Znowhite

August 15th, 2007
by Rick

Znowhite

 

There are quite literally thousands of bands out there toiling every day, fighting for their survival in the vast jungle we call the music business armed only with determination and armored only with blood, sweat, and beers, every one of them hoping for that one big break that will enable them to make a name for themselves and join the ranks of the elite groups we mention today with reverance.  Most never make it.  A very, very few rise to prominence and somehow remain there while never selling themselves out – usually because of a unique combination of exceptional talent and good luck.  Some “succeed” by selling their integrity to the rapacious, soulless machine that is the music industry of today, where style and hype dominates substance and skill.  Some become “one hit wonders,” the “next big thing” one day and fading away into obscurity the next…often times continuing on as shadows of their former selves, living on the remnants and memories of glory days gone by.  And some seem to just be on the edge of grabbing the brass ring but for one reason or another coming up short, yet they continue to soldier on in one way or another, adapting to survive as necessary.  This is a story of one of the latter bands, the decidedly non-fairy tale of a group called Znowhite.

 

Once upon a time (1981, specifically) in the city of Chicago, Illinois, two brothers named Greg and Tony decided to form a heavy metal band with their cousin Curtis.  Two decisions were made in short order regarding names associated with the group.  All three members adopted stage identities with the same family name – bassist Curtis became “Nicky TaFoya,” drummer Tony became “Sparks TaFoya,” and guitarist/songwriter Greg became “Ian TaFoya.”  Then they decided upon an unusual moniker for the band itself: “Snowhite.”  Not only was the name unusual for a heavy metal band, it was also ironic, for none of the original three members of the group were, in fact, white.  While Ohio natives Black Death had them beaten by several years for the title of “first African-American metal band,” the group’s racial makeup certainly made them an oddity on the metal scene – and it was about to become even more unusual.

The music they wrote was solid, straight-ahead NOWBHM-inspired speed metal, but they found themselves lacking a charismatic vocalist until it was discovered that their manager, Greg’s school classmate Nicole Lee, could sing.  Nicole joined the band as vocalist, giving them the dual notability factors of a multi-ethnic makeup and a female vocalist.  Unusual band membership is no substitue for talent, of course, but fortunately they weren’t lacking in that department.  The group recorded a four-track demo and released it themselves, played local clubs and bars, and did what they could to survive until the demo found its way into the hands of Metal Blade Records owner/founder Brian Slagel.  Intrigued by the band’s sound, Brian invited them to appear on one of the now-legendary METAL MASSACRE compilations – collections which gave a moment in the spotlight for unsigned, underground metal bands.  Snowhite’s song “Hellbent” appeared on Volume 3 in 1983 alongside cuts from such notables as Warlord, Tyrant, Virgin Steele, and a little band you might’ve heard of before called Slayer.

Smartly recognizing this inclusion as a possible springboard to an album deal, Snowhite recorded a second five-song demo to ship to various record labels and successfully landed a deal with Enigma later in 1983.  Shortly after the deal was signed, the band changed their name to “Znöwhite,” quickly recorded a three-song red 7-inch flexi-disc, and released it as a promotional single.  With the buzz generated from the single amongst the fan community as fuel, the group entered Music America Studios in New York to begin work on their first full album.  Curtis left the band before the recording was underway, leaving Greg to record the bass parts as well.  Seven of the songs recorded during those sessions became the band’s debut, ALL HAIL TO THEE.  Though the release was fairly standard speed metal, the style was popular in the metal underground and could have easily led to more success for the group had it been properly marketed.  Enigma, unfortunately, though they released the album in 1984, did very little to promote the group or the music.  The release was enough to promote the band’s continued touring schedule – with newcomer Amp Dawg filling in on bass duties for the live shows – but little more.  While beginning to shop around for a more supportive label to work with, in May of 1984 Znöwhite recorded three more songs at Pierce Arrow Studios in Chicago and in 1985 released them along with two leftover tracks from the Music America sessions as the KICK ‘EM WHEN THEY’RE DOWN EP.  Once again, Enigma didn’t really seem interested in promoting the music, and the group was left to find other potential avenues to the future. 

They found one in California’s Erika Records in early 1985 and in December of that year recorded a live EP in Cleveland, Ohio entitled LIVE SUICIDE.  Though the recording quality of the live songs was mediocre at best, three important developments can be tied to the EP.  First, the umlaut in the name was dropped, rendering the band moniker simply “Znowhite.”  Secondly, the live show includes an introduction of the band, including new bassist Scott Schafer, who would go on to be associated with the group for many years to come.  And thirdly, one of the songs featured was new track “Rest In Peace,” which featured a more serious turn in the lyrics and a more thrash-oriented direction than prior releases had possessed – a sign of what was to come.  With the live EP released and all indications showing the deal with Erika was not likely to lead to any widespread success, Znowhite recorded a new demo to shop to other labels in 1986.

