Wednesday, April 22, 2015

St. Louis' Thriving Metal Scene is Catching International Attention

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 2:30 PM

ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN GORNIK
  • Illustration by Lauren Gornik

A crowd of roughly 100 people has gathered at the Fubar lounge in midtown to hear local metal band Fister debut its newest material — a single 44-minute composition entitled IV. No one in the band says a word before it launches into music that pulverizes the audience.

The volume is so menacing, you can feel the distorted down-tuned notes of bassist Kenny Snarzyk and guitarist Marcus Newstead rumbling your internal organs. Yet the tempos are slow enough for drummer Kirk Gatterer to occasionally pick up his PBR, take a sip and put it back down without missing a single cymbal smash.

The indecipherable screams emitted by Snarzyk and Newstead contain an intensity that recalls someone vomiting during a peyote trip, as if releasing the bad spirits from within in order to achieve transcendence. Heads in the crowd bang in slow motion, and after a few minutes, the relentless repetition becomes hypnotic and transformative. By the time the last chords cut off sharply, it feels like Fister has only been playing for five minutes — even though it also kind of feels like the audience just finished a marathon.

Fister on the road in the Netherlands for the Roadburn Festival. - COURTESY OF FISTER
  • Courtesy of Fister
  • Fister on the road in the Netherlands for the Roadburn Festival.

All four bands on tonight's bill — Fister, Grand Inquisitor, Bong Threat and Heavy Horse — call St. Louis home. All share a penchant for darkness, but the energy in the room is positive. That's partly a product of the camaraderie these bands enjoy, and partly because, tonight, there is ample cause for celebration. Not only does this show celebrate the official release of Fister's IV, it's a going-away party in advance of the band's two-week trek through Europe.

Some may consider heavy metal to be a thing of the past; after all, it has been decades since Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica dominated the charts. But through the crests and troughs of mainstream success, metal has continued to thrive underground, where bands are able to push boundaries and develop small but devoted audiences of curious listeners.

These are particularly exciting times in the St. Louis metal scene, and Fister's European tour seems emblematic of a larger trend. The past few years have seen the city producing creative, hard-hitting bands. The international metal community is starting to take note.

Even more validating is how many of these St. Louis heavy bands have achieved recognition through tireless work and adventurous creativity within the language of metal. Fister's IV is a perfect example of risk-taking.

Many aggressive albums are referred to as "challenging." IV is more like a dare. There is no opportunity to skip between tracks, and any foothold you might find is lost with a single disorienting push of the fast-forward button. Like a great film, IV only makes sense if experienced front to back without interruption.

The format of Fister's ambitious record is not without precedent; some have made knee-jerk comparisons to the legendary 1998 album Dopesmoker by Sleep, an hourlong exercise in brutal monotony. "The main difference between IV and Dopesmoker?" says Kenny Snarzyk. "Our album has more than just one riff over and over again."

Fister's stickers and T-shirts once bore the slogan "If it's too slow, you're too young." The trio specializes in doom metal, a type of down-tempo, visceral, Black Sabbath-indebted heavy music. Doom is arguably the hippest subgenre on the market today, appealing to people who rarely venture into metal's less palatable, more exhausting branches.

"I don't know if and when the doom bubble will pop," Snarzyk says. "It's definitely bigger than ever in Europe. It's still kind of slow to catch on in the States, but it's growing fast."

Snarzyk and his cohorts have been at the leading edge of the recent doom explosion. Stateside, Fister has toured with Pallbearer, a Kentucky group whose album Foundations of Burden was the fifth-most-acclaimed album of 2014, according to music review aggregator Metacritic (ranking below St. Vincent and D'Angelo but above Aphex Twin and Leonard Cohen).

In Europe, Fister toured with Denver band Primitive Man in support of a split twelve-inch record featuring material by both groups. These two obscure bands packed rooms in places such as Belgium and the Czech Republic, with a crucial stop at the iconic Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands.

"We played the smallest stage at Roadburn," Snarzyk says. "About 150 to 175 people crammed in to see our set. Afterwards, some people complained because we didn't play a song they wanted to hear. It was surreal."

The day of the band's festival performance, Fister posted an image on its Facebook page that seemed to symbolize the strangeness of a St. Louis band playing a hyped set at one of the world's most prestigious metal festivals: 4,300 miles from St. Louis, on the stage next to Kenny Snarzyk's effects pedals, sat a full beer in a Schlafly glass.

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