Lately, you can't swing a metronome without hitting a local alt-string band. Cellos have cropped up in Giant Squid and Tornado Rider; the latter's Graham Terry plays his while hanging upside down, like some kind of baroque Evel Knievel.
Oakland's Judgement Day was there first, plugging violins and cellos into lo-fi amps on the streets of Berkeley. A decade later, one of the Bay Area's most inventive bands is still exploring the limits of the sound it calls "string metal" — and inspiring a new crop of rockers to embrace their inner Vivaldis.
"In the last 10 years, every single band has a violin player. It kind of pisses me off," says Judgement Day violinist Anton Patzner, sitting beneath the stained-glass dome of San Francisco's Columbarium on a recent foggy morning. Anton's chatter, like his instrument, is bright and lively; his bandmate and brother, cellist Lewis Patzner, interjects low, solemn counterpoints. Drummer Jon Bush, a powerhouse behind his kit, is quiet.
Judgement Day's sound is informed, in part, by Anton's years as a fan of hardcore music. Instead of the usual trills, Anton and Lewis figured out how to shred, creating something closer to Metallica than Mendelssohn. By now, they've got the "string metal" thing down, and they watch with amusement as bands bring on string players who are new to rock 'n' roll.
"You can tell when they've just crossed over," Anton says. "There's no groove."
"The word 'stiff' gets tossed around," Lewis adds.
In fact, groove is something Anton admits he's still working on, practicing in his car with a little hand-held shaker. But the band isn't looking to become the next Mumford and Sons. "Judgement Day is not shooting for the Top 40," he says. "We're interested in pushing the boundaries of what these instruments can do."
While many local string-rock groups are super-sizing the distortion, Judgement Day is heading in the other direction. The band's just-released Polar Shift offers clean violin and cello over rollicking rhythms — and plenty of prog-style switcheroos to keep listeners on their toes.
To make the album, the Lewis brothers and Bush trekked north to Sea Ranch, a coastal hideaway of 1,300 locals where the brothers' extended family owns a cabin they call "the Barn." They looked at it as a kind of retreat, a chance to focus on the music. "We cooked some nice dinners together and forged a community spirit," Anton says.
They arrived in Sea Ranch with a shed-load of half-written songs, letting the seascapes and the vaulted-ceiling acoustics of the place guide the finishing touches. The rustic setting cemented their plans to make a cleaner, pared-down record. Earlier albums had so much distortion, it was tough to identify the instruments as violin and cello.
Their enthusiasm for in-studio intricacies had also posed logistical challenges onstage. "The last album had lots of overdubbing, to the point where we couldn't play it live," Lewis says. This time, they wanted to simplify everything — in fact, a handful of the songs on Polar Shift were recorded live, something the band hadn't done before.
Polar Shift's frenetic moments are just as propulsive as Judgement Day's earlier work, but the sound is rounder, more anthemic; think Iron Maiden rather than Slayer. "Ghost Hunt" and "Demon Fire" are tense and agile, bristling with Anton's crisp violin tones. There are moments of humor in the plodding "California Legislature" and "Redneck Rumble," an aural brawl between Lewis' juggernaut cello and Anton's twangy fiddling. Sea Ranch's serene beauty is captured in the diaphanous "Waves," leading into the military march of "Forest Battle," the first video from the album.
Judgement Day's latest also makes room for the sounds Anton and Lewis typically reserve for side projects. Lewis, for example, bows the strings with local progressive jazz band So; those same jazzy touches fuel the prog-infused "Annexed." Anton's violin backs Laura Weinbach in the endearing San Francisco chamber-pop band Foxtails Brigade, and he brings a similar warmth to songs such as "The Jump" and "Xenophobic."
When Judgement Day debuted in 2002, bands like Rasputina and Apocalyptica had already eased audiences into the idea of plugging cellos into effects pedals. The Patzner brothers figured they could improve on the notion. "[Apocalyptica] were doing it totally wrong, in such a cheesy way," Anton says.
Instead, Judgement Day drew street-corner crowds with gritty, improvised music — and physicality. "We would rock out, go crazy. With a street act, it's all about spectacle," Anton says. Before long, other local bands caught wind of that spectacle and asked Judgement Day to open for them.
Staying ahead of the curve, they released two genre-bending metal albums, Dark Opus and Peacocks/Pink Monsters. Lewis earned his cello degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Md., while Anton loaned his talents to indie darling Bright Eyes.
And while some bands have added their own string players, others have hired the Patzners, including Dredg, singer-songwriter Pete Yorn, and former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, who included the band on 2009's Slash and Friends.
It's easy to see Judgement Day's butterfly effect on music, especially locally. "The Bay Area has a huge alt-string scene," Lewis says.
"Hell yeah we do," Anton says. "We have Judgement Day."