’ goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”) morphed into something else entirely.
“It’s totally different from what [it] would’ve been if Mike didn’t come into the picture,” says Lombardo, a famously adventurous musician who’s also played with Suicidal Tendencies, Misfits and DJ Spooky. “Patton [brought] in the melody, the depth. His harmonies are what I enjoy the most.”
The result evokes both classic, pissed-off hardcore punk and its crossover thrash offshoot, all updated with Dillinger Escape Plan–worthy rhythmic about-turns and producer Robinson’s signature sonic heft.
“I didn’t have to return to my roots, because I never left them,” says Lombardo, 52, of his love for hardcore dating back to the early 1980s. “I discovered punk via Jeff Hanneman, the guitar player for Slayer, and that was the turning point … it changed my whole musical direction.”
But it’s Patton’s oft-intertwining layers of eccentric, theatrically unhinged vocals that twist Dead Cross’ instantly familiar instrumental backbone into a defiantly, perversely uncategorizable experience.
“One comment I’ve heard many times [in my career] is, ‘Oh, y’know, I don’t want to disappoint the fans’; ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound “metal” enough,'” Lombardo sighs. “It’s like, really? So you’re not willing to take the chance to create something just a little bit different [from] what’s been done, or what you’ve been doing for the past 20-plus years?”
A two-time Grammy winner who’s credited with both helping to popularize double-kick drumming and honing it to breathtaking technical heights, Lombardo says the eponymous Dead Cross debut is the first album he’s recorded without the guidance of a metronomic click track since at least the early 1990s. Throughout, he assaults his kit like some life-or-death game of warp-speed Whac-a-Mole.
“I didn’t restrain myself. If a song was rehearsed at a certain tempo … I made sure that I pushed it [while recording],” he says. “So this whole album is on my clock.”
The finished Dead Cross is a restless romp through ADHD rhythms and riffs, lent a darkly wackadoodle, carnivalesque air by Patton’s unsettling, multipersonality performances. Patton's impressively elastic, immediately recognizable crooning, punctuated with garbled scatting, yelps and rants, will be familiar to anyone aware of his projects from Mr. Bungle’s 1991 debut onward, but he’s never sung atop anything so throat-grabbing and relentlessly aggressive as Dead Cross. (Lombardo, who’s propelled some of the world’s most savage bands, has described the record as “one of the most brutal albums I’ve ever done.”)
The challenge for Dead Cross version 2.0 as it approached its current tour was two-fold: re-creating Patton’s elaborate studio vocal arrangements onstage, and stretching a sub-28-minute album into a headline-length live set.
“Patton has broken his vocals down and said, ‘OK, I need some backup here; I need a two-part harmony here; I need a three-part harmony here,” Lombardo explains. “So we’re all participating, including myself, with some backup vocals and, y’know, the ‘gang vocals’ as well.”
While Dead Cross squeezes a breathless, queasy string of snotty quasi-operettas into its short span, this material alone likely won’t satiate concertgoers foaming at the mouth to witness such genre royalty in all their collective, cathartic majesty.
“We have written two [new] songs to cover for that,” Lombardo says. “And, who knows, we might add something else, another piece — maybe a little noise improv section.”
However long or short Dead Cross’ set, don’t expect any pompous, heavy-metal-headliner trappings on display at the El Rey.
“You’re going to see drums, amps and four guys up there. That’s it,” Lombardo concludes. “There’s no light show, there’s no backdrop — there’s nothing like that. It’s just raw.”
Dead Cross play the El Rey Theatre on Monday, Aug. 21.