Photo: Geoff L. Johnson
Georgia has been flooding America with metal the past few years. Much of it is of a psychedelic bent, whether it’s the hard riffing and prog excursions of Atlanta’s Mastodon (the most successful and the most schizophrenic of the current crop of bands), the ’90s-besotted guitar swirlscapes, tribal drumming, and male-female vocal exchanges of Kylesa, or the epic art-boogie of Baroness (the latter two acts both calling Savannah home), there’s almost always a feeling of wanting to get out of oneself, to journey through inner worlds via massive amplification. Black Tusk are the latest band to emerge from Georgia, and they’re easily the most down-to-earth of the bunch; in fact, far from being travelers through intercranial space, they’re pretty much wallowing in the mud. The trio call their sound “swamp metal,” and that’s a pretty accurate description.
Passage Through Purgatory is the band’s debut album (except for an early self-released EP or two), originally released in 2008 and reissued earlier this year by their current label, Relapse, with two bonus tracks, “Beneath” and “Fatal Kiss” (originally released on split singles with The Holy Mountain and Fight Amp, respectively), appended as bonus tracks. The original album was only 25 minutes long, so the extra material doesn’t exactly pad the CD to an unreasonable length. Black Tusk aren’t a jam-oriented band. They grab onto a riff with all six hands, tear into it until it’s reduced to shards, and move on to the next one. Andrew Fidler‘s guitar is a fuzzy, distorted shriek; when he cranks it up and starts charging ahead, he gets a sound almost worthy of Black Flag‘s Greg Ginn, more hardcore than metal. Bassist Jonathan Athon mostly shadows him; their instruments don’t separate much in the mix, because virtuosity and fancy-pants showboatin’ aren’t the point here—bludgeoning the listener into submission is. James May‘s drumming is a mix of tribal rhythmic hypnosis, D-beat relentlessness, and hard rock throb. He doesn’t seem to need more than a kick, a snare, a tom and a crash cymbal to achieve his goals, most of which are destructive in nature. All three men sing—or rather, shout, bark and roar.
Taste the Sin is the trio’s second album, released in 2010. It’s noisier and punkier than Passage Through Purgatory, as though they were attempting to shrug off the psychedelic influences they exhibited on the first record. “Red Eyes, Black Skies” and “Way of Horse and Bow” are raw bash-and-shout explosions, exercises in the deployment of old techniques—a pick-slide over a grinding Lemmy-stye bass line, stuff like that. It’s like they decided they’d rather sound like Disfear than an amped-up Kylesa, and frankly, they were making the wrong decision. They don’t get back to core competencies until the album’s second half: “Twist the Knife” features dual lead vocals, a truck-wheels-spinning-in-mud riff and drumming worthy of the Melvins‘ Dale Crover, and the next four tracks are a suite. “Redline” is an instrumental, a fanfare, a setting of the scene—it ends, and a gently tapped cymbal counts cadence for a blasting dragstrip guitar riff as “The Take Off” does exactly that. May smashes the snare like he wants to snap his own hands off at the wrists, as Fidler and Athon riff in unison and howl in counterpoint. The guitar break (no time for a solo per se) is a coil of barbed wire wrapped around your ankle, tightening every second. “The Ride” is the mood piece at the suite’s midpoint, ominous chords crashing before a hard-swinging, almost-boogie beat comes in and we’re shouting at each other again as the car careens down unlit midnight roads. “The Crash” sounds like its title, working from an already over-the-top energy level to peak after peak until the inevitable (desired) explosion.
The latest Black Tusk album, Set the Dial, has all the aggression of its predecessor, but the sound is a little more live-wire; the production this time is a little less sludge and a little more punk. They’re stretching out a little more, too; three of its ten songs pass the four-minute mark. They’ve never had more than one four-minute song per disc before. “Mass Devotion” verges on the atmospheric, and the instrumental “Resistor” ends with an acoustic interlude, for hell’s sake. Of course, these subtleties are sort of like Motörhead recording a ballad just to prove that they can. Black Tusk’s stock in trade remains head-down bashing, and they do it extremely well here, making the first half of Taste the Sin seem like a momentary and forgivable miscalculation. Evolution is a very slow and incremental process. These three Georgians are determined to get where they’re going at their own deliberate pace, and for the most part it’s been an extremely enjoyable ride so far, so I’ll be sticking with them.