From where I’m sitting, the best heavy metal in the world is being made in the American Southeast, by heavily bearded and tattooed bands who know just what to do with a fuzz-pedal. Mastodon, who have been drifting toward watery prog lately, are probably nonetheless patron saints of this great little wave. Kylesa and Baroness, from Savannah, and Torche, from Miami, are linchpins. Last year, Kylesa released the furious Spiral Shadow, a truly righteous combination of skyward hooks and merciless pummel that probably stands as my favorite metal record of the past few years. This year, Arkansas bashers Rwake got close to it with Rest, an album of guttural 12-minute suites that was my favorite 2011 metal album until this week. Now, that title belongs to another Savannah band, one with plenty of connections to the other bands from this region. Black Tusk have just released their new one Set The Dial, and it is awesome.
Last year, Black Tusk released Taste The Sin, their third album, an impressive barrage of quicksliver sludge riffage and elephant-stampede drums. I liked it, but it never quite moved me because its chaotic roil rarely gave me a chance to grab hold and ride with it. Set The Dial improves vastly on its predecessor by slowing down that attack — not to the extent where it makes a point of its slowness, the way fellow Georgia metal trio Zoroaster does, but enough so that their riffs resonate as riffs and not just blitzkriegs. Parts of Set The Dial are actually catchy, something that I can’t say about Taste The Sin. And there’s a dynamic variation that the band never really achieved before, too. Songs will dissolve into acoustic codas, or start slow enough to build tension before the righteous pick-slide signals the fury to come. Some of the credit should probably go to the album’s producer, grunge lifer Jack Endino. Endino knows a few things about getting thundering, muddy riffage to stick in your head; he did, after all, produce Bleach. But I’m more inclined to think that we’re just witnessing a band getting better at what it does.
One thing about Black Tusk: They’re the rare underground metal band that seems to realize what a hi-hat can do. That means we get great moments like the introductory instrumental track “Brewing The Storm,” where those little tics, spaced out between the riffs, build an “Eye Of The Tiger” sort of blood-pumping rhythm. Another thing about Black Tusk: All three members of the band sing, with none of them really stepping out and playing frontman. That means we get fun, goofy moments like the chorus of “Set The Dial To Your Doom,” where all three dudes play intricate tag-team vocal games on the chorus, almost like a neanderthal version of the early Beasties. And it means that we get three different tones of ragged guttural blurt, rather than just one, which is good for keeping things from getting boring. Also good: This is a ten-song album where all the tracks end before five minutes. They get in and get out quickly and economically, leaving your brain racing.
I can’t pretend to know anywhere near as much about this stuff as Brandon Stosuy, my predecessor around these parts. But this Southeastern sludge-rock wave is worth your attention; it seems to produce another crushing full-length every couple of months. Add Black Tusk to an ever-lengthening list of bands who figured out how to go from good to great.