Black Tusk Pillars of Ash

[Relapse; 2016]

Styles: swamp thing, sludge punk, “we can climb so high/ I never wanna die”
Others: Kylesa, Black Sabbath, Mastodon

Metal is elemental, under our feet and in our bones. The same chemical element of core, crust, and mantle soaks the body’s blood. Ozzy intones “I am Iron Man” and I grin, teeth straightened by steel, molars full of amalgam. We put plates in heads and rods on spines. Heavy metals are the elementary obelisk: touch and be transformed.

“Here we go again/ A sigh left for the end,” shouts Andrew Fidler, all mission statement and laser intent on album opener “God’s on Vacation.” The metal of Black Tusk is essential. The three-piece chased a swamp noise straight out of Savannah, Georgia and ran it down until it was fat-free and mean, more sneering punk than sludgy plod. “Born of Strife” is the sound of rhythmic synthesis, a band aware of itself to the point of singularizing. It is clarion guitar and low-bottom stamp: a minute and a half in and the tempo upshifts almost out of control, a cowbell fit that stares into the hurricane and smiles. The music looks to swallow the maker, but it does not. The obelisk stands.

Obelisks age. They transform others and transfigure themselves. The tenets of Black Tusk, impossible focus and iron immortality, burn on pillars of ash. The chiming chords of “Damned in the Ground” and the locked in exuberance of “Black Tide” promise redemption, but there is something else in the body, some disorder. “What is this that stands before me?”

In 2005, Andrew Fidler, Jamie May, and Jonathan Athon formed Black Tusk. In November of 2014, Jonathan Athon died in a motorcycle collision. Obelisks crumble, bodies ruin.

This isn’t an album about that death. It’s the last recording the band made as that unit, and Athon’s bass and voice appear on every track. And no art deserves to be sensationalized by tragedy: we owe it to the makers to treat the thing made in the spirit that they made it. But Pillars of Ash is an album about statues crumbling, time wrecking, death leering. And it cannot exist in a vacuum, the unfeeling “great magnetic field” of “Iron Man.” Black Tusk isn’t metal for statues. It’s music for voices.

Black Tusk is three instruments in perfect cohesion, but it’s also the sound of three humans. Everyone sings, Fidler all cords straining toward Ad-Rock, drummer Jamie May earthy rumble, de-tuned floor tom, Athon, guttural, lips to make every last syllable count. That De La Soul mic-shuffling propels the songs to their edges and reinforces the punk foundation of Black Tusk’s art. Distilled all the way, punk is the psychic breakdown of walls, between audience and artist, between voices in a choir. An equal share in the sound is essential to music as humanity. Losing a limb from that miscellany-free body isn’t breaking a bone so much as it is waking up a new creature. “Is he alive or dead?/ Has he thoughts within his head?”

Metal is elemental. The same iron essential to shuffling our body’s oxygen is poison in excess. Manganese stokes enzymes to life, but too much too fast and the body slips into neurotoxicity. But there is no ceding the essentials, no voice in a vacuum, and no art without transformation. Pillars of Ash is the body in transition, all crumble and ovation, an album that celebrates a human voice and exists in a world without it.

Links: Black Tusk - Relapse

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