In an interview during their first year together, a rock journalist asked Savannah-based rock trio Black Tusk to define its sound. The three bandmates collectively shrugged. Then drummer James May came up with a response, “Call us swamp-metal,” he said. It made some sense, considering the band’s hometown’s proximity to the Okefenokee Swamp. The term has followed Black Tusk ever since.
“The band name came from our location and the heaviness and thickness of the music,” May says. “It sounds thick and it feels sweaty. Swamps are all around where we’re from. Since then, it’s just kind of stuck with us.”
With their screeching vocals, pounding drums, and Sabbath-aware guitar riffs, indie power trio Black Tusk are one of the most aggressive metal acts coming out of the Georgia scene. May, guitarist Andrew Fidler, and bassist Jonathan Athon developed a raw, stripped-down, and dynamic style that offers something for just about any kind of young headbanger.
Coming out of punk-based bands, all three bandmates knew from the start that they wanted to aim for something different. They all liked classic hard rock and British metal, so an aggressive hybrid of punkish metal seemed inevitable.
“I still listen to all sorts of music, and so do Andrew and Jonathan,” May says. “And we like all sorts of metal. But we might listen to country in the van during a trip, just to mix it up. This band can play in all sorts of situations, so we don’t worry too much about being categorized.”
May started playing drums in high school. His first serious band experiences were with local garage-rock and punk groups. In 2005, he hooked up with Fidler and Athon, two neighborhood musicians who were frustrated with the lack of dedication and enthusiasm of their bandmates at the time.
“I was living down the street when they came over and asked me if I’d be into doing something,” May remembers. “I’d just been in a band that had broken up because everyone wasn’t into it on the same level. I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot again, so it became a conversation of, ‘I don’t want to do this if it’s going to waste my time.’ We didn’t want to even start it if we weren’t all really serious about it. It started from there.”
Fortunately, all three were eager and determined to write, record, and tour, no matter the hardships or hurdles.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Are you ready to be broke, crash out on people’s floors, have problems in your relationships, and devote the next years of your life to being practically homeless and living in a van?’ We were ready to commit,” May says. “Then we had to find common ground on what we wanted to play.”
Black Tusk’s 2010 album Taste the Sin was their first full-length for the major-league metal label Relapse Records. More straightforward and thrashy than the proggy metal of Southeastern brethren Mastodon, Baroness, and Kylesa, the heavy stuff on Taste the Sin earned praise from fans and critics alike.
In the last two years, the trio has shared bills with the likes of Pentagram, Fu Manchu, Eyehategod, and Crowbar. Last fall, they embarked on several intense tours in support of their latest release Set the Dial. Produced by in-demand studio engineer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, High on Fire, Skeletonwitch), Set the Dial is a high-energy, 10-song set of very hard rock. Listeners can detect the speed-freak grind and grit of Motörhead’s Ace of Spades, the operatic flamboyance of Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, and the ominous sludge of Black Flag’s My War.
“With Set the Dial, we wanted to make the Black Tusk heavy rock ‘n’ roll album,” May says. “It was simple, but the simplicity led to some things getting complex. It was amazing to get Jack Endino to work on it because he put that big Nirvana-Mudhoney-Soundgarden thick sound to it. The theme of the new collection is basically all things apocalyptic, so the heavy-handed grime of the music suits it well.
“Every song has a point on the world’s doom or what can happen to make the world end,” May says. “Metal is supposed to frighten you, you know? It’s supposed to be scary. Like horror movies, some of the scariest metal intrigues you and makes you want to get into it more.”