Dark Matters 

St. Louis bands are finding international success in a thriving metal scene

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.

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.

Historically, St. Louis has been a breeding ground for forward-thinking heavy music. In the late 1980s, local outfit Anacrusis infused the thrashy sounds associated with Slayer and Metallica with elements of brainy progressive rock. Its albums have since become cult classics in the international metal underground.

Later, the Dazzling Killmen spent the early '90s developing an eclectic, complicated form of noisy punk and refined its craft on the road with pioneering metal outsiders Neurosis, Sleep and Helmet. And at the turn of the millennium, Love Lost But Not Forgotten and Lye By Mistake gained cult followings for their dangerous intensity.

To some extent, the unrest that has gripped the region in the last year has provided a framework for outsiders to understand the area's metal scene.

"I don't think this is entirely the reason," says Rick Giordano of the Lion's Daughter, "but when you think about what people outside of St. Louis know about here, it's pretty miserable. Obviously Ferguson, it doesn't matter where you are, you know about that. The guy in France who runs our label knows about what's going on there. And bands just hear about other bands getting robbed here all the time," Giordano continues. "It's like how hardcore thug bands coming from Detroit makes sense. Maybe fucked-up scary metal music coming out of St. Louis will start to make sense to people."

Despite the city's rich heritage of heavy music, Giordano had low expectations when the Lion's Daughter started playing shows in 2007. "We started up around the same time as Fister," Giordano recalls. "Kenny [Snarzyk] and I had an ongoing joke that we were making music for each other to listen to because nobody gives a shit about this kind of music here."

He goes on, "When people actually started coming to shows, we were so surprised that anybody cared. Anytime somebody afterwards would be like, 'You guys were awesome,' I'd be thinking, 'Are you sure? That doesn't sound right to me.' We expected nobody to like it; that was kind of the fun of it. We had the freedom to do whatever we want because there isn't some scene here that we were trying to fit in to. If we were in Chicago, we might feel pressured to sound like a Chicago band, but that isn't the case here, which is kind of cool."

Giordano handles guitar and vocal duties for the Lion's Daughter alongside drummer Erik Ramsier and bassist Scott Fogelbach (formerly of Love Lost But Not Forgotten). Describing the band's horror-obsessed take on metal is difficult, involving clumsy combinations of hyphens, slashes and overly specific genre tags. In simpler terms, the Lion's Daughter plays the kind of intense, filthy, apocalyptic music that the average person assumes must be hiding satanic messages.

To date, the Lion's Daughter has released a stunning full-length and a solid EP. But no release has received the attention of A Black Sea, the band's collaboration with local folk outfit Indian Blanket. The word "epic" barely contains the record's juxtaposition of Neil Young-style damaged tenderness with enormous walls of distortion. RFT's Christian Schaeffer complimented the album's "brutal beauty," stating, "The common ground the bands share isn't exactly musical; it's emotional. Both bands mine the raw terrain of unflinching self-doubt, though they approach it with distinctly different decibel levels."

A Black Sea caught the attention of Michael Berberian, owner of French metal label Season of Mist. Giordano had previously sent the label an unsolicited email and received no response. Unaware that friends in the band Pig Destroyer had put in a good word, he was floored when Berberian sent a message to the Lion's Daughter's Facebook page last year.

"I had just gotten home at 2:30 on a Saturday night, and out of the blue there was this message from Mike," Giordano says. "It was kind of unspecific and kind of obvious that English is not his first language, like, 'I listened to these songs on Internets. Is this new record? Is there more happening?' So I sent this rambling drunk response, which luckily didn't scare him off."

Giordano was concerned because Berberian was initially enthused about A Black Sea. "I had to explain that it was a weird project with us and six other people and isn't representative of what we actually sound like," Giordano says. Since Berberian was curious about the band's new material, the Lion's Daughter quickly recorded demos with A Black Sea producer Gabe Usery of Encapsulated Studios and sent them to the label. A week later, Season of Mist offered the band a record deal.

Giordano was surprised by how quickly the label committed. "Communication was very minimal," he says. "I was expecting a bunch of questions: 'Are you guys going to tour? How old are you guys? Who's in the band now? What gear do you use?' There was none of that stuff.... It was more like, 'These songs are good. We'll put out your record.'"

For the Lion's Daughter's debut on Season of Mist, the band reached out to Sanford Parker, a producer/engineer from Chicago. Giordano's eyes grow large when he talks about his love for Parker's work. His cadence quickens, and he uses words like "creepy" and "disgusting" in the most complimentary ways.

"When we did our very first recording with Brian Scheffer at Firebrand Recording, we played him albums that Sanford Parker had produced as a reference for what we wanted our shit to sound like," Giordano says. "So he was always the dream guy to work with. The fact that he was the first person we asked and we got him was pretty fucking cool. I didn't think it would happen."

