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Crystal Lake's Old Ironsides hard to pin down
By Jeff Pizek | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/15/2008 12:05 AM

On Old Ironsides' MySpace profile, the group describes itself in drolly mythical terms. Reading more like a superhero team's origin story than a band bio, the saga includes Genghis Khan, a Transylvanian laboratory, a crashed space traveler, a Viking king and a horde of mastodons.

While many bands use MySpace's obligatory "About" field for pointless in-jokes or non sequiturs, Old Ironsides' clearly fictional tale actually clues a listener in to the Crystal Lake-based quintet's larger-than-life sound. Their modern take on progressive rock shares skyward glances with superstars such as The Mars Volta and Minus the Bear, yet carries the pensive lyricism of indie rock, the comprehensible structure of classic rock and the serrated heft of heavy metal.

The music is intrepid, substantial and virtuosic despite its creators' relative youth. It's also meticulously integrated, considering that Old Ironsides members' individual tastes range from film scores and progressive metal to hip-hop, funk and punk.

"We don't purposely go out there trying to write bizarre, strange music," notes drummer Ken Berens. "It's just that the songs often find themselves ending up that way."

Old Ironsides released a self-titled EP early this year, featuring four distinctly different tunes and a clear, powerful recording. The upbeat, metallic "Breaking Loose (Into the Sky)" never pauses for a breath, while the atmospheric "Dancing in Gobbler's Gulch" creeps forward with slinky drama to spare. Following the EP's release, the band opened Local H's March gig at the Clearwater Theater and was included on the international compilation "Chronicles: City of Sound."

It's no surprise that guitarists Alex Boccia and Ryan Rickerson formed Old Ironsides and handle the bulk of the songwriting, since guitars are so crucial here. Berens says that when the duo found him three years ago, they hoped to add an "outer space" feeling to their rock-based material.

"We wanted to be sort of like a classic rock 'n' roll band," Berens says, "but with a really modern spin." He points out the band's aversion to writing typical verse/chorus/verse songs, comparing their style to the dynamic extensions of '70s prog and to Tool, "where their songs sort of snake, they weave in and out. We also have what I like to think of as the awesomeness of Metallica's old music: the wild twists and changes, the energy, the drastic mood shifts that still carry that raw power."

"We don't necessarily approach our music with a specific style in mind," Boccia says. "We approach it with a concept or an idea, and we make the music become what it needs to be to follow that idea."

Berens cites Boccia's tendency to write music which accompanies "a little movie in his head." One example is a speedy new song with the working title "Tomcat," in which the guitar interplay was inspired by watching dogfights on The History Channel. The lyrics, however, are kept independent, since they're written by vocalist Seth Peterson.

"Seth never really tells us what his songs are about," admits Berens. "A couple of the songs have a pretty vague meaning and he's pretty secretive. But I really like lyrics like that, where nothing's set in stone."

"I take Alex's visions of what the songs are about and do my own take on that," Peterson explains. "When he says 'Tomcat' is about a dogfight, I take that idea and it becomes its own thing, more like good versus evil than an actual airplane fight."

Wide musical spaces and potentially big concepts aside, Old Ironsides offers a refreshing lack of pretension for a group that takes its music so seriously. For proof, see the aforementioned MySpace page and its homemade music video for "Breaking Loose." In addition to genuine McHenry County locations, such as Crystal Lake's Williams Street Tap, it showcases Old Ironsides in some hilariously amateur off-Broadway choreography. It's not an OK Go-style gimmick, either.

"We're not trying to sell ourselves. We're just being ourselves," Berens says. "We don't want to be like a Mötley Crüe party band, but a fun band is never a bad thing to have."

The group is currently in the process of constructing their first full-length CD, although to date, Old Ironsides has only completed 12 or so songs. It's not a huge catalog, but understandable, since each of those songs is the result of an involved process. Berens says it can take up to a year to get an arrangement down, and the band documents the process by recording demos on a 16-track recorder at his house.

"We take our sweet time," the drummer says, "so when we enter the studio, we know exactly what we want."

The album, hopefully due by the beginning of the year, is slated to contain 10 songs, or about 80 minutes of music in all. Considering the sheer length of what they're planning, the band is debating a double-disc release, splitting the songs onto separate CDs to help the material flow.

"If that's within our financial reach," Berens says, "we figured that would be pretty bold."

As if Old Ironsides' music wasn't bold enough itself.
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