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Fruits of Labor

Catch one of their live shows and you'll probably be struck by Atomic Tangerine's boundless vitality. The Orlando hardrock four-piece is all wide smiles and stage presence; the music is instantly likable and bereft of pop cliché. Watch them and you get no hint of the dark days not long ago, how the band almost fell apart when the major labels came calling. You'd never know about the cancer and the chemo. But it's all there; just listen to the music.

"I've always felt that music was what I was meant to do as opposed to what I wanted to do," says Josh Snyder, Atomic Tangerine's 24-year-old lead singer. Early on, Snyder dedicated himself to what he calls "the healing power of music" -- a turn of phrase that would take on added gravitas later in his life.

With 25-year-old guitarist Eithan Ben-Horin, bassist Robbie Simon, and drummer Aaron Melamed, Snyder formed Atomic Tangerine in 1995. Back then, they were just four scrawny teenagers from North Miami Beach crafting radio-friendly rock in their parents' garages. Armed with a handful of tunes, they began gigging at clubs they couldn't legally patronize.

Snyder grins, thinking back about the band members' parents, all wearing matching Atomic Tangerine T-shirts and dancing in the crowd. "It was very cool to see our parents being so into what we were doing," Snyder says of those early shows.

Commercial success -- or rather, a successful commercial -- didn't take long. In 1997, Atomic's poppy, uptempo sound -- clean guitar strokes with a touch of grunge, punchy drumming, meaty bass licks -- landed the endorsement of Ralph Lauren, who used one of the band's songs in a national ad campaign.

"Hearing our music over a Ralph Lauren ad was comical," Snyder says. "Don't get me wrong: It was great. But we were so not Ralph Lauren material. "

Regardless, the ad, coupled with some press and airplay, drew the eye of burgeoning Miami label Magic City Records, which signed the band and released its self-titled EP in '98. Suddenly, the boys were looking at major-label interest and a shot at the big time.

Then things started to get complicated.

The national label possibility fizzled, due to what Snyder calls a combination of "bad timing and B.S." An impending East Coast tour fell through, the result of "ball dropping" by the booking agency. Then the rhythm section dropped out, leaving Snyder and Ben-Horin, who was raring to relocate to Orlando. The timing for the move wasn't coincidence.

"Miami's rock scene was drying up," Ben-Horin says. "Orlando was making a lot of noise at the time, and it seemed like the right place to go to stay in music." Snyder followed Ben-Horin to the Land of the Mouse, where they rebuilt the band with drummer Mike Rollo and bassist Adam Kaye. Soon, Atomic Tangerine became a staple on the Orlando rock scene, winning top marks in the national 2003 Hard Rock Cafe's Battle of the Bands. The prize? A live performance in Times Square, an experience the foursome sums up as "simply mind-blowing."

"It was such a rush playing in New York," Ben-Horin adds. "The energy there was unlike anything we'd encountered up to that point."

Energized by the honor, the band entered the studio to begin recording its first full-length album. It was during these sessions that Snyder began experiencing recurring chest and back pains.

"I had no idea what it was," he says. "I just knew it wasn't going away." In 2003, Snyder told only those closest to him -- including the band -- that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of leukemia. He continued to play even as he began traveling twice a week to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital for chemotherapy.

"Chemo is a bitch, but I had a fairer time with it than most," Snyder says. "I didn't lose all my hair or get very thin, so those who didn't know I was sick never saw a difference."

"There were nights when we knew he wasn't feeling well," Ben-Horin says, even though Snyder kept the pain to himself. "He never said a word about it; we just knew." By the summer of 2004, the cancer remained, so Snyder returned to North Miami, leaving the album in limbo and a summer's worth of canceled shows.

The sudden drop off Orlando's music radar drew unexpected attention from fans and the Orlando music press, which assumed the canceled gigs signaled the band's permanent dissolution. Snyder stayed mute, undergoing a bone-marrow transplant that would eventually put him into remission.

"Transplants are not nearly as horrible as they once were," Snyder says. "The worst part of the whole process was the uncertainty before I was diagnosed. Once I was, it was like 'OK, we know what it is. Now let's deal with it. '"

Confined to bed rest, Snyder tinkered with his acoustic guitar and wrote songs. It would be months before he'd return to band practice, but his recuperation brought with it a handful of new tunes. Returning to the studio, the band laid down the songs and finished Bitch for Society, the album that had gone unreleased in Snyder's absence.

Slated for an independent release this spring, the finished album is a striking contrast to its original form. It's heavier, darker, infused with a maturity light years from the band's frothy beginnings. Snyder recognizes that his struggle has influenced the music -- at least to a point.

"It's always about insight," he says of the music. "The downtime just gave me more opportunity to get it down on paper." So when he wails "I'm not afraid" on the bombastic title track, it's equal parts cancer, politics, society, and the system that he's rallying against.

Or maybe it's the sound of success, which eluded the band a decade ago and is now a lingering possibility. "It's important to us to share our music, " Snyder says, "but we're going to take our time and do this right. Things have not always gone according to plan, but we've always seemed to find a path."

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Larry Carrino

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