Vintage metal is making a comeback — critical acclaim included — thanks in part to Raleigh, N.C. band Colossus. There was a time when, despite (or perhaps because of) their massive commercial success, old-school British heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest couldn’t get any critical respect. Yes, they were stellar musicians pretty much across the board. Yes, their vocalists, leather-and-spandex-laden men like Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Priest’s Rob Halford, could hit notes that only dogs could hear. Sure, they could pack stadiums — but a five-star album review from Rolling Stone? Out of the question.
At least that was the case until the early 2000s, when scores of bands from the Darkness to Wolfmother started paying tribute, both in song and in the press, to the bands that shaped their music. The result: a crucial reevaluation. And that new attention in turn has spawned successful reunions and new albums galore.
Or could there be another reason behind the resurgence of balls-out, skyscraping, classic heavy-metal music? Colossus bassist Ry Eshelman has his own theory. “I think the popularity of heavy metal waxes and wanes directly in proportion to the population of the Portuguese Man-of-War, the animal unanimously considered by Colossus to be the most metal,” he says. “Their numbers have been on the rise in recent years, and so too has the number of true metal fans around the world.”
A shaky theory perhaps, but Colossus knows their metal, that’s for certain. The quintet — guitarists Bill Fischer and Steven Cline, singer Sean Buchanan, and a drummer known only as Doza — plays a style of music they call “adventure metal,” which puts a new, more streamlined spin on the classic twin-guitar leads, galloping bass lines, and ear-splitting vocals of vintage heavy metal. “We are all adventurous souls,” Eshelman says. “Most of our lyrics are about great adventures and adventurers, and we thought that was a good description of the genre. We want to make music you would feel comfortable listening to while you fight a giant sloth with a bone club or hiking the Appalachian trail.”
In case it isn’t clear yet, there might also be some tongue-in-cheek humor involved, because the interesting thing about the band’s music is that it can be enjoyed as a loving parody of the great British metal titans, or as the real deal. On their most recent release, 2012’s Colossus and the Sepulcher of the Mirror-Warlocks (yes, that’s what it’s called), the band creates multi-section, wide-screen epics with double-time riffing and a stampeding rhythm section. The tracks are more like fantasy-film soundtracks than conventional songs.
“We have a few different processes to reach a finished product,” Eshelman says of the band’s songwriting process. “But they all start with someone presenting an idea and the rest of us building upon it. The original idea might be as small as a cool movie that we want to write a song about or as thought-out as a demo of a song with complete lyrics. We then write our own parts or put our own ideas into it until we feel like it is finished. We try to make it as egalitarian as possible and explore everyone’s input and ideas.”
It’s a sound that, like Maiden and Priest, seems to inspire love or hate with little in-between, and Eshelman says that Colossus, who have been together since 2005, have had to hustle to build their fan base. “Our approach is to get in wherever we can, play with any type of band there is, and rely on our show to win over an audience. I’ve been in several other bands that drive people from a room when the music starts, but Colossus has the ability to draw a crowd in and keep their attention. There are usually more people in the room when we finish playing than there were when we started, and that provides us with a great sense of accomplishment.”
After a decade of hard work, Eshelman has a sense of the people that Colossus’ music has attracted. “Sometimes people get sucked in by the lyrics and realize a song is about some obscure book that they love, too, and other times it’s the technical aspect of the music that intrigues someone. We also really like to party and have fun, and that draws in another type of person,'” he says. “I would say the typical Colossus fan is an amalgamation of all these traits, and oftentimes results in a really cool person that we would hang out with outside of the context of the show.”