Signs of a Southern cross

Black Tusk embraces its ‘beautiful shithole’ birthplace

Some things never change in the landscape of the Deep South. Today weeping willow trees still provide shade canopies along rivers and streams. Spanish moss hangs from the trees in haunted, ragged clumps. And the paper mills in Savannah, Ga., continue to belch unpleasant fumes into the air.

“Oh yeah, it stinks here,” confirms Black Tusk singer/bassist Jonathan Athon during a recent phone chat. “Always will. If it didn’t, I’d figure something is wrong.”

Black Tusk is one of at least a dozen punk-metal bands from the Bible Belt that are loudly redefining the genre. And Savannah—thanks to Black Tusk and local peers (and Relapse Records labelmates) Kylesa and Baroness—is ground zero for this renaissance. A blend of sludge-rock dynamics with hardcore crust-punk momentum, the result is what Black Tusk calls “swamp metal,” the muddiest, dankest, darkest rock around.

“Our environment definitely influences how we sound,” Athon says. “Think about it: You go to your practice space, it’s 110 degrees outside, there’s all this humidity and sweat, so you’re not going to write nice melodies. That’s why we have that thick, murky Savannah sound. It’s the sound of: ‘Oh my God, I hate my life right now.’”

Since forming in 2005, Black Tusk has released an EP and four full-length albums, including last year’s breakout Set the Dial, produced by Jack Endino. If that name rings a rock ’n’ roll bell, it’s because Endino put Nirvana on the map with a little record called Bleach.

“The name Endino definitely popped up on the back of a lot of CDs I was listening to as a kid,” Athon says. “Hell, I grew up with grunge, and recently Endino has done so many amazing records for metal bands like High on Fire and Toxic Holocaust. Until you become a musician, you don’t really pay attention to how a producer can shape the way you sound in a recording studio.”

Indeed, there’s more than a bit of grunge and a helping of Pantera in the racket generated by Black Tusk. For Athon, though, the prevailing metaphor is a blender. “We like so many different types of music—Swedish death metal, Norwegian black metal, U.K. crust-punk—that a lot of things get mixed up into the machine,” he says. “We write what we feel, and if it sounds good, we’ll put it in there. The only rule we have is that it must always sound like us and not like some other band.”

No chance of that. Black Tusk is so unique the band is featured in the forthcoming music documentary film Slow Southern Steel, which illuminates that particular strain of eardrum-shattering metal that only the South is currently nurturing.

“Because I grew up here, I’m used to it,” Athon says. “The extravagant graveyards, the melancholy trees, the whole gothic thing—people come here and say look how gorgeous it is. To me it’s just my beautiful shithole, and I’ll never leave it.”

This notion of “ugly prettiness” is evident in songs from Set the Dial, which includes riff-heavy barnstormers “Growing Horns,” about how man is born pure and dies contaminated by an insane world, and “Ender of All,” about how people long for an apocalypse because they can’t see any other way out. Not exactly the kind of feel-good pop material that will allow the members of Black Tusk—Athon, guitarist Andrew Fidler, drummer James May—to quit their freelance construction jobs anytime soon.

“We don’t fake the barely employed funk,” Athon says. “We’re covered in tattoos, and no one’s going to hire us full-time knowing we’re leaving in a month to tour Europe. We had to choose to be in a band. Hell, I might not be rich, but I have my head above water. A lot of people would love to be in my position.”

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