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Headbangers' brawl 

Sevendust makes its peace with Atlanta and substance abuse, but doesn't soften its nu-metal assault

"Creative Loafing? Man, it's a pleasure to be talking to you."

It's hard to know exactly how to read this seemingly effusive greeting, coming as it does from Lajon Witherspoon, the tattooed and dreadlocked frontman for Atlanta-based hard rockers Sevendust. It's an unexpected salutation, and not just because of the band's generally menacing appearance or Witherspoon's tendency to hide geysers of primal, full-throated rage behind a honeyed, unassuming voice.

No, if one expects sullen indifference or even hostility, it's because the members of Sevendust have, in the past, felt a bit slighted by the city of their band's birth. It can be hard to catch a break in your own hometown -- especially when that town seems too caught up with its hip-hop, R&B and mainstream rock scenes to spare you much attention. "Put it this way," Witherspoon told Spin in February 2002, seven years after the band's formation, "Atlanta just now caught the Sevendust wave."

Asked if the aggro-metal quintet still feels overlooked by its home base, Witherspoon is much more sanguine. "Not at all. I think, like with anything, it had to happen in time. Things came around -- it just took a little while, maybe due to the fact that we didn't play Atlanta as much. It's fantastic now. We got over [feeling ignored by] Atlanta a long time ago. We've grown so much, personally and musically, and the crowd is so excited, the energy -- I think nowadays when we play here, it's some of our best shows ever."

It's not hard to pinpoint the source of Witherspoon's good will. After all, if Atlanta is coming around to Sevendust's brawny, chain-gun rhythms and aggressive yet accessible choruses, it's not alone. The band's fourth and most recent album, Seasons, debuted on the Billboard album charts at a respectable No. 14 in its first week in mid-October, selling 67,049 copies. It was the group's biggest opening to date, with the album also hitting the top spots on the Hard Music and Independent Album charts. This at a time when bands on the testosterone-drenched end of the modern-rock spectrum are waking up to a reality of more modest footing than they're used to, with hip-hop acts asserting dominance over the singles charts, and emo bands muscling in on hard rock's "new rock" radio turf.

"This is a great artist development story," Paul Burgess, senior vice president of marketing for Sevendust's label, TVT, gushed in a press release after Seasons' strong opening. "Even with major trend shifts in rock music over the past two years, Sevendust returns bigger than ever."

It's also a success story -- or at least, the first hint of one -- for the commercial viability of Atlanta's rock exports in general, and hard rock in particular. This is a city, after all, whose most visible, high-profile rock acts are either on more-or-less permanent hiatus (the Black Crowes) or slowly emerging from hibernation (Collective Soul). And then there's John Mayer, whose connection to the city grows more tenuous by the day, and whose status as a rocker is, to be polite, a matter of some debate.

None of these acts springs to anyone's mind as being synonymous with hard rock, a genre with a lax national presence for such a diverse musical town. Even the producer of Seasons -- local fixture Butch Walker -- is more commonly associated with a lighter shade of pop-rock. Which means that, at present, it falls on Sevendust -- and on a more underground level, Mastodon -- to carry the hard-rock flag for a city toward which it once harbored some antipathy.

If Witherspoon sees the inherent irony in this, he doesn't show it. If anything, he says, Sevendust has entered into a proprietary, mentoring relationship with other local, hard-rocking outfits.

"Doubledrive, of course we love," he says, "and Stereomud," whose members hail from both Georgia and New York -- and whose bassist Corey Lowery is brother to Sevendust guitarist Clint Lowery. That sibling bond might help explain the sense of kinship Witherspoon describes: "Those bands, we try to keep up with as much as possible. And we've taken them out, outside of Atlanta. We try to keep some kind of unity," he says, adding that the city's hard rock front is "not as united as it should be. But it's cool to have new bands come out and try to make a name for Atlanta."

If bands like Doubledrive and Injected (whom Witherspoon also name-checks) are still in the early stages of representing for their hometown, Seasons may pave the way for a wider recognition of the city's rock muscle. Continuing a penchant for elemental one-word titles that succinctly describe the band's collective mindset (following 2001's blistering Animosity), the record reflects a more focused outfit whose maturity is reflected in a set of tonally consistent, polished and melodic numbers that don't skimp on the band's branded snarl.

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