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Flotsam and Jetsam

Flotsam and Jetsam

Heavy metal group

The Phoenix, Arizona, metal band Flotsam and Jetsam has lasted more than two decades in a field where careers are often short, especially in the underground subgenres known as thrash and speed metal in which Flotsam and Jetsam have worked. After emerging on the metal scene with their Doomsday for the Deceiver album in 1986, the band went through several changes of personnel and musical direction. Those changes might have kept Flotsam and Jetsam out of the rock mainstream, but they were also partly responsible for the band's longevity: new blood and new musical ideas helped Flotsam and Jetsam remain relevant in a world where many bands essentially had one thing to say and were finished career-wise after saying it.

Flotsam and Jetsam came together in 1983 in Phoenix when its original members—vocalist Eric A.K. (Eric Knutson), guitarist Ed Carlson, bass guitarist Jason Newsted, and drummer Kelly David Smith—joined forces after playing with a variety of local outfits. Several members of the group had already had years of music-making under their belts. Carlson was a former high school baseball player who turned to the guitar after suffering a back injury, while Eric A.K. had been singing since the age of five. The band expanded to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Mike Gilbert in 1985, and from the start Carlson and Gilbert were capable of twin-guitar work above the norm. With Megadeth, Metallica, and others in the first generation of thrash and speed metal bands holding their own against groups with more mainstream rock influences, Flotsam and Jetsam made a splash with tracks that appeared on the Speed Metal Hell II and Metal Massacre IV compilation albums.

Signed to the small Metal Blade label, Flotsam and Jetsam released Doomsday for the Deceiver as its full-length debut. The band's sound was punchy and technically accomplished, and the credits on the album's packaging listed thank-you's to Metallica, public television cartoon Muppet Kermit the Frog, and nineteenth-century violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. The Los Angeles Times, reviewing a 1987 Flotsam and Jetsam concert, declared that the band performed "both brain-rattling and brainy speed metal … with blast-furnace intensity, but the immense power was often balanced with surprising precision—not to mention multiple time changes."

Flotsam and Jetsam were off to a strong start, but Jason Newsted, who had written most of the songs on Doomsday for the Deceiver, departed to join Metallica after the death of that group's previous bassist, Cliff Burton, in a bus accident. Some fans felt the band wouldn't survive the change, but Flotsam and Jetsam replaced Newsted with Troy Gregory and confounded expectations after signing with the major label Elektra and releasing No Place for Disgrace in 1988. The band made a bid for radio airplay with a speed metal cover of Elton John's "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," but it went nowhere. Still, fans regarded the album as a classic in the band's catalog.

After No Place for Disgrace failed to live up to predictions, Flotsam and Jetsam was dropped by Elektra. They signed with MCA in 1990 and released When the Storm Comes Down. That became the first of three albums Flotsam and Jetsam recorded for MCA. For Cuatro (1992), Gregory was replaced by Jason Ward, a former drum-and-bugle-corps musician, and the band broadened its sound under the direction of veteran producer Neil Kernon. Experiments with studio electronics went hand-in-hand with a wider spectrum of lyrics in Flotsam and Jetsam's original songs.

The growth in the group's musical language reached a pinnacle with Drift, released by MCA in 1995. That album featured such novelties as Spanish guitars and Middle Eastern-inspired melodies, matched by a new songwriting seriousness in such cautionary tales as "12 Year Old with a Gun" and "Destructive Signs." Jason Ward added keyboards to his bass guitar duties. "Smoked Out" included a passage in which Eric A.K. read a notice of termination of service from a telephone directory. Although Drift would be hailed as one of Flotsam and Jetsam's best releases by fans and led to a tour with metal giants Megadeth and Korn, it failed to sell as well as its two predecessors had, and led to the group's departure from MCA.

Flotsam and Jetsam returned to their original home of Metal Blade Records and in large part to their original hard-rocking style for High (1997). Michael Gilbert and Kelly David Smith left the band, and were replaced by Phoenix guitarist Mark T. Simpson and drummer Craig Nielsen. Nielsen, a Connecticut-to-Los Angeles transplant, declared in a Metal Update interview quoted on the band's website that "metal generally has the best, most energetic drummers in any style of music, unless you're going to play like fusion, you know, or some of those complicated schooled grooves." Flotsam and Jetsam remained with Metal Blade for 1999's Unnatural Selection and My God (2001).

