Cranium shows are attended by lawyers, business people, fresh-faced college students, respectable members of society. People like you and me. It may be a disappointment to learn this, since one might prefer to believe that Cranium’s fan base is comprised of antisocial intellectuals who live in airless, concrete rooms, where they compose neo-Futurist manifestoes and chain-smoke. These introverts generally seem like they would be rabid fans of, and the only fitting audience for, Reno’s premier instrumental avant-garde metal band.
Guitarist Ryan Hall and drummer Jason Thomas started Cranium as a duo in 1995. Initially, they intended to add a vocalist but after playing together for some time had a change of plans.
“Most of the stuff I like is instrumental anyway, and we had talked about doing an instrumental thing along the lines of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and we decided to keep it instrumental,” says Hall.
Bassist Asa Dakin joined in 1997, and in 2001 the trio released the heavily metal CD, Pragmatics. Since then the band’s approach has evolved. Where much of the early material was structured for a vocalist who never arrived, the newer songs are, Hall says, “built almost like jazz compositions,” with large sections devoted to improvisation. This is a welcomed development since Cranium, possibly the most virtuosic rock band in Reno, consists of a very accomplished group of improvisers. Their impromptu sections are often surprisingly melodic.
Hall describes Cranium’s music as “metal from a jazz perspective.” But this only begins to describe the extent of the band’s eclecticism. Hall’s interests and influences range from 20th century classical music to progressive rock (he has attended three of Robert Fripp’s “Guitar Craft” courses) and avant-garde (he cites John Zorn as a particularly important influence).
“We cover a lot of ground,” says Thomas. “We’ll play a funk song, we’ll play a jazz tune.”
“Some of the riffs I’ve been coming up with lately are derived from Middle Eastern music,” adds Hall.
On the band’s Web site, www.geocities.com/ cranialgalactic, much is made of the disparate backgrounds of the individual members: Hall is a jazz and progressive rock player, Dakin concentrates on funk playing, and Thomas is a metal drummer. But a quick scan of each member’s respective influences quickly reveals where these three found common ground: an early (and, one hopes, abiding) love of Iron Maiden.
But where Iron Maiden could count on Bruce Dickinson’s operatic song-stylings to propel the band to the middle of the charts, singer-less Cranium has had difficulty finding a record label to release their discs.
“We’re too rock for the jazz labels, and we don’t have a singer, so the rock labels won’t have us,” Hall laments.
But Thomas makes an optimistic prediction for their upcoming self-released disc.
“I think we’ll easily sell 200,000 to 300,000 copies of the new record … just in Reno.”
“And we’ll do well in Eastern Europe,” Hall says, in earnest.
And they should do well. Eastern Europe, as some of us imagine it, is full of antisocial intellectuals who live in concrete rooms and compose manifestoes.