Giordano is excited about the Lion's Daughter's progress, but at 35, he is wise enough to know that a record deal doesn't automatically translate into private jets, fortune and fame. In a way, too, the band makes music that reacts against these traditional concepts of success, opting instead for the path less chosen, one that embraces the dirt below foot and makes heroes out of medium-profile producers out of Chicago or somewhat obscure French record labels.

"You'll see these awful bands sell out venues, just shoving this commercial, manufactured, plastic falseness down people's throats," he says. "I don't know how people aren't insulted."

He says, "I can't imagine playing in St. Louis to a crowd of 200. I mean, it'd be nice to get more people to come to shows." Then he finishes the thought in a typically metal gesture of defiance. "But I'm not going to change what we do just to make that happen."

Aaron Akin might consider himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. The guitarist and vocalist of Black Fast is floored by the recent opportunities afforded to his band, to the point that he makes Lou Gehrig look like Kanye West. If you took a drink every time he said the word "lucky" while discussing the band's rise, you could die of alcohol poisoning.

From Black Fast's onset, the Edwardsville, Illinois-based quartet had one simple priority. "We've always had this drive, this ambition, this hunger," Akin says. "When we started five years ago, we were inspired by some exciting things that were happening in metal, but we were also just inspired in general. All we've ever wanted is to be really good and really gnarly."

The quartet formed after guitarist Trevor Johanson randomly met Aaron Akin at an Edwardsville gas station. Akin's previous group had just disbanded. Johanson was enrolled in the music program at SIUE, and he recruited fellow jazz-guitar major Ryan Thompson to play bass in the group, as well as Akin's roommate, drummer Ross Burnett, who'd played in Akin's previous band.

Black Fast established itself as a jaw-dropping live band with a full-throttle virtuosic brand of classic, long-haired thrash metal. The buzz began in 2013 with its self-released album Starving Out the Light.

"We will be eternally grateful and proud of that record because we achieved some notoriety and press with literally no effort as far as promotion goes," Akin says. "We put out that record and we didn't know what we were doing, but it caught fire in a way. I still go to the post office weekly to mail copies of that fucking thing to Italy or Portugal or Russia or China. And it's only because of how vibrant the underground metal community is."

In January 2014, Black Fast was picked up by the management company that also represents the group's tour buddy, Battlecross. Soon, record labels were taking note.

"[Black Fast manager] Jonna Robertson told me, 'We're going to get you a deal this year,'" Akin recalls. "I thought, 'OK, sure. I don't know what that means, whatever.' We were always really skeptical. None of us get excited about anything until something tangible comes to fruition. But I remember getting off the phone with Jonna and telling everybody, 'This year might get weird, you guys.'"

Akin was right. The band that felt at home in basements and dive bars was thrust into a world of contracts and behind-the-scenes negotiations. Luckily, Black Fast found a home with EOne Heavy, the subsidiary of Entertainment One that deals primarily with aggressive music. "I was shocked," Akin says. "I couldn't believe the bands they had and I couldn't believe the deal they offered us."

Black Fast signed with EOne Heavy in November 2014, and after months of shedding their shredding, the band drove to St. Petersburg, Florida, to record with renowned producer and Morbid Angel band member Erik Rutan.

"I was flatlined by Erik's enthusiasm toward our band," Akin says. "This is a dude that I have been looking up to since I was fifteen, watching YouTube videos of him in the studio with bands like Cannibal Corpse. He would call me, and I'd think, 'Woah! What is happening?' Our conversations were always a two- or three-hour ordeal, and he's so passionate about the same shit that I am. We talked about Judas Priest and [Metallica album] Master of Puppets and Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath. We both said, 'We're not going to do some modern metal record, we're going to play through Marshall amps that are 40 years old.' Right away we were on the same page."

Black Fast's second album as a band is Rutan's 86th as a producer. For two-and-a-half weeks, the four band members had a schedule they described as "Groundhog Day meets Twilight Zone": wake up, go to the studio at 2 p.m. (heavy metal never wakes up before noon, Rutan says) and meticulously craft an album.

The band was amazed by Rutan's ears and attention to detail. "He was tracking drums and he stopped Ross [Burnett] in the middle of a take and said, 'Hit your snare again,'" Akin recalls. "Ross hit it, and Erik said, 'Hmmm. That ain't right. Tighten the lug closest to your right knee clockwise about one tenth of a turn.' Ross did it and hit his snare again, and Erik said, 'Yeah, now it's right. It was loose.' It was the real deal. His eyeballs would go all over the place, like he was scanning left and right and high and low, and you could just see in his face that he could hear everything."

