Black Tusk – Pillars of Ash
Release Date: January 29, 2016
If one were so inclined as to compile a list entitled “Places Most Likely to Produce Excellent Metal Bands”, Savannah, Georgia would figure to be somewhere near the bottom. Maybe it’s just me thought—I’ve never even been to Georgia and my only real reference point to that area is the 1989 Academy Award winning film Driving Miss Daisy which, in all honesty, is a film I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen. At any rate, when I think of Georgia, it’s all sunshine, trees and flowers. That’s the thing about perceptions and outward appearances though—they can be, and almost always are, misleading. For years now, metal and heavy music in general has been slowly splintering into an endless sea of genres and sub-genres and what was once a relatively easy thing to define has become much more nebulous. It has been a fascinating process to witness, particularly with regards to the way unique sonic signatures have emerged from certain regions, which brings me back around to Savannah, Georgia—the seemingly idyllic Southern city which has produced sludge metal titans Kylesa, Baroness, and Black Tusk. And while the former two bands have, in recent years, sanded down their rough edges while exploring broader and perhaps more melodic sonic landscapes, Black Tusk has defiantly taken a step back to their roots with their latest record entitled Pillars of Ash.
It would be impossible to discuss Pillars of Ash without acknowledging the tragic death of bassist and founding member Jonathan Athon—a man known simply as “Athon” to those who knew and loved him. In November of 2014, shortly after recording had been completed on Pillars of Ash, Athon and his girlfriend were out on a motorcycle ride that abruptly ended when an elderly man pulled out in front of Athon’s bike. His girlfriend sustained serious injuries but fortuitously survived. Athon, however, did not. In the days and weeks that followed his death many a tribute was written, all of which shared a common thread: Athon was, by all counts, a well-loved man who was always fixing things for people. He was a champion of the Savannah scene, and it’ll never be the same without him.
What of Pillars of Ash then? For me, it was a complicated listen at first. This is Black Tusk’s fifth full-length, and I didn’t get on board with these guys until the 2011 release of their previous album, Set the Dial. From there I worked my way back through their discography (including several EP’s), but nothing resonated with me quite the way Set the Dial did. I picked up Pillars of Ash expecting the band to progress along the path they’d laid out on Set the Dial. That was not the case. Whereas Set the Dial gives the listener some space to breathe and takes a more riff-based approach (and I’m trying not to use the word “melody” here), Pillars of Ash is a straight up punk metal ripper.
The album begins with a single kick drum from James May leading into “God’s on Vacation”, which sprints along for just under 3 minutes before vaulting headlong into “Desolation”—both tracks serving as a relentless statement of purpose for what Black Tusk set out to achieve. “Bleed on Your Knees” and “Born of Strife” let you up for air—but just a little. Both still rip along at a good clip but each song gives the individual instruments a chance to emerge ever-briefly from the sonic sludge, allowing a clean listen to the fantastic tones that the band and producer Joel Grind (of Toxic Holocaust fame) achieve on this record.
The album’s best track is also its centerpiece—”Damned in the Ground”. It starts off with a singular wisp of a guitar note which chimes along barely long enough to hold the rhythm section at bay while building tension before the whole thing explodes into a glorious 3-minute barrage of riffs—a few of which had me searching the liner notes to see if maybe Matt Pike had stopped by the studio. The back half of the album starts off with “Beyond the Divide” which feels like relatively standard 2-chord punk fare until about halfway through when another of the album’s more memorable riffs emerges and takes the song into new territory. Down the stretch, the album strides out a bit with a pair of longer songs (relatively speaking, that is, since most of these songs are under 3 minutes) in “Black Tide” and “Still Not Well”, the latter of which is the most guitar-forward track on the album. The plodding main riff from Andrew Fidler is simple yet devastatingly huge, and the guitar tone is perfect. From there the album begins to approach its close with two more punk infused numbers, the fantastic “Walk Among the Sky”, and “Punkout”—which is a cover of a song by Tank 18 (a band I am not familiar with). Compared to the rest of the lyrical content on Pillar of Ashes—which is mostly your typical non-conformist fare, “Punkout” is a ham-fisted breath of fresh air. The album closes out with “Leveling”, a short but intense number that gives way to a pensive piano outro. All told, the album clocks in at just under 35 minutes.
If I had one complaint about the record it would be that it is too often reliant on punk rock song structure, but that is merely a matter of personal preference and, given Black Tusk’s origins, a wholly unreasonable critique. There is an undeniable sonic mastery at work on Pillars of Ash—it feels like an album that achieves exactly what it set out to do and, as I mentioned earlier, it sounds amazing thanks to exceptional production. It’s a shame that this will be the last album the band will be able to make with Athon. The importance of chemistry in a band cannot be overstated and although I’ve never been in a band, I have to figure this is especially true of a trio like Black Tusk. Fortunately, it appears as though they’ve found a worthy replacement in Corey Barhorst who, formerly of Kylesa, also plays in the superb psych outfit Niche. Athon can never be replaced, but here’s hoping that Black Tusk enjoy a long and fruitful career as they carry the torch for their fallen bandmate.