Longtime members Tony and Nicole, both tired of the constant touring and the scene in general, left in 1986.  As usual, Greg found a way to soldier on, hiring on new vocalist Sue Sharp and former Funeral Bitch guitarist Alex Olvera, who took over on bass while multi-talented Schafer switched to the drumkit to replace Tony.  The lineup didn’t last long, however, and by 1987, Sue was out of the group and Nicole returned to the microphone just as word came down that the 1986 demo had caught the attention of Roadrunner Records’ American division, Roadracer.  Jumping at the chance to get on a major label that actually seemed to give a damn about metal, Znowhite signed on to Roadracer and began work on what was to become the group’s high point.

Recorded at Chicago Trax studio, 1988’s full-length album ACT OF GOD appeared to be just that – a cosmic alignment of forces that stands as not only the band’s best work, but as one of the finest thrash albums ever recorded.  Featuring superb production, monstrously heavy neck-snapping riffs, issue-oriented lyrical concepts, blazing guitar leads, and Nicole Lee’s venom-spitting vocals, it stands alone as a shining jewel in the crown of the group’s career and reason enough to elevate Znowhite to cult-hero status amongst the metal faithful.  A no-frills tour all across America ensued (Greg has been quoted as saying they toured from the back of a Ryder truck, living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) and all seemed to be looking up for the band.

Unfortunately, as usually happens at the top of a rollercoaster, a plunge was due to hit shortly thereafter.  For reasons often debated – some say ‘musical differences,’ some say she was losing interest in metal altogether – Nicole left the band again, leaving the band without a vocalist.  A replacement was found in former Sentinel Beast vocalist Debbie Gunn, who filled in for the tour and continued on with the group into 1989.  Alex Olvera also left the band, which proved to be less of a problem as Scott Schafer agreeably switched back to bass, preferring the four-string over the drumkit in any case.  A replacement drummer was found in former Tools Of Ignorance skinsman John Slattery.

During the tour, Roadracer / Roadrunner went through a major shakeup in personnel, resulting in everyone associated with the signing of Znowhite leaving the label for one reason or another.  The late 80’s and early 90’s saw the focus of Roadrunner shifting to promote the first wave of Floridian death metal, and without their original supporters, Znowhite was simply left out of the picture and their label deal was lost.  Worse, despite a valiant attempt, Debbie proved unable to match the intensity of Nicole’s vocals and left the group in 1989 to join Swedish all-girl thrash group Ice Age (no relation to the prog-metal band of the same name).  As Greg’s only other choice for a replacement vocalist – the late great Dawn Crosby – was firmly involved with Détente at the time, the decision was made the group could no longer continue the way they were.

As “Znowhite” had long been associated with having a female vocalist, the remaining members determined a name change was in order to give themselves a fresh start.  Recruiting fellow Chicago-native Hammeron’s vocalist Brian Troch to complete the lineup with Greg, Scott, and John, the group renamed themselves “Cyclone Temple.”  Likewise, as the stage name “TaFoya” had been associated with the original Znowhite lineup, “Ian TaFoya” began using his real name – Greg Fulton.  It was a particularly lean time for the group, for while the new material Greg was writing was superb thrash, there was hardly any recognition of the band and they found themselves playing tiny clubs all over New York, struggling to make ends meet as best they could.

 

It was a local-act reviewer from the New York Post who turned things around again with a concert review that, in a very few words, recommended the group as an act which shouldn’t be missed.  Shows began to gain in popularity, and agents and label representatives began to trickle into the audiences.  Eventually, Relativity Records stepped up with an offer for the band to join the Combat sub-label.  While the deal may not have been as lucrative as it possibly could have been, after years of living off Chef Boyardee, the band was willing to jump at any chance that looked even reasonably promising.  The deal with Relativity led to recording sessions at Normandy Sound in Rhode Island which became Cyclone Temple’s 1991 debut album, I HATE THEREFORE I AM.

While not possessing the raw fury factor ACT OF GOD had incorporated, I HATE… was another fantastic piece of crunchy, powerful thrash metal with superb vocals from Troch and a bit more of a melodic, progressive leaning.  Suddenly the rollercoaster was climbing again – the name Cyclone Temple was running rapidly through the metal scene and the band actually managed to record an MTV video (for the cut “Words Are Just Words.”)  Once again, things looked promising…and once again, the rug was pulled out from under their feet.

Sony Music (yes, that’s right – Sony, the wonderful folks who brought us rootkit software installations on audio CD’s) bought out Relativity Records in the early 90’s and shortly thereafter shut down the Combat label, kicking all of the acts still on the brand – including Cyclone Temple – to the curb.  Worse yet, the early 90’s saw the popularity explosion of Nirvana (my sincerest apologies for having to mention that name) and the “grunge” scene.  Popular opinion, fickle beast that it is, declared metal…especially thrash metal…”dead,” partly due to the growing wave of grunge and partly due to the backlash against the glut of mediocre sound-alike thrash bands who had infested the mid-to-late 80’s.  Cyclone Temple was caught in the wave of negative opinion towards the style, and faltered as a result.