"He was immediately our friend, but he knew right away that he could lay into us and we could take it," guitarist Johanson says. "The more he knew we could take, the more brutal he got. I pretty quickly became the whipping boy. I definitely took a lot of shit."

"Erik gave Trevor the nickname 'The Savant' because he would take all this abuse and would just keep playing this incredibly difficult stuff," Akin says.

"The funniest thing to me, was how he'd be laying into us over the most piddly shit," Johanson says. "He'd be like, 'Your guitar pick is chirping when it hits the string. Use a different pick, that one sounds horrible.' He would even scold us over things like what batteries we used in our pedals. 'Get those Duracells out of here, they sound like shit. We're using Energizers!'"

Now returned and well-rested, Black Fast is playing the waiting game until the album release and the demanding tour to follow. Even though the band is climbing up the music-industry ladder, its four-dudes-who-just-want-to-rock dynamic remains intact.

"If none of this stuff happened for us, we'd still be playing shows and making records and being idiots," Akin says. "That's why I feel so lucky. We have all these new opportunities, but we also get to keep doing what we would be doing anyway."

Although Fister, the Lion's Daughter and Black Fast have the most measurable recent success, they are far from the only bands in St. Louis who are making a name for themselves playing aggressive music. Over the last several years, metal-tinged hardcore-punk group Everything Went Black has released music on highly respected labels Prosthetic Records, Holy Mountain and Good Die Young. On the other end of the spectrum, Tear Out the Heart plays a metal/hardcore/pop hybrid that skews successfully to a younger demographic. The band is signed to Chicago's Victory Records, and it just finished a co-headlining tour with Michigan's Famous Last Words that packed midsize venues around the country.

While the current crop of local heavy-hitters exists just below the national radar, some of the most respected bands in metal today contain expats from the St. Louis music community. Before he played drums in Chicago's premier instrumental metal trio Russian Circles, Dave Turncrantz was a member of local indie-rock powerhouse Riddle of Steel alongside guitarist Andrew Elstner, who currently plays guitar in acclaimed Atlanta hard-rock band Torche. Prior to joining the wildly popular Baroness in 2013, bassist Nick Jost was a member of local technical-metal outfit the Gorge. Jost's former spot is now filled by Black Fast bassist Ryan Thompson.

The bands in the close-knit St. Louis metal community all respect each other's work.

"I go to a lot of shows," Akin says. "But I get the most excited if the Lion's Daughter or Fister or Hell Night is playing. If the Gorge is playing somewhere, I'm there. It's not so much that these guys are from our scene and we have to take note. That's nice, but I could give a shit less when it comes to how much I actually like their music. These are bands I genuinely love as a music listener. I'm a fan, it doesn't have to be any more than that."

Brandon Hoffman is the frontman for Everything Went Black, but he also runs sound at various venues across the city. "I don't think it's a coincidence that St. Louis bands are doing well," he says. "I don't usually get stoked about mixing metal or hardcore shows unless local bands are playing, so maybe that says something. I kind of feel like I'm in my own universe watching my friends get weird while the rest of the world is creating the same bullshit that's been done a thousand times."

The up-and-coming St. Louis metal groups have some commonality. The members of Fister, the Lion's Daughter, and Black Fast are in their late twenties to mid-thirties. They mostly work flexible service-industry jobs that allow them to tour. But the music they produce falls across the heavy-metal spectrum.

Says Giordano, "Our thing with Season of Mist is radically different from Black Fast and EOne. Fister and the doom thing, Everything Went Black and the post-hardcore thing, they're all totally different scenes. Thing are happening at the same time but in different little genres and pockets.

"The only thing that seems to tie our bands together is that we're all really loud," Giordano continues. "You have to have decent gear to turn it up without it sounding muddy, so maybe that's a part of it. If you care enough to invest in good equipment, you probably care enough to write some decent songs."

Given the lack of obvious stylistic continuity, it's interesting that the outside world is finding so many St. Louis metal bands at this moment in time.

Fister's Snarzyk credits the years of hard work that each group has put into nurturing its presence.

"The bands that are getting a lot of attention have been working really hard." he says. "I think it's just work ethic and a supportive scene, man. I know I constantly tell people about the bands in St. Louis. I'm sure others do the same."

Or maybe there's something in the water.

"There's something horrible about our bands," says Akin. "There's a lot of turmoil in our music, just this inherent awfulness. And especially in St. Louis, you don't need to go out looking for it, there's enough awfulness around.

He goes on, "There's plenty of reasons for people to look away from this awfulness, but embracing it is something that all of us do because we feel like it needs to be done. You have to have a devoted constitution internally to commit yourself to this horrible form of art that we do. It's not profitable, and it's definitely not noble. It's terrible, terrible music. And I fucking love it." 

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