And now, a closer look at the four bands competing on Saturday, February 9, in the first round of the Sound Off! semifinals:

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The Batteries from Carnation, Washington, are crazy—postapocalyptic carnival music with surf-style keyboards and vocals that sound like they're being sung by a creepy scientist who breeds chemically enhanced species in his dungeon. There's an obvious connection to Schoolyard Heroes to be made, but that could just be coming from their mutual appreciation for classic sci-fi and horror flicks (the description on their MySpace page: "Sounds like if Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Graves, and Vincent Price all had a party on the Forbidden Planet").

The Dead Are Judged from Marysville, Washington, are a higher concentration of evil, a nasty combination of hardcore and metal with face-melting riffs, booming drumming, and throat-shredding vocals that sound like they come from some hairless, red-eyed, little creature that lives in a damp cave. The band are trying to scare the shit out of you. Fans include KMFDM'S Jules Hodgson.

On the other side of the spectrum is New Faces from Port Townsend, Washington, who, with singer Nico's baritone vocals, sound like a new-wave Calvin Johnson project. They're just as danceable as acts like Franz Ferdinand and, appropriately enough, they've already been booked for an upcoming installment of Club Pop at Chop Suey (March 13).

Lastly, Southgate from Pendleton, Oregon, head back to the darker side, drawing inspiration from Lamb of God and Children of Bodom. But their sound is more otherworldly than metal-mates the Dead Are Judged. There's an incredible bagpipe intro on the song "My Gift," and the opening scream in "Universal Conspiracy" made my stomach drop. It sounds like dying.

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The grand-prize winner gets a performance at Bumbershoot 2008, an on-air, in-studio performance on KEXP's local show Audioasis, $600 worth of studio time at Soundhouse Studios, and gear from Gibson. The second-place winner gets some great stuff, too—a performance at Folklife, an on-air performance on 107.7 The End's local show The Young and the Restless, and studio time at Orbit Audio. Good luck to all (and confidential to Southgate: No sacrificial rituals onstage). recommended

megan@thestranger.com

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