When Virgos Merlot disappeared into a studio last year to record their debut album, Signs of a Vacant Soul, they knew what they were looking for -- a hard, melodic rock sound that was part industrial, part pop.
They just didn't know if they would find it.
The group spent countless hours mixing the disparate sounds with abandon and hoping for the best. What made it all work, singer Brett Hestla said, is that everyone wanted the same thing.
"We [aimed for] heavy and melodic," he said. "We didn't know how it would come out, but it did. This is the first band I've been in [where] we're all so one-minded."
The Orlando, Fla., rock unit's recently released disc features the radio single "Gain" (RealAudio excerpt) and blends pop sensibilities with seemingly incongruous industrial noise to produce a pounding melodic sound that has been described as part Nine Inch Nails, part Matchbox 20.
To complement its reputation for exploring the dark side through pessimistic lyrics, the group adopted a visual image right out of the goth scene.
Most photos of the five-man group -- which includes Hestla, guitarists Jason Marchant and Deacon Ted Ledbetter, drummer J.D. Charlton and bassist Chris Dickerson -- show the band sporting a demonic look. When performing, they wear contact lenses that give their eyes a reptilian glaze.
To add to the cultivated air of mystery, they refuse to divulge their exact ages.
Helping to temper the dark side, however, are catchy riffs and melodies. Hestla said he and his fellow 20-something brethren, most of whom met in high school, felt they had to "do something different [visually] that reflects the sound of the music. We needed to look like a unit and bring the show back to rock 'n' roll."
Their image aside, Virgos Merlot (named for what the band sees as its "pure blend" of music) brew up a potent sonic mix. Tracks emphasizing the band's crunching and screeching wall-of-guitars sound, such as the likely next radio single "The Cycle," and the current one, "Gain," are clearly designed to attract young rock fans hungry for something more urgent than pop stars Jewel or Barenaked Ladies but not as dangerous as shock-rocker Marilyn Manson.
"Be careful what you learn 'cause sometimes knowing burns," Hestla cautions in the song "Knowing Burns," singing with a voice that recalls Ozzy Osbourne, but with wider range.
"Each song [on the album] lyrically represents getting yourself out of a hole. ... [The songs] are just sketches of a vacant soul in that they deal with greed, et cetera," said Hestla, who writes the bands lyrics.
The group's musical penchant for the dark side was there from the beginning when Hestla, Marchant and Dickerson formed the band the Devine in Birmingham, Ala., in the mid-'90s. Their record sold about 1,000 copies, earning the band a strong local following. Those fans have helped push the band to the next level.
"Virgos Merlot are the real deal. I have known them since the days of the Devine," Daniel Tremonti, webmaster of www.virgosmerlot.com, said. "They have given their heart and soul to rock and possess the talent, passion and presence to go all the way. Bands like Virgos Merlot will keep rock 'n' roll alive with their wall of guitars. If you haven't seen their stage show, you're missing out."
The band built a reputation for dynamic and atmospheric live shows, Hestla said. Atlantic Records offered the group a contract following a performance at one of its showcases.
Atlantic generated word of mouth for the band by issuing the track "Trouble" to radio stations before it released the LP. The album then garnered airplay on heavy-rock stations in the Southeast, followed by modern-rock outlets in major markets.
Hestla said the album is building more slowly than he would like it to. But Virgos Merlot is more concerned with longevity than with immediate impact, he said.
Virgos Merlot has an ace up its sleeve, though. Signs of a Vacant Soul contains a catchy power ballad with industrial influences, "Kiss My Disease" (RealAudio excerpt), which has been critically acclaimed as a can't-miss track.
Meanwhile, an introductory video is being planned for "The Cycle," and bandmembers are hoping to add to the converted through constant gigging. It's a strategy that has worked thus far, Hestla said.
The curious can check out Virgos Merlot as they canvass the country through the end of May. The band will be supported some of the way by fellow heavy-rock southerners Fuel.