City of Dust

Inside Tucson's metal and hardcore underground

The origins of heavy metal have been fiercely debated for nearly as long as its parent genre, rock 'n' roll, has existed, with examples of the Who, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and reaching as far back as Screamin' Jay Hawkins vying for the title of the first heavy metal artist. Late '60s progenitors Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, among others, are widely credited with defining the music, taking British Blues imitations—sometimes outright mimicry—and turning up the volume while adding occult mysticism to its lyrics and visual image. The established rock press has always been at odds with the music for reasons including its perceived anti-intellectualism.

This helped metal, incidentally, creating a grassroots relationship between performer and audience that continues to this day. By the mid—'70s, heavy metal was flourishing, selling millions of records across the world, and then punk rock came along and confused everything.

Here was a form that took from the same well of source material as traditional metal—the British invasion, most notably—but did away with the wizards and warriors imagery that superstars like Rainbow and Deep Purple embraced, replacing it with street-level grittiness and a political consciousness that unabashedly attacked mainstream values in a way that metal had previously only implied by its very existence. Furthermore, punk rock was met with nearly unanimous praise from music critics.

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal followed, with bands like Motorhead and Iron Maiden incorporating punk's speed—in the velocity of the music and its druggy lifestyle—into the sounds of their predecessors, or in some cases, blurring the line between the two.

Meanwhile in the U.S., two movements were happening simultaneously: hardcore, which was punk's mean and even angrier little brother, and the first bands that came to be associated with thrash metal, including Slayer and Metallica. Slayer, Metallica, and their contemporaries were one part NWBHM and one part hardcore, further blurring the lines between what was punk and what was metal. Other sub-genres followed in the '80s: speed metal, grindcore and death metal; later, black metal, stoner metal, metalcore, and countless other varieties that often offered the slightest musical differences to distinguish them from each other appeared. What all of these sub-genres had in common was a commitment to a perceived reality unencumbered by mainstream musical and cultural values, or at the very least, the very punk notion of autonomy of art and commerce.

In 2014, Tucson has countless acts that could fit in some, all, or none of these categories. North, for example (and featured later in this piece), owes little debt to any heavy metal offshoot that exists beyond a tiny footnote in rock's long history, but the band's pummeling rhythms and tortured aesthetic find it closer to metal than anything else. This article is by no means an encyclopedia or even a comprehensive overview of Tucson's metal and hardcore scene; it is a small introduction, where the only goal is to engage the reader to explore deeper into the rich musical landscape they might not have known about. In addition to the acts featured here, other bands very worthy of a listen include Territory, Inoculara, Anakim, Conqueror Worm, Chamber, Gatecreeper, Man Bites Dog, Vanish Twin, Genocaust and Magguts.