Black Tusk – Pillars of Ash
Savannah, Georgia bands are made of tough stuff. Baroness and Black Tusk both suffered disastrous highway collisions at pivotal career moments. In the case of Black Tusk, the accident resulted in the death of a figurehead and key member, Jonathan Athon. The worldwide metal community offered condolences, which, in a bittersweet twist, raised public awareness of the forthcoming Black Tusk record, Pillars of Ash. Athon’s passing was sadly the first in a wave of rock fatalities which have created a quandary: Can journalists assess a grieving band’s new music without resorting to sentimentality or undue reverence?
The metal musicians of Savannah would likely scoff at such intellectual hand-wringing. Life is too fucking messy for stock sympathies, and the music can stand on its own hobnailed boots, fuck you very much. So, while Baroness’ bus accident derailed their momentum and splintered their lineup, John Dyer Baizley’s recovery and relaunch tale gets a clear redemptive arc: Artsy Southern Doomsters Bounce Back From Calamity.
Black Tusk’s story doesn’t fit into as neat a narrative structure. Athon’s motorcycle collision occurred in early November. After some days in a medically induced coma, he was taken off life support on the 9th of that same month.
Bands can resemble families, businesses or a combination of both. Regardless, these collectives share vested interests—both financial and emotional—in promoting their art. For a tight-knit group like Black Tusk, a death in the family throws that balance into question. God knows you can't discuss Pillars of Ash without acknowledging their resilience and circumstances, so thank Hades it is their most consistently punishing release to date.
Though only a few years behind their peers, Black Tusk still seem like the ragged upstarts of the Savannah metal community. While Kylesa create psychedelic soundscapes, and Baroness bait fans with indie rock influences, Black Tusk distill the most aggressive aspects of stoner and sludge and perform them at pit-friendly velocity. Black Tusk’s sonic heft conveys the humid subtropical climate of their hometown without ever resorting to sluggish tempos—itself a neat trick.
More than their peers, Black Tusk oozed out of Savannah’s primordial soup as a metal band with roots in crust and street punk. Pillars of Ash has no mystical lyrical themes, no harmonized leads, and no overtly melodic vocals. Like the best work of their punk-metal ancestors, the album is packed with concise battering songs. Sure, they haven’t written an “Ace of Spades” (or even a “Love Me Like A Reptile”), but they have a bit of Motörhead’s crossover mojo.
The production by Joel Grind of Toxic Holocaust, himself a crossover fan, captures the trio’s mighty clangor and dirty denim aesthetic in a way that brings those elements to the fore. He pushes the kick drum right to the front of the mix and lets the guitars breathe, never sacrificing fidelity for thickness.
There are tighter bands in their genre, but Black Tusk’s looseness is an asset—evidence of their punk past. Black Tusk temper their brutishness with the structural restraint of hardcore. “Black Tide” sounds like a street fight between Black Flag and the Melvins. “Bleed on Your Knees” isn’t the subtlest set of lyrics in Savannah’s oeuvre, but with that steamrolling groove, who cares?
Black Tusk doesn't possess an apparent leader, but while ensemble playing remains its calling card, individual moments of glory are sprinkled throughout Pillars of Ash. Drummer James May owns “Still Not Well,” a late album standout with dazzling drum breaks and a lurching swing un-constricted by a conventional meter. “Good times and mutilation/God took a vacation/Self-worth and frustration/Everything so wasted,” roars Athon on the chorus of opener “God’s on Vacation.” His articulate bellow invokes menace; Andrew Fidler’s banshee shriek telegraphs frustration. The co-vocalists goad each other in the same brotherly manner as Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly of Neurosis.
They aren’t above occasional stylistic ambushes either: the Bauhaus-style piano outro on album closer “Leveling,” the '70s wah-wah drenched lead that ends the AC/DC referencing ”Born of Strife,” or the crusty cover of “Punk Out,” by Savannah’s Tank 18. Still, these moments are outliers. Mostly,Pillars of Ash eschews lengthy compositions and elaborate arrangements. Hard as nails, Black Tusk gets in, gets the job done and departs the scene.
That same flinty character still drives the band, which now includes Corey Barhorst from Niche filling in for their fallen comrade. In Pillars of Ash’s liner notes, the new member is credited with “making Black Tusk whole again.” The band's decision to press on is in keeping with the rugged Savannah ethos and spirit of self-determination.
In a recent interview, the current members reveal they released Athon’s ashes while on tour, a tribute to his nomadic life. Mining the record for buried meaning is tempting. “Walk Among The Sky” comes the closest, offering some stoner wisdom delivered in typical Black Tusk style. “Planets align tonight/Stars are shining bright/Time is drawing nigh/Hold the chalice high/Just a sip away/Faith the only way/We’re prepared to die/Walk among the sky.”
Walk on, brother.