It took a while—through nearly two decades of grunge, post-grunge, nü-metal, rap-rock, post-rock and more—but it's finally back, in its pure, unadulterated, street-grade form.
I'm talking about heavy metal, which the mainstream banished from radio in the '90s to make room for inexcusable crap like Limp Bizkit. Indeed, metal was forced to slither back underground, lick its wounds and nurture its strengths, before coming back stronger, deadlier, louder.
Evidence of a resurrection? Look no further than thriving indie Heavy Artillery Records and two recent signings: Portland Ore.'s Spellcaster, and Evil Survives (from Winnipeg, Manitoba) together play Tucson this week.
If you're a 20-something guitar wizard with a fairly adept band, Heavy Artillery is the prize. Sure, maybe a there's a band or three currently signed to the label that only wish to use the New York indie as a springboard to reach a dying major. (Good luck!) But the majority of these longhaired, white-tennis-shoed warriors view Heavy Artillery as the zenith of shredding achievement. I know this, because over the years, I've interviewed many of them, and they say as much. Walk into a record store (OK, there aren't many left), and you'll find plenty of the label's releases in the metal section. And you'll likely spot Spellcaster's new debut five-song EP, Spells of Speed.
Even for 20-year-old Spellcaster guitarist Cory Boyd, a physical release—vinyl, CD, even cassette—remains important to metal culture. Despite being a member of the YouTube generation, Boyd woodshed his chops by listening to his father's old Van Halen records, spinning them on a turntable, needle crackling in the groove.
"My dad had a vast collection of metal (records)," says Boyd during a recent phone interview. "I started with hair-metal bands and worked my way to thrash bands like Slayer and (Painkiller-era) Judas Priest. From there, I got into really aggressive death metal like Morbid Angel and Obituary."
Despite being surrounded by vinyl, a teenage Boyd relied on the Web for tablature, a fretboard-specific language of musical notation that demonstrates how to play riffs.
"The Internet was crucial in helping me discover all this stuff," he says. "In the beginning, when I started out playing, I'd look up tabs or listen by ear. Often, tabs are inaccurate, but when you learn to play by ear, you tend to master technique better. Eventually, you're right: YouTube allowed me to 'cheat' and study live footage."
At age 13, Boyd grew tired of banging on his dad's imitation Fender Stratocaster and began to seriously consider pursuing his interest in—no, his obsession with—metal. It might seem like a nerdy pursuit until you hear the absurd yet breathtaking results, namely Spells of Speed, which contains instant headbanging classics like pipe-organ-adorned, zombie-killing anthem "Chainsaw Champion," and duel-guitar-dive-bombing aerial-dogfight epic "Locked On." Very high above the six-string fray, vocalist Thomas Adams switches between a traditional NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) melodic tenor and a balls-in-a-vice screech. It's not the kind of music that likely appeals to the opposite sex, especially in hipster-plagued Portland.
Or does it?
"I just don't get indie-rock," gripes Boyd with an audible sigh. "Here in Portland, there's a big indie scene, and it really sucks. But we've noticed indie chicks are down with us. Maybe it's our white tennis shoes? My bandmates scoop 'em up, drag 'em back to their dark, satanic lairs, and do unspeakable things to them. Yet the indie gals seem to enjoy it.
"Joking, of course. Don't put any of this in your article, please!"
Meanwhile, Evil Survives guitarist and main songwriter Charley Justice isn't kidding around when he insists that his band draws musical and lyrical inspiration from pre-thrash NWOBHM and British power-metal legends like Iron Maiden.
"I can't deny that we're huge metalheads," he says. "But it's also mythology and history that we're obsessed with and drawing from, and the aesthetics of these things are perfect for metal. And, of course, they fit our epic sound."
Epic circa 1984, maybe. Which is when the metal subgenre of power metal (fantasy-themed, falsetto-vocaled, guitar-wanked) crystallized with the release of Iron Maiden's Powerslave, marking an irrevocable split between punk and metal. One listen to Evil Survives' "Die Like a Samurai," from the just-released EP Powerkiller, and you're instantly transported back in time—before most members of the band were even born.
Still, Justice insists Evil Survives' retro brand of metal is organic, not calculated. For instance, he loves the emotional sweep of classical and the technical ferocity of jazz. It's just that the aggressive nature of Evil Survives' music makes everything sound, well, metal.
"We're all power metal/thrash fiends, but we try not to play that way," he remarks. "We can't seem to filter out the NWOBHM style from what we do."
OK, then, but why write lyrics like the ones in "Masonic Enforcers," which sound directly cribbed from Conan creator Robert E. Howard's unpublished notes?
"Look, in my head, it's still 1984, and video games don't exist," says Justice. "We're just really passionate about music. I haven't owned a TV since I was 10, which is around when I picked up the guitar. We've filtered out all distractions."
What about those indie-rock girls?
"Nah. We don't mess with that."