"Everything right now is so fast paced," Pulse Ultra guitarist Dominic Cifarelli, says. "Everything is ultra this, ultra that – ultra soft tissue to wipe your ass, and ultra light cigarettes to give you ultra cancer. Then pulse stands for being human, for life. So Pulse Ultra – it's like life amped up and taken to the next level."
The sound of Velvet Hammer/Atlantic recording group Pulse Ultra's debut album is that of rocks amped up and taken to the next level. "HEADSPACE" is a stirring mix of cerebral and aggressive hard rock, melding complex musical constructions with dramatic melodies and harrowing, introspective lyrics.
Tracks like "Build Your Cages" and "Glass Door" reveals the Montreal-based quartet's multi-faceted sonic approach, with an array of unstoppable hooks, ethereal atmospherics, and ambitious arrangements.
Best friends since childhood, Cifarelli and bassist Jeff Feldman have spent most of their lives playing music together. Their high school band gigged at local parties and the occasional Battle of the Bands, but the band's lineup was in frequent flux, leading to a temporary parting-of-the-ways in 1997. The addition of drummer Maxx Zinno brought a new sense of direction and increased focus.
"It was a very weird time," Dominic says, "but then we got with Maxx, and the first day we jammed, we wrote three songs! It was really immediate."
While Montreal is widely regarded for the diversity of its dance and electronic-based music, it is not exactly known as a hotbed of dark and mysterious rock 'n' roll. Cifarelli, Feldman, and Zinno envisioned a band that could not be imprisoned by confinement of the city's trip-hoppin' club scene.
"Raves are huge," Cifarelli says. "There's not much room for a rock band, and the ones that are here don't usually stick together."
The band rehearsed and wrote with a fervor, going so far as to cut a few demos, but something was still missing. The missing piece of the puzzle fell into place at a 1999 Halloween party attended by the band members as well as a local singer by the name of Zo Vizza.
"Some kid put our CD on," Cifarelli recalls, "and Zo starts singing along. I'm listening to this kid's voice and I totally freaked out. The next day I called him and said, 'Let's write some songs.'" "I was about to join this French band," Vizza says, "which was like my last resort. Then Dominic called and it all started up from there."
Cifarelli and Vizza clicked immediately, penning a number of gripping, acoustic-driven songs, blending the power of Dominic's prog metal influences with Zo's evocative Doors-inspired melodies.
"We just kind of shed all the crap," the guitarist says. "We thought, 'Let's make the heavy stuff heavier and the light stuff lighter.' We want to push all the boundaries, without forgetting that it's all about the song." In the summer of 2000, the guitarist made a connection that led to the band finally getting out of the garage and into the studio. A big fan of Velvet Hammer/Atlantic recording group Taproot, Cifarelli decided to visit the band's tour bus when the Michigan-based band came to Montreal for a show.
"Taproot is very special to us," Dominic says. "So when they came to Montreal, I went over to where they were playing with a six-pack of beer and I just fuckin' knocked on the bus. (Guitarist) Mike (DeWolf) came out and I said, 'I bought you some beer, man. Congratulations on your fuckin' success and shit,' and he said 'Come on in.' I just chilled out with him and the rest of the band for a couple hours and they were fuckin' totally cool." Cifarelli passed over a CD of the latest Headspace demos, and a blown-away DeWolf handed back his manager's phone number.
"I thought, 'I'm not going to call. I don't want to ruin how special the day was,'" Dominic says. "The next day, which was my birthday, the manager e-mailed me! So I called him, we started talking, and the rest is history." Taking on the new moniker of Pulse Ultra, the band inked a deal with Velvet Hammer Management and soon found them signed to Atlantic Records. In July of 2001, Pulse Ultra left the chilly climes of Canada for sunny Los Angeles in order to work with producer Neal Avron (Everclear, Seven Mary Three).
"Neal had never done anything really heavy before," Cifarelli says, "but he was totally excited about us. When we finally met him, we loved his vibe. He was totally amazing – an amazing ear, an amazing engineer, an amazing producer, just a musical genius all around."
The sessions proved to be the most wrenching emotional experience of the band members' lives. As if recording their major label debut wasn't stressful enough, Zinno was diagnosed with an extreme hernia early into the process. Worse, Vizza's father passed away one month into the recording, sending Zo into a spiral of anxiety attacks. Pulse Ultra ultimately spent six long months in Los Angeles, but unlike many bands in a similar situation, they didn't take advantage of the many opportunities the city offers to musicians.
"We never really went out," Cifarelli says. "We were like, 'Let's work hard now, and then we'll fuckin' go crazy.' So we hid out in our rehearsal spot six days a week, practicing, and having anxiety attacks."
The resulting album – dubbed "HEADSPACE" – is fraught with the raw emotions and difficult circumstances that fuelled the recording sessions. Psychologically visceral songs like "Build Your Cages" and "Finding My Place" express Zo's refusal to sacrifice his dreams, even as the pressures built up within and without.
"I'm not a great believer in heaven and hell," he explains. "I believe you should make your heaven on earth. And a lot of people aren't doing that. They're living their lives through other people's expectations, so it's a struggle to do what you want to do. Like the fact that like I was good in school, people always kept on telling me not to sacrifice something good for music. Well, I just think you should just do what you love, period."
With their extraordinary debut about to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, the band are excited to take their explosive live set to the fans, starting in the summer of 2002 with a prestigious slot on the annual Ozzfest. "From the lowest lows you get the highest highs," muses Vizza.
For Pulse Ultra, things are about to get even higher...
* Zo Vizza (Vocals)
* Dominic Cifarelli (Guitar)
* Jeff Feldman (Bass)
* Maxx Zinno (Drums)