Bring it On

On the cover of Angst‘s debut full-length demo, a dour teen-age girl wears a plaid skirt, knee-high socks and a paint-peeling scowl. Her knees lock together, her calves form right angles in opposite directions and her ankles curl toward each other, forming an improbable diamond. She holds an open umbrella over her left shoulder, though there’s no evident rainfall, and no puddles indicate a downpour has just stopped. This none-too-happy subject sits on a merry-go-round surrounded by dull concrete and drought-ravaged grass. It’s an attention-grabbing image, one conjured by the band’s singer, Jeff Kwasnik, who doubles as a graphic artist and designer. It’s also much more original than the music contained within, which bears little resemblance to the band’s supposed blueprint (the “Seattle sound”) in a scenario reminiscent of a recent Onion headline that skewered pseudolocals Puddle of Mudd: “Horrible band obviously not listening to its influences.”

But Puddle of Mudd, critics be damned, turned grunge leftovers and a celebrity connection into multiplatinum success. And Angst, which hails from a musical universe in which all matter disappears into a Metallica-black-album-hole, seems ready to follow the same formula. Here’s how this unassuming trio (singer/songwriter/guitarist Kwasnik, drummer Jake Warren and bassist Jack Houghtman, who replaces the surnamed-for-stardom Doug Glasscock) could take the Alice-chained rock-radio world by storm.

An obsessed Kirsten Dunst enthusiast happens across a mention of Angst’s midpaced grinder “Kirsten Dunst” while surfing for doctored nude photos on the Internet. He tracks down the demo, ignores the distortion-smothered lyrics (which reveal that the tune is less a tribute than the story of a distraught man comparing his actress-wanna-be girlfriend with Dunst), and sends the disc to a Dunst appreciation society. The fan club stirs up some publicity for the track, and a copy even leaks back to Dunst, who, after making a movie with Sisqo and enduring the insecticide of Aerosmith‘s Spider-Man theme, appreciates the sincerity of Angst’s twinkling power-ballad guitar and throaty whining. She mentions the band and the song in an Entertainment Weekly article, sparking interest.

Angst remasters its eight-song album to accommodate increasing demand from the undiscriminating Dunst disciples who also scooped up the crazy/beautiful and Bring It On soundtracks. Kwasnik rejects Fred Durst‘s demand that he fire his bandmates and replace them with in-laws of Korn‘s Jonathan Davis; Glasscock, now an Angst roadie, refuses Blink-182‘s offers to join its entourage. The group sifts through producers’ proposals and takes some sage advice, freeing Kwasnik’s vocals from the distorted haze, pumping up the volume on solos that sounded as if they were literally phoned in and recorded from the receiver, reinforcing its riffs during the choruses by adding a second guitar and listening to its Nirvana records much more carefully for a lesson in effective dynamic changes. They decide on Brendan O’Brien, who polished away the impact from Bruce Springsteen‘s latest disc but worked capably with Angst inspirations Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

At this point, “Kirsten Dunst” and its follow-up single, the ably executed acoustic strummer “My Pain,” have invaded airwaves at nearly every rock station in the nation — the lone holdout being KQRC 98.9, which continues to take a “wait and see” approach to the hometown act. Loyal to the venues that first gave it a chance, Angst plays Niener’s monthly, drawing the largest crowds the club has ever seen. Niener’s, the Bunker and America’s Pub overflow with familiar names playing newly penned tunes as nü-metal acts dump their resident rappers and take remedial courses in melody and songwriting. Older concertgoers start returning to clubs, finding these traditionalist rockers less offensive than the Bizkit breed.

When Angst’s major-label debut arrives, all the songs have been significantly reworked; the riffs now roar where they once hissed harmlessly, Kwasnik’s vocals boom with fresh confidence, creative breaks now appealingly interrupt songs that once used the same progressions for verses and chorus. The only part of the demo left virtually intact is its cover art; same umbrella, same expression.

Different model, though. Dunst now sits on the merry-go-round, using all her cinematic talents to perfectly embody angst with her artfully soured expression.

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