The group fought on as best they could, touring whenever and with whoever possible.  Troch left in 1992, replaced by the more aggressive-sounding Marco Salinas, and the band managed to sign a deal with Polydisc / Progressive International, which led to the Medical Records Studio recording and release of the six-song 1993 EP BUILDING ERRORS IN THE MACHINE.  The EP, though consisting of five well-written thrashy numbers…and a pointed stab at their former label of a bonus track entitled “The Law Of Relativity” which blended thrash riffs with rap-style verse vocals…was not as well produced as its predecessor and never saw widespread distribution or support.  Before long, the group was on the hunt for another label amidst their continual touring.

Monsterdisc picked them up in late 1993 and the band recorded a full-length 1994 album at Jay’s Garage Studio in Chicago entitled MY FRIEND LONELY.  This album featured three new tracks and re-recorded versions of five of the six songs from the “Building Errors” EP (Greg explained in the liner notes the difficulty in obtaining the already out-of-print BUILDING ERRORS EP was the reason for the re-recordings.  The original version of “The Law Of Relativity” was also included as a “hidden track”) with yet another new vocalist, the significantly more soulful-sounding Sonny DeLuca.  The new songs showed growth in their style, for they incorporated more experimental forays – a hint of groove here and there, a touch of reggae, a smattering of hip-hop, all wrapped in tasty thrash riffs.  Yet again, there was little label support, and it wasn’t long before the band had finally had enough, realizing they could go no further.  Cyclone Temple split up for good in 1994.

Some of the two groups’ music has resurfaced in re-releases, though even those may be difficult to find nowadays.  French label Axe Killer released a limited-edition CD with both ALL HAIL TO THEE and KICK ‘EM WHEN THEY’RE DOWN in 1998.  Metal giants Century Media acquired the rights to and re-published I HATE THEREFORE I AM in 1999.  And Polish label Metal Mind records released a limited-edition remaster of ACT OF GOD in 2006.

The story didn’t end there, for music stays in the blood.  It wasn’t too long before Greg got back in touch with Scott and decided to try to start over with a new band and a new concept.  In 1995, the two longtime bandmates brought on board former Cyclone Temple guitar tech and former Slick member Mark Alano as a second guitarist, then completed the lineup with the return of Greg’s younger brother (now going by his real name of Tony Heath instead of “Sparks TaFoya”) on drums and named the new outfit “Rebels Without Applause.”

Unlike the previous bands, RWA is not a thrash act, instead playing a more groove-oriented style of heavy power metal infused with strong doses of blues, funk, reggae, and smatterings of hip-hop and rap.  Greg’s guitars are as sharp as ever, and he’s added a new weapon to his repetoire, for he’s now handling vocals as well.  Possessed of a deep, soul-laden voice that speaks of years of experience on the road, he’s proved to be an excellent frontman for the group.  For over a decade, the band has remained mostly underground, building a strong local following in and around their midwestern home state and always gaining new inspiration and insight from the various acts they’ve played alongside over the years – ranging from Shadows Fall, Fates Warning, and Lacuna Coil to Vanilla Ice and Bad Brains.  Their production of recorded material has been relatively slow, for they’ve only released (on their own label Rhythm & Dues) a 1997 EP (RIP-HOP SOULCORE CRUSH…a name which describes their sound pretty darn well!) and one full-length in 2003 (LOW END HEAD STOMP) but both releases are packed with killer material and are definitely worth a listen for those open-minded enough to appreciate the variety of styles they deliver.  Bassist Scott Schafer left the group shortly after the release of the latter disc and the band has gone through several bassists since then, the latest (as of November 2006) being Kirk Behrendt.  A second full-length album, tentatively titled GRAND FUNK HELL-HOLE is in the writing stages as of this publication.

I personally strongly encourage anyone who’s interested in hearing some soul-packed, brutally honest metal with a down-to-earth lyrical attitude to check out Rebels Without Applause at their home page:

http://www.rebelswithoutapplause.net

or their myspace site:

http://www.myspace.com/rwachicago

And the rest of the members of Znowhite and Cyclone Temple?

The whereabouts of “Amp Dawg,” Nicole Lee, Sue Sharp, Alex Olvera, and Marco Salinas are unknown.  None of them seem to have appeared again in the music industry.

Debbie Gunn was in Ice Age from 1989-1990, then went on to the Exhorder/Pantera-inspired Brutal Groove until that act’s split-up in 1992.  She has not been heard from since.

Sonny DeLuca was briefly involved with nu-metal band Soil and is currently apparently working with ex-From Zero guitarist Joe Pettinato and ex-Lupara drummer Fred Braun on a new project.

Brian Troch served a frontman for shredmaster Joe Stump’s “Shooting Hemlock” progressive project in 1997 and also performed vocals on Stump’s Reign Of Terror project’s SECOND COMING album in 1999.  He has not resurfaced since.

If anyone has any further information regarding the whereabouts or status of any of these former members, feel free to contact me at mortuai.MR@gmail.com

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