Live Report: Black Tusk, East Of The Wall, Name at the Bottom of the Hill
by Joe Boone
The Bottom of the Hill is only an occasional home to metal and the décor is as diverse as the bands that play on the stage. It’s a collision of styles and periods, slanted towards the vaguely retro and kitschy, like the aftermath of a ’50s Pentagon Christmas party during which the big red button was accidentally pushed. Off-kilter mirrors, lots of blue and black paint, multi-colored linoleum floors, Christmas lights of every possible description, a statue of Jesus, red Mardi Gras beads, a skateboard deck bedecked with a Dio de Los Muertos biker and the cryptic inscription “MAX SCHAAF,” some in-joke I don’t get. A stuffed toy cat’s head, a t-ball trophy, a woodcut sign that reads simply “GIRLS.”
The crowd for the opening acts is weird and small: casual metalheads in the weekend warrior mold, nebulous hipsters who will come to see anything this particular club is willing to book, lots of skate shoes, some baseball hats. None of your dyed-in-the-wool card-carrying ancient heshers that turn up at death metal shows. But it’s early still and raining half-heartedly outside, so perhaps our ranks will swell.
The regrettably named Name takes the stage. The guitarist/singer and bassist could be brothers, square-shouldered young men with black hair and beards. The drummer might be a cousin, similarly stocky and bull-necked. All three are wearing tight black t-shirts. I’m struck first by the bright green strings on the black bass. The guitar is an SG knockoff with a “RELIGION IS POISON” sticker on the lower bout and a small, tattered Mexican flag sticker on the headstock. The drum setup is weird: left-handed with no rack tom and only one crash.
Their first song starts with a drumbeat that sets the tone for their whole set, syncopated without ever managing to be groovy or danceable. A looping pedal was used to paltry effect. The bassist’s insistence on frequent chording and terrible tone makes the low end an incomprehensible grumble. I prick up my ears for a blasted section, but am disappointed: it sounds neither fast nor heavy. A gratuitous 7/4 riff further confuses a crowd that is already not on this band’s side.
Some banter: “We are Name. What’s our name? We get asked that at every show.” (That’s because it’s a weak name) “This song is about music and stuff. And other songs.” I actually look forward to bands’ explanations of their (hopefully) indecipherable lyrics. Some past highlights include: mountains (Hazzard’s Cure), container ships (Kowloon Walled City), Cain and Abel (Watain), Satan (traditional), but never anything so half-hearted, phoned-in and lame as “music and other songs.”
During one of several painfully long interludes during which the guitarist tuned, bass and drums attempted an improvised funk number, which confirmed my suspicion: the drummer is constitutionally incapable of playing straight.
We are treated to some more blasting so weak that every single snare note is ghosted. I was most intrigued by a couple long, reverb-soaked interludes when the bass and drums didn’t play at all. In these moments, Name evokes Pelican or Isis, without any of the latters’ cinematographic sense. A little off-pitch clean singing and some regrettably comprehensible lyrics close the set. In summary, Name is a young band with (perhaps) adequate talent but no sense of taste whatsoever.
East of the Wall: My first impression of these guys is that they love weird guitars: an antique and road-worn Parker, a Carvin with all the finish stripped off and a seven-string Schecter. All three players have placed before themselves some of the hugest pedalboards I’ve ever seen. The preference seems to be for amp brands I’ve never heard of, either.
My next observation is that this band seems to be a very unlikely cast of characters. I can’t help but wonder where they met. Parker guitar, in his Syracuse Lacrosse tee and cargo shorts, his beard and floppy hair, looks as though he’d be more at home being a dungeon master in his parents’ rec room. Carvin, in his baggy black on black, looks a little like the lovechild of Karl Sanders and Kerry King, and could be twenty years older than everyone else. Schecter Man is unassuming in jeans and a forest-green tee-shirt. The bassist looks like a post-rock pirate or Abdul Alhazred, Lovecraft’s mad Arab, or perhaps a Spanish soldier out of Dumas, with his long hair and cavalier’s moustache.
