CUPERTINO, Calif. (AP) — There aren't too many mean-looking things in Cupertino, this sleepy Silicon Valley haunt of Apple employees and overachieving middle schoolers.
But there's something gruesome growing in one corner of town: Halo Custom Guitars, Inc.
Fueled by a resurgence in heavy metal music — and its numerous dark sub-genres — Halo makes and sells evil-looking instruments with bodies carved to resemble rotting flesh, distended eyeballs and bone. The demonically-themed guitars primarily find their way into the hands of death metal musicians.
Regular heavy metal music can cover the usual topics of scorn and despair, while death metal sub-genre leans heavily on growled vocals and themes like Satanism and dark mythology.
Both are an important niche for electric guitar manufacturers like 5-year-old Halo. It sold 200 guitars its first year in business and now sells 200 to 300 each month in direct sales and another 200 per month to dealers, co-founder Waylon Ford said.
''Ever since we started making more outrageous designs, we started selling more guitars,'' he said. ''We really owe a lot to the metal genre.''
Street teams of Halo guitar players and hangers-on keep the company's buzz alive across the country, posting links to their favorite Halo-using bands on their MySpace pages and posting images of the lithesome Halo Gals, young models that appear in ads wearing little more than underworldly undergarments.
More established guitar makers are taking notice of metal's rebirth, as well. B.C. Rich Guitars boasts an aggressive looking lineup that includes the Warbeast, Warlock and Dagger, the latter available in the color ''blood,'' according to the company's Web site. The Warlock is pointy from all angles, while the Warbeast looks like a bit like a Fender Stratocaster with an attitude problem.
''B.C. Rich had a huge heyday in the ’80s, obviously when metal and big hair bands were all the rage,'' said Ted Burger, a spokesman for Davitt & Hanser Music Group, the Hebron, Ky.-based parent company of B.C Rich.
Then came the ’90s and Nirvana and grunge bands that wanted nothing to do with big hair or brightly colored guitars. Grunge bands sported unkempt hair, plaid shirts and let their standard guitars to the talking.
Now grunge is a trivia game answer and metal is king again.
''People just missed the pleasures of a nice piercing guitar solo,'' Ford said.
Ford takes his designs to the extreme, and his guitars boast names such as Satyr, Hellfire and Fallen Angel. The ''demon'' headstock, where tuning pegs adjust string tension, looks like a horned profile of Lucifer himself.
Halo sells custom-made models as well as lower priced machine-cut guitars fashioned at an overseas plant.
The metal niche guitars fill a void that your regular old Fender Strat or Gibson Les Paul won't. Those standard guitars look out of place in the hands of a growling 20-year-old lead metal guitarist wearing black nail polish and white face paint screaming into a microphone about Norse mythology, a favorite theme of many metal practitioners.
Led Zeppelin's heavy metal of the early 1970s gave way to an angrier, more puerile version. Metallica and Slayer are a couple of the current metal music standard-bearers, and still newer bands go even heavier on the face makeup and gloomy stage presence and themes of death.
The heaviest of heavy metal is well-represented on Apple's iTunes, with downloads from bands like Dismember, Cannibal Corpse and Hatebreed all available. And notably, Richmond, Va.-based Lamb of God, a death metal band, peaked on the Billboard album chart at No. 8 last year with ''Sacrament,'' further cementing metal's comeback to broad acceptance.
Marc Minarik, who runs Minarik Guitars with his father out of Glendale, Calif, said there's no doubt he owes his business success to the recent metal resurgence.
''I put everything on the line for this. I sold everything I owned, every dollar I had to my name, to put into this company,'' Minarik said. The result was the 2002 introduction of the $1,199 Inferno, a guitar with a body shaped like licks from a raging fire. That unique design — and a newfound consumer appreciation of metal — paid off for Minarik.
''It's the reason that we are where we are. It's because we launched the company with one of those exciting, edgy metal, neo-metal shapes. The Inferno. And no one had ever seen anything like that,'' Minarik said.
Minarik Guitars sells between 115 and 130 pricey custom model guitars per year, and more than 2,000 lower-priced machine cut models annually, Minarik said. As with most guitar companies, the handmade U.S. models command a higher price and are favored by serious players. The offshore-produced guitars range from $300 to $1,300, while the U.S.-made Minariks start at $2,950 and go up from there, based on the amount of customizing required.
''You may look at that flame-shaped body and be like 'Oh yeah, cool. Flames.' But I engineered each one of those flame tongues to generate a certain frequency response. Everything about that guitar is completely thought out,'' he said.
Minarik is thrilled when famous rockers like Dave Navarro, formerly of Jane's Addiction, and Claudio Sanchez, of Coheed and Cambria, occasionally play his wares. They're not purveyors of death metal, but they're noticed among guitar players.
Minarik likes the possibility of expanding to traditional designs, since the music tastes can be fleeting and the fire for metal may flame out, yet again.
''It's a pendulum. It'll swing back the other direction, and hopefully we'll have our line well-padded with instruments that the other styles of music will find equally pleasing,'' Minarik said.
So what exactly is the allure of the whole demonic metal scene? The deafening crunch of eight-string metal guitars on stage? The fake blood and white pancake makeup? The screamed ''Cookie Monster'' vocals few listeners can comprehend?
'''Cause there's always kids, and your parents tell you not to listen to it,'' Ford said. ''It's a really good outlet for your aggression.''
As for his mean guitar designs, Ford put it simply.
''Some people like skulls,'' he said.