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"It's a big journey through life," says 40 Below Summer guitarist Jordan Plingos of his band's intense debut album, Invitation To The Dance. "It's a lot of real-life issues, a lot of real-life feelings. Some of the songs are about feeling miserable, some of them are about being positive and going out and having a good time."

Like their name, this New Jersey-based band's music is a study in contradictions, making 40 Below Summer one of the most distinctive bands of the new generation of heavy rockers. "The name means opposites," says Plingos. "And that's what we do: we'll take absolutely brutal and heavy and put it in the same song as pretty and beautiful. We're not a one-dimensional band at all. Our music says that and our name says that."

The background of 40 Below Summer is as varied and unorthodox as the band themselves, full of strange but true facts. The core of the group emerged in 1998, when drummer Carlos Aguilar - a Peruvian native who moved here at fifteen and began learning drums by beating a pair of chopsticks on a sofa - was playing in a band called Alien and hooked up with singer Max Illidge. Illidge was no stranger to show business, appearing on Broadway at the tender age of twelve, and before that, portraying the little boy in Talking Heads' legendary "Burning Down The House" video. Plingos: "Max was brought up singing his entire life…he's a very talented, well-rounded kid."

Illidge and Aguilar liked each other and began jamming, eventually bringing guitarist Joe D'Amico into the fold. After playing as a four-piece for a while with a temporary bassist, the temp switched permanently to guitar and D'Amico called on childhood friend - and occasional bandmate - Plingos to come in on bass. When the second guitarist left, Plingos switched to his original instrument, and the search for a bass player began, leading to Hector Graziani.

Graziani moved to the United States from Puerto Rico eight years ago and embarked on a musical journey that took him from Boston to Florida to New York, but the desire to play music had been ingrained in him since childhood: "I'm the youngest one in my family. My oldest brother, when I was a kid, would listen to the classics, from Hendrix to the Doors to Led Zeppelin. The second oldest brother was into Iron Maiden, Kiss, heavier stuff. At the time, I was playing basketball and putting a lot of time into that, but as soon as I discovered music, the whole sports thing just started vanishing and music became bigger and bigger in my life. I remember spending days sitting in front of the stereo with my brother's records, staring at the covers, and listening to music all day."

A mutual friend brought Graziani and 40 Below Summer together in October of 2000, and events followed quickly for the band. Constantly gigging in New Jersey and occasionally in New York, they had already managed to release one self-manufactured CD, Sideshow Freaks. The music found its way to No Name Management, home of heavyweights Slipknot and Fear Factory, and a week after Graziani completed the band's lineup, they were securing a management deal. Numerous showcases on both coasts followed, with up to fifteen labels checking them out, before London/Sire stepped up. Next on the agenda: recording Invitation To The Dance in L.A. with famed producer Garth Richardson (Rage Against The Machine, Kittie).

"I think the first thing that we clicked with Garth about was that he was relaxed," recalls Plingos. "He wasn't like, 'let's go, guys, let's go!' He was more like, 'get comfortable, get settled in.' His whole thing is bringing out the best in you, so pressuring you to do something doesn't help. He was all about us, which was amazing."

"Garth was really cool - no attitude or anything," adds Graziani. "He would say, 'Just play, don't worry about anything.' Whatever we needed to make things comfortable, he would make it happen."

Invitation To The Dance offers a dozen tunes that span a broader, bolder - yet still aggressive - palate of musical ideas than most bands achieve on their third album, yet alone their first. Opener "We The People" is a get-up, no-holds-barred metallic anthem: "It's about us, and our friends and our family and you and everybody around us that is real, that really shares the same vision," says Plingos. "It's just about taking over, basically saying don't sit back, don't sit on your ass, don't let people tell you what to do if you don't want to do it. Do what you wanna do and make it the best."

"Step Into The Sideshow" and "Smile Electric" follow the same path, Illidge's in-your-face screams swooping and diving amidst the auditory carnage perpetrated by D'Amico, Plingos and the amazingly dexterous rhythm section. Yet "Whither Away" - a song about loss -- is marked by a gentle, haunting melody, while "Falling Down" daringly takes the band in both directions. "That pretty much encompasses everything that we do in one song," says Plingos proudly. "If somebody asks me what this band sounds like, I say 'go listen to 'Falling Down,' because it has everything. It starts off fast and heavy and brutal, and then, from the bridge and chorus to the end, it makes you cry. That song right there covers it all."

Which brings us back to the journey mentioned at the start. "When you start a band, you have five guys who have their natural talent, but are also bombarded with a lot of influences and the things that are happening out there," says Graziani. "But it just takes time to get to know each other and make that musical connection, and that's what made the band and the sound grow into what it is now."

And what is that? Merely one of the most dynamic, yet brutal and powerful heavy music acts to emerge in 2001. Come join the dance - you've been invited.