Right up there with Bolshoi ballerinas and NBA shooting guards, great rock-and-roll drummers are among the most glorious creatures in our midst. Using the entirety of their bodies to generate rhythm, these beautiful maniacs inhabit a world equally governed by physics and metaphysics, where they heroically blur violence and finesse.
Good drummers aren’t uncommon. Great ones are. We still mourn Keith Moon of the Who and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin as the jolly bashers of modernity. Here comes the future, they seemed to be telling us with their sensational ka-blammo. Together, they popularized the notion that, in rock-and-roll, a drummer’s unsolemn duty is to establish a sense of time while happily smashing it to bits.
Greg Fox reactivates that idea for the Information Age. He drums for the New York metal band Liturgy, and when he’s behind the kit, his playing feels so abundant you might wonder whether you’re really hearing it all. He’s always knocking out a rhythmic pattern, but his astonishing speed and formidable power perpetually threatens to vaporize it. For listeners, drinking from this fire hose becomes its own special kind of ecstasy.
No surprise then, that Fox thinks about drumming as both an athletic and spiritual endeavor. Like any rock drummer, he creates rhythm with all four of his limbs, so his sound becomes an extension of his entire body, his entire being. If the body is a resource, Fox believes that a good musical performance should result in complete depletion.
“I’m definitely drawn to performers who commit. I want to see people working and sweating,” the 29-year-old says. “When it’s over, you can hang yourself up to dry. To me, that’s the most satisfying feeling in the world, whether it’s from exercise or playing music. That feeling of exerting yourself — it’s so vital.”
Not all the sweat falls from behind the kit. The first big physical demand of a drummer’s workday comes shortly after the tour van rolls up to the club: the inglorious schlepping of gear.
The heaviest piece in Fox’s arsenal is a black travel case filled with roughly 100 pounds of metal drum stands — and on a recent Thursday at DC9 in Washington, where Liturgy is launching a national tour, it must be dragged across the sidewalk, through the bar, up 17 stairs to the club’s second level, and onto the stage.
The drummer describes this task with a sort of Sisyphean zen: “I relish the load to a certain degree. It’s part of the work. It’s like doing any other menial task — there can be a value in it if it’s done with a certain attention.”
If Fox sounds as though he’s drumming toward enlightenment, he’s also working to maintain a connection with his 4-year-old self, seated on the kitchen floor of his mother’s Manhattan apartment, declaring his existence on various pots and pans with chopsticks and wooden spoons.
Today, his playing can be viciously aggressive, but you can always hear that kid-joy coursing through the dozen-plus groups Fox is currently involved with, including Liturgy and his psychedelic-rhythm troupe Guardian Alien, as well as his regular collaborations with electronic composer Ben Frost and saxophone colossus Colin Stetson.
The objectives vary from group to group, but Fox is always pushing in one direction. “I’ve always wanted to play faster and longer,” he says.
Speed-obsessed fans consider Fox a master of the blast beat, a suffocating rhythm popularized in the ’80s by the grindcore band Napalm Death. At its essence, the blast beat is a rapid 16th-note alternation between kick drum and snare — BOOM-CRACK-BOOM-CRACK-BOOM-CRACK-BOOM-CRACK — often performed with mechanical ruthlessness. In Liturgy, Fox makes it sound vast and alive, like a swarm.
But Fox credits his force and quickness not to his adolescent flings with heavy metal, but to the Moeller technique, a method of drumming he admits he may only half-understand. It involves a whipping motion in the wrists and fingers designed to boost speed, increase wallop, conserve energy and prevent injury. And at the beginning of a national tour, endurance is at the forefront of Fox’s mind. “I’m just excited to slam every night,” he says. “That’s where my mind is at more than anything else.”
At a quarter past 10, it is time to slam.
Fox and bassist Tyler Dusenbury have recently rejoined Liturgy after a few years away from the band, and now the quartet is touring behind its best and most visceral album, “The Ark Work.” As his band mates tune up, Fox peels off his cross-trainers and slips into a pair of lightweight running shoes. He does a few yoga stretches. Sporting a moisture-wicking shirt and tiny gym shorts, he looks like he’s about to hit the treadmill.
If only. As if by flipping a switch, the band instantly summons a weather system of sound. Bandleader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix runs his guitar through a laptop computer, allowing him to channel a phantom orchestra, while Dusenbury and guitarist Bernard Gann churn out brawnier decibels.
Behind them, Fox pushes and bends the beat as though he has more than two arms. His limbs are doing tremendous amounts of work, but even more is happening in his hands where he rapidly flicks his drumsticks with his fingers — the same motion you might use to top off your gas tank.
At what tempo will a series of sonic events fail to register as a beat? Our conception of rhythm roughly corresponds to the span of the human heart rate, and Fox is curious about what happens on those margins. He says he’s been spending his free time trying to build the stamina to drum at the speed of a hum or a drone. Onstage with Liturgy, he only flirts with those velocities, but his flirtations give this roaring music a teasing, ticklish energy.
It all happens too fast to detect anything resembling a flub, but there are at least two. At one point, Fox whaps himself in the face with one of his sticks, but nobody notices. (After the show, he wonders whether his nose might be a little crooked from similar misfires.)
During “Reign Array,” the most stunning cut on “The Ark Work,” Fox is hammering away at his snare with so much muscle that he plunges one of his sticks straight through the skin of the drum.
With the snare out of commission, he pivots, moving his hands over to the floor tom, where he can transpose his annoyance into a thunderous purr. The entire band seems to follow him into this magical accident, and the song’s crescendo is overwhelming. Instead of the musicians playing the music, it’s as though the music is happening to them.
Fox keeps bullying the floor tom. His arms are pale, tattooed blurs. His unblinking eyes shoot all around the room. He’s gulping down big lungfuls of air, as if drowning in deep space. It looks like agony up there, but it might be bliss.