Based on an old and deep-seated skepticism I harbor towards three-guitar bands with too many effects, my hopes are low.
My prejudices are immediately proved wrong. First song: a stuttering doom riff glides into a lovely melodic part propelled by syncopated drums and Lacrosse’s astonishingly on-pitch and persuasive clean singing. This is followed abruptly by an explosion of dual-screaming from Schecter and the insane bassist.
And Holy God can they all play. In addition to his talents as a singer, Lacrosse manages some very tasty prog-flavored solos, with hints of Opeth. Kerry Sanders’ style focuses more on sweeping and speed, but he plays very well, too. None of the three guitars ever seems superfluous, and all three have distinct tones that interact well. Their swirling lines interlock and communicate. Bass and drums are so tight they almost disappear into the songs, seeming to have been born there.
EOTW’s tempos shift as restlessly as Name’s, but they convince me that they are going someplace and not just thrashing around. Perhaps their most impressive feat comes in the last third of their set: an empty beat in a crushing riff elicits a collective “whooo!” from the crowd, as if by reflex, a sure sign a band is rocking.
Ah, but the price of all that sweet tone is dear: loadout looks like Omaha Beach, with players and roadies scurrying hither and yon to move the massive pile of gear this band trucks with it everywhere.
By this time, the crowd has grown to a more respectable size and I can even catch a glimpse here and there of a Bathory patch on a tattered jean jacket, or a pair of white high-tops.
Black Tusk: These dudes look like a family of cannibals. Bassist Athon has an extremely long ZZ Top beard. He’s tuning and sound-checking some crazy custom bass with a massively fuzzy tone. Guitarist Andrew has a vintage Explorer and an Epiphone SG going to a Marshall head and is wearing a High On Fire shirt. Drummer James is wearing a mesh cap and Waylon Jennings shirt and sitting behind the hugest drums I’ve ever seen. Seriously, they look like a playland for a Bonzo-gorilla hybrid in blue sparkle finish. All three players are covered in tats, including an especially disconcerting piece of a woman’s face on the drummer’s throat.
Sound check is brief and mind-numbingly loud. A wild tom fill erupts and they are off. They get about 30 seconds into their first number when technical difficulties strike and a replacement bass is called in, but guitar and drums keep the tom build grinding away while the issue is resolved.
This band has chemistry coming out of its ass. The guitarist and bassist frequently face each other to headbang in unison, seeming almost trapped in a dance. Both spend copious time in the backfield locking in with the drummer. There is virtually no banter, no relenting between songs to let the audience catch its breath. Unlike the other two bands tonight, both of whom were quite busy in their approaches to differing degrees of effectiveness, Tusk seems almost obsessed with simplicity, the careful placement of every thundering note and feedback-tempting rest to maximize the crushing power of the riff. The downside of this approach is that their live show is much more interesting than their records. On record their songs can seem draggy or overly simplistic without the balls-out fury they display in a live setting. Tom-heavy, grinding expositions that can seem a few bars too long on headphones build to an almost unbearable suspense when you’re in the pit. Unlike on their records, they use almost no effects live, just a little wah, the guitarist preferring to spend as much time as possible with his foot on the monitor, thrashing away mercilessly.
After the third song, a replacement bass head is borrowed from East of the Wall. Given the pace and fury of the set so far, it seems incredible that more equipment is not cracking under the strain.
Finally a short break to tune allows for a little banter. “We got pulled over today. Guess how much weed we had to eat.” “Yeah, I’m pretty fucking high right now.” “This next song is about Satan!”
I’m amazed at the detailed shit the drummer manages while singing, some challenging bell work on the ride and some fills.
All three of Black Tusk’s vocalists have distinct voices and approaches to singing. The guitarist has a high-pitched howl, the drummer focuses on a mid-range bellow, and the bassist has a gruff roar that fills out the bottom end. Between the three of them, they have available a variety of moods and a big expressive pallet. They are surprisingly restrained about using all three voices at once.