My God was praised by All Music Guide for its "consistently punishing metal assault" and for "fine musicianship with the guitar duo of Carlson and Simpson laying down some exceptionally heavy riffs and tight harmony solos." But by late in 2001, Flotsam and Jetsam finally seemed to have reached the end of the line. The slowdown that hit the music business in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, severely dented even Flotsam and Jetsam's faithful fan base, and the band endured a series of poorly attended shows. Even before the September 11 calamity, Eric A.K. had announced plans to leave the band. A statement he posted on the band's website provided testimony for the status of metal as a music made more for love than for money. Referring to his nearly 20-year tenure with the band, he wrote: "I have spent 9 or 10 months out of each of those 19 years digging ditches, setting tile, hooking up cable, plumbing, bartending, working at Taco Bell, and whatever it takes to stay alive because this industry, that I'm told is so great, has failed me and it has failed my brothers."

Love won out over lack of money, however. Among the ultimate survivors of the metal genre by this time, Flotsam and Jetsam soldiered on with James Rivera temporarily singing lead vocals. During 2002 and 2003 they were active only sporadically, but Eric A.K. rejoined them for dates in the Phoenix and Los Angeles areas in July of 2003. One of those shows was recorded as a live concert DVD and released by the Ultrasound studio in 2004 under the title Live in Phoenix. A revivified Flotsam and Jetsam, including Eric A.K., hit the road in 2004 with a series of concerts in Japan that sold out venues with capacities of over 1,000. Signed to the Crash Music label (formerly named Cleopatra) in May of 2004, the band returned to the studio to work on a new album. Tentatively entitled Dreams of Death, it was slated for release in 2005.

Selected discography

Doomsday for the Deceiver, Metal Blade, 1986.

No Place for Disgrace, Elektra, 1988.

When the Storm Comes Down, MCA, 1990.

Cuatro, MCA, 1992.

Drift, MCA, 1995.

High, Metal Blade, 1997.

Unnatural Selection, Metal Blade, 1999.

My God, Metal Blade, 2001.

Live in Phoenix (DVD), Ultrasound, 2003.

Dreams of Death (tentative title), Crash Music, 2005.

For the Record …

Members include Edward Carlson , guitar; Michael Gilbert (left group, 1997), guitar; Troy Gregory , (replaced Newsted, 1987; left group, 1991), bass guitar; Eric Knutson (Eric A.K.), lead vocals; Jason Newsted , (left group, 1986), bass guitar; Craig Nielsen (replaced Smith, 1997), drums; James Rivera (temporarily replaced Knutson, 2001), lead vocals; Mark T. Simpson (replaced Gilbert, 1997), guitar; Kelly David Smith (left group, 1997), drums; Jason Ward (replaced Gregory, 1991), bass guitar.

Formed in 1983 in Phoenix, AZ; signed to Metal Blade label; released Doomsday for the Deceiver, 1986; signed to Elektra label; released No Place for Disgrace, 1988; signed to MCA label; released When the Storm Comes Down, 1990; released Cuatro, 1992; High, 1995; returned to Metal Blade label and released three albums; took hiatus in career, late 2001-early 2003; returned to performing, 2003; released Live in Phoenix DVD, 2004; signed to Crash Music label; released Dreams of Death (tentative title), 2005.

Addresses: Record company—Crash Music, Inc., Ste. 70B-3, 4025 E. Chandler Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85048. Website—Flotsam and Jetsam Official Website: http://www.flotsam-and-jetsam.com.

Sources

Books

Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd ed., Muze UK, 1998.

Periodicals

Buffalo News, April 28, 1993, p. Entertainment-10.

Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1987, p. 5.

Online

"Flotsam and Jetsam," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 22, 2005).

"Flotsam and Jetsam," BNR Metal Pages, http://www.bnrmetal.com/groups/flje.html (March 22, 2005).

Flotsam and Jetsam Official Website, http://www.flotsamand-jetsam.com (March 22, 2005).

JamesM.Manheim

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