Metal Works: Tribunal Records brings hardcore rock to the Triad

by Amy Kingsley

Matt Rudzinski has covered about three quarters of the distance between the Flying Anvil’s front door and its loading dock at a near jog when – abruptly – he stops. Doors will be opening in a few minutes and almost everything is in place. Blake Faucette and his crew of filmmakers have set up a couple video cameras near the sound board; the bartenders run towels over the chrome bar and musicians hunker with their bandmates over café tables.

Still, a few last-minute items need to be taken care of, and Rudzinski is the man charged with minding the details. He’s surveying and arranging lighting over the merchandise table and taking a quick head count of vegetarians for the Papa John’s pizza order. All of a sudden he’s needed on the loading dock, where members of one of the seven bands on tonight’s bill are assembling amps and drum kits. Rudzinski is almost out the door when the Apparati launch into a full-band sound check. He stops for a moment to listen, placing his hands into the pockets of his shorts and nodding his head.

The Pennsylvania quintet burns through a thundering hardcore tune. The amphetamine pulse of double bass drum tears though two sets of cinderblock walls, teasing the ears of some 150 fans stacked from the front door to the parking lot gate. Rudzinski pauses for barely 30 seconds then is on his way once more.

Tonight’s show is, after all, a showcase for his record label Tribunal. It’s also a homecoming of sorts for the band at the top of the bill, KillWhitneyDead, one of Tribunal Record’s most popular and successful bands; one that recorded and released three albums under a cloud of secrecy. Last year Rudzinski unveiled the band as his own brainchild. Many of the black clad kids queuing up in the dusty lot have come primarily to see Rudzinski’s band play tonight. The fans are eager – some have been waiting outside for more than two-and-a-half hours – and their pockets jingle with spending money for T-shirts, track jackets and CDs.

The moment of their entrance to the Tribunal Records showcase is drawing nigh. Just a few short minutes stand between the crowd and six hours of metal and hardcore music. Everything is set except for one thing.

Matt Rudzinski’s merchandise guy is nowhere to be found.

Tribunal Records started more than three years before the band KillWhitneyDead formed. It began as a notion planted in Rudzinski’s mind by a couple of his schoolmates at Brandywine High School in Wilmington, Del. One of the other students there had started a label called Hi-Impact that later turned into the marquee emo label Jade Tree Records. Another friend released a seven-inch single by the band Clutch in the early 1990s under the name Inner Journey.

“It was always something I had in mind,” he said. “But it took me eight years to get around to doing it.”

In the meantime Rudzinski relocated to Greensboro to study at Guilford College. During his undergraduate years he did a radio show at WQFS-FM, Guilford’s student-run station, and picked up a part-time job at BB’s New & Used CDs/DVDs, an independent record store located across the street from campus.

The label moved from concept to reality in 1998, a short time after Rudzinski first saw a band called Prayer for Cleansing play at Triple B’s, a dingy little bar in High Point.

“Their songwriting and their performance were almost flawless,” Rudzinski said. “One of the guys even played with a cast on his arm.”

He approached the band shortly thereafter about doing a record together. They agreed, and Rudzinski started raising money from his family and friends to press the album. Rudzinski wasn’t the only one involved in the label at the time. Kelly Davis – currently of Red Strings Records – and another friend helped out at the beginning but later parted ways with the record company.

“The first album was interesting because we went over budget,” he said. “I had to borrow money from my little brother.”

Fortunately, the units moved briskly. Rudzinski sold out of the first pressing, and then Prayer for Cleansing broke up. Some of the members later joined Between the Buried and Me, a Raleigh-based band widely considered to be among the vanguard of thinking man’s metal. Between the Buried and Me now records for Victory Records, one of the most successful labels for this type of aggressive music.

Rudzinski, in his capacity as head of Tribunal Records, has been something of a metal/hardcore kingmaker ever since. Several of the bands singed to Tribunal have moved on to larger labels and bigger things. Atreyu, a band whose first release Rudzinski snatched from underneath Victory Records, has made appearances on the Billboard charts, Fuse and MTV. Plenty of other Tribunal alumni have made the jump as well including He is Legend, now a Victory Records band and one worth keeping an eye on.

Rudzinski has released 77 albums at a pace of about 10 to 12 a year. He’s signed bands from as far away as Italy and Germany, fueling his business with the money he makes still working at BB’s.

Although he’s made a name for himself in the metal/hardcore scene both as the head of Tribunal and KillWhitneyDead, Rudzinski cuts an unassuming figure offstage. With his conservative haircut, wire rim glasses and easy smile he looks more like a graduate student than an impresario of all things musically wicked. Rudzinski’s genial appearance is matched by an equally friendly demeanor.

But underneath is an almost uncanny knack for determining which bands will make it.

“Matt definitely has a good ear for finding bands really early in their career,” said Blake Faucette of Series DVD.

Faucette has traveled around the country shooting and editing video footage of metal and hardcore bands. He is the house videographer for Tribunal Records and KillWhitneyDead.

“I gotta give it to Matt and Tribunal,” said Jerry Ginn, the father of drummer Hunter Ginn from former Tribunal band Canvas Solaris. “He gave Canvas a fair deal, gave them an opportunity and allowed them to move on to a bigger label.”

Canvas Solaris was not one of Tribunal’s cash cows. Their hyper-cerebral metal appeals to a small audience comprised heavily of musicians and serious aficionados.

“I don’t do this for a living,” Rudzinski said. “The most important thing is that I like the bands. With that band, I didn’t care what it sold. I’m just proud to have that on my record label.”

