Rochester metal band Kaged was breaking in new singer Todd Gursslin.
"There is no f***ing way this guy can pull this off," I said to myself as I entered the band's practice bunker in the CoxBuilding on St. Paul Street.
See, Kaged is a 3-year-old quartet steadily climbing into the Rochester metal scene. But the band hasn't had a permanent member in the singer slot. The vocals that drummer James D contributed in the meantime were more than adequate --- huge, in fact. And so far as I could see, Gursslin was gonna have to split his head open in order to match up to him. I had to see this.
Guitarist MugsyMattern plugged in and immediately began to feed back as bassist J.P. Altieri tuned up. Lead guitarist Sam Cordaro strapped on his guitar and took his post in the corner by a window. The formidable drum kit seemed to cringe as D took the riser. Gursslin wrapped the mic cord around his hand and assumed a pitcher's stance. His free hand held the lyric sheets. They began to play.
Up to this point all of Kaged's vocal duties had been filled by D. D sings like a monster. He's already a big dude, and the timbre and weight of his voice is positively Kong. But D wanted to concentrate on drumming. He just sang to get the band off the ground.
"I was always going to be the drummer," D says. "And we couldn't find a singer so we figured I'd just do both for awhile. We wanted a guy to come in and take that role so I could lean back into my own drumming style."
Through the miracle of MySpace the band found Gursslin. Gursslin (formerly of the band Fuel) had just moved back to Rochester after living the lowlife in Seattle. He was up for a challenge and a change of scenery.
"I was strung out pretty bad," Gursslin says. "I'm in recovery now. I don't drink, I don't do nothin.'"
Gursslin's got a new monkey --- music --- and it helps.
"Oh, big time, dude," he says. "Especially with starting to write lyrics. It's just an emotional release."
And the prospect of filling D's vocal shoes doesn't have him shaken.
"Well, I can scream, dude," he says. "It's a challenge. I'm down with the challenge; especially being clean. I love it."
Gursslin is learning old Kaged material and working on new stuff with the band as well. Lyrics originally voiced by D still fit into Gursslin's mindset.
"I never wanted this
Never meant to be like this
Think of everything I missed
Never meant to be like this"
Whether voiced in joy or anger, the intensity remains constant. So does the hurt. It's pleasure and pain. The lyrics run an emotional spectrum.
"It's all over the board," Gursslin says. "Lots of pain that I was going through --- but how I made it through that pain. I can't stick to just one emotion."
To the outsider Gursslin's catharsis and rage can get misconstrued as temper.
"I could sing the happiest lyrics and my mother would think I was being pissed off and mean," he says.
The band kicks into an older tune, "So Far Away." Gursslin dives in face first with a howl. It is guttural, loud, and mucho intense. Cordaro and Altieri sway as D brutalizes his kit with a barrage of snaps and thundering double-kick fills.
The intensity builds and builds. Gursslin discards the lyrics. His face is fire-engine red and the veins in his neck bulge as his smile gets increasingly wider. The band smiles back, nodding its approval. They his cruising altitude, volume, and speed.
Then it happens. Gursslin's face splits and his skull begins to emerge. This just makes the rest of the band lean in more, pushing him. By the time the band reaches the second chorus, half of Gursslin's body is out of its skin. Tissue and guts and Gatorade spill as his carcass crumples into a heap on the floor. By now all three amps are on fire and D is pounding what amounts to a pile of kindling. There's smoke everywhere. The sprinklers go on. The song ends. There's water and smoke and blood and guts everywhere. The fire alarm is wailing in the hall. Gursslin's skeleton looks at me and smiles.
"I told you I could scream, dude," he says
Kaged plays a New Year's Eve Bash with Intox, December's Halo, Compressed, Split Rail, and Darkling Sunday, December 31, at The California Brew Haus, 402 Ridge Road West, 621-1480, 8 p.m., call for cover.
The band is the pistol-packin' ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it.