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Take One for the Scene

We're all familiar with this story: local band gets a decent following, signs to a major, and moves to New York (or Austin or L.A.). Some of these bands do well. Most do not, getting dropped by their label after a few months before disbanding. Still, whether such a band makes it big or hits the skids, the message to the rest of us hometown schmoes is the same — later, suckers. But when Traces of Envy manager Janei Balski contacted me a few weeks ago, I was curious to hear about her admittedly different style of band promotion. What started as a conversation about the band (how it's currently label-shopping) soon shifted to the South Florida metal scene in general — specifically, how the Traces guys are as interested in building a lasting local scene as getting signed. But that's just part of the band's humble nature, Balski said. Now, I'm not saying South Florida's rife with egomaniacs, but humble isn't how I'd describe most musicians around here. So when I met Traces of Envy last week at the band's warehouse, I had to agree with Balski: For such a heavy band, they were light on the pretense.

"The whole idea was to have a band with no egos," vocalist/guitarist Cristian Sheput said of his bandmates, guitarist/vocalist Dan Viola, bassist Memo Acosta, and drummer Kevin O'Neil. And by the end of the night, I believed him. Sure, he belts out some mean-sounding tunes onstage. But in person, he's calm, cool, and totally grounded.

I always hear bands talk the talk about having no egos, but when it comes down to it, a lot of 'em are in permanent battle mode with everyone. Trust me, I've been there. For many years, it was us against them for whatever band I was in. The thing is, it never got us anywhere; it mostly just caused problems with clubs, labels, and other bands. That's sort of the opposite of how Traces (and Balski) see it.

"Every band talks about building a scene," Sheput said. "But if you want to build a scene, you have to embrace it. If there was more closeness among bands, more things could happen."

Balski concurs. "A big part of the problem around here is how bands try to get to the top and want to do it by themselves," she said. "They think if they have enough fans that it will spark attention to the area. But if they get signed and move, the scene's still in a shambles."

Yeah, but isn't that the normal thing to do? Was she trying to tell me that there are places where bands actually, you know, band together?

"Bands from Boston and New Jersey got signed by sticking together," she said, referring to a few staples of Northeast metal like Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and All That Remains. "If Traces leaves, they want to take four or five bands with them and still stay involved with everyone who's down here."

One thing Balski's focused on is trying to put together an annual metal fest, something that will include national and local bands. The idea, she said, is to put South Florida metal on the map so the music industry will take notice. But it's still in the early planning stages.

"New England has a metal fest, San Diego has a metal fest, Milwaukee has a metal fest — all these metal fests happen everywhere else but not here," Balski said. "A lot of bands ended up getting signed from those events."

For now, Traces will settle for a trip to the festival in Milwaukee, where they'll play next March. It'll be their biggest show yet, after the 2005 arena show they played with God Forbid in Durham, North Carolina — a show Traces booked after God Forbid guitarist Dallas Coyle discovered them on MySpace (www.myspace.com/tracesofenvy). "Dallas contacted me and said he'd be at the Culture Room," Balski said. "I met him in the parking lot, and we listened to Traces' demo in his car."

Coyle soon paid a visit to the band's warehouse, giving the guys pointers on songwriting and production. And according to Balski, Coyle gave Traces high marks on its music. So it seems the band's song-over-solo philosophy is working.

"I'm into the songs first," Sheput said. "I won't put a solo in unless it absolutely fits."

O'Neil put it more bluntly: "If we're up there to blow everyone away with our technical superiority but there's no song, what's the point?"

Besides, that's an approach that can easily lead to dueling guitars — and not in a good way. Thankfully, Sheput's relationship with Traces' other guitarist, Viola, is rock-solid.

"For years, I wouldn't play with another guitarist in the band because it always became a competition," Sheput said. "That's why this band is so great. Dan and I push each other, but we're not competing."

And, Sheput added, they're not competing with anyone else either. For Traces, it's all about supporting other bands, not battling them.

"The best thing about playing out around here is meeting like-minded bands," Viola said. "We met Exit 13 at a show at Churchill's, and we've gotten pretty close. We're all fans of each other. They come to our shows and we go to theirs, the way it should be. There shouldn't be division in music, just brotherhood."

Exactly. Even Uncle Sam would agree, despite all those "Army of One" commercials.

"It's like saying, 'I'm going to sign up for the Army, but don't put me with any platoons, don't put me with any other soldiers — I'm going to be solo,'" Balski said. "It's like an 'Army of one,' literally, and it's not going to work. You can't be all alone on a battlefield — and it is like a battlefield down here. If we all get together and are more uniform in the cause, we'll be into something good for the long term."

And there's no envy in that.

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Jason Budjinski

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