Rudzinski has had his misunderstandings with bands, most notably his first signee Prayer for Cleansing. But the small frustrations of running Tribunal were dwarfed on Labor Day weekend 2005 when a fire destroyed Rudzinski’s home and office along with several other units at the Random Woods apartment complex.

Rudzinski was working on label business at around 2 a.m. when he smelled smoke. He and the other residents escaped unharmed, but the blaze ruined between 600 and 700 CDs, leaving them melted and singed. When he returned, he discovered many of his belongings had sustained fire and water damage.

“Miraculously my hard drive survived,” Matt said. “When I picked it up, it was just like a movie. Water just gushed out of it.”

Although he salvaged the information from his hard drive, Rudzinski had to rebuild. He planned a Tribunal Records fundraiser at Greene Street and named as the headlining band a group that, without ever playing live, had amassed a sizable following: KillWhitneyDead.

Rudzinski gets asked about the name a lot, and he maintains that it’s a reference to the phrase “KillWhiteyDead.”

“Whitney is a real person, and yes, she broke my heart,” he says and refers to an interview on the band’s DVD. Whitney is also on KillWhitneyDead’s MySpace profile. She is one of their top eight friends.

For a long time, the origin of the name was only the beginning of the mystery surrounding KillWhitneyDead. Rudzinski formed the group in 2001 because he wanted to sing for a hardcore band, something he had done off and on during college. But he didn’t want fans to write the band off as a vanity project. So, Rudzinski assembled a group, created a fictitious backstory and closely concealed their identities.

KillWhitneyDead released their first album in 2002, a brutal mix of grindcore cut with memorable bits of film dialogue. When Rudzinski traveled the next year to Hellfest, a now-defunct annual gathering for metal and hardcore fans, he was surprised to have so many fans ask about the band. They approached him as the head of Tribunal, with no idea that he also sang for KillWhitneyDead.

Instead of touring, Rudzinski, backed by a rotating cast of musicians, released two full-length records in quick succession. The band became Tribunal Records’ premier franchise.

After KillWhitneyDead’s live debut at Greene Street, Rudzinski started working on booking a tour. His studio musicians balked at going out on the road for several weeks so Rudzinski recruited another Tribunal band, the Demonstration, to back him up.

By the time KillWhitneyDead takes the stage at the Flying Anvil, Rudzinski has changed from shorts to bluejeans to hide the brace on his right ankle. He rolled it in an onstage collision with KillWhitneyDead’s other vocalist while they were on tour in New Orleans.

“It hasn’t healed yet because I won’t keep off of it like the doctor tells me to,” he says.

His band showed up hours before the band’s 11:55 p.m. scheduled start time. Besides the change of pants, Rudzinski has shed his glasses – a Clark Kent-esque transition into alter ego. He’s pogoing onstage, on that injured ankle, in front of a crowd of diehard fans.

When the music starts the mass of audience members morphs into a doughnut. The inner ring is reserved for hardcore dancers. They dance steps like the high kick, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the windmill, a move that only looks like its namesake if one were caught in a tornado. The dancing isn’t predicated on rhythm so much as dynamic. When KillWhitneyDead hits a breakdown, the dancers go wild.

The onstage Rudzinski – his band character has the simple moniker M – is much more aggressive than his offstage counterpart. He lectures the audience for their intolerance of the more experimental bands like the proggy Canvas Solaris and fantasy metal Dreamscapes of the Perverse. Then he exhorts them to tear up a club in Charlotte that’s trying to screw his band over.

Metal and hardcore are umbrella terms for a variety of music put out by Tribunal and other labels. Rudzinski wore a Journey T-shirt to a meeting at College Hill and listed Rainbow and Rush as other early influences.

“A lot of the super extreme stuff was too extreme for me at first,” Rudzinski said.

During high school he fell in with the hardcore scene, which had a closeness he enjoyed. Rudzinski clearly learned to appreciate the extreme stuff before he started his record label and latest band. KillWhitneyDead’s influences hail from the grindcore and death metal musical traditions, following in the footsteps of such bands as Carcass, Napalm Death and Morbid Angel.

Once the stage lights blink off Rudzinski is left to tie up the loose ends. He collects the payout and puts away the merchandise.

After the fire, Rudzinski developed a new logo for his label: A phoenix rising from the ashes. Rudzinski’s been pondering what the next move is for his label, which until now has been a well-regarded launching pad for bands with the goods to make it big.

“I kind of give homes to bands,” he says. “There are plenty of good bands out there without homes.”

Rudzinski, alongside Ryan McInturff and Mollie Romine, who help out at the label, has been running the business on his own terms for the past couple years. And he’s been successful, or at least breaking even often enough to keep it going. Now he’s thinking about spending more time with the label, trying to get better distribution and maybe even vie to become a subsidiary of a major.

It’s been almost a year since the fire, and Rudzinski still lives in the same apartment complex.

“I could have folded up the label,” he says. “But it’s alright. Whatever, you kind of just get back on your feet, back online and meeting deadlines.”

Before the fire KillWhitneyDead was a studio project, and even started as something of a joke, Rudzinski said.

“It was really the fire that got me to get the band to play live,” he says. “Then we got show offers for here and there.”

They played Greene Street after two practices and almost a year later have seven weeks of touring under their collective belt. Now some of the labels that have poached Tribunal’s bigger bands in the past are making offers to KillWhitneyDead, Rudzinksi says. On Rudzinski’s left leg, tattooed flames rise from his ankle to his knee. The ink predates his apartment fire.

“I just like fire and I guess it came back to get me,” he says.

Maybe it did. Or maybe not. Rudzinski packs what’s left of the KillWhitneyDead merchandise and leaves.

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