Any examination into heavy metal in Asheville — one of the city’s least-heralded music subcultures — runs into the inevitable gray area of what metal music is. “It branches and refracts with various niche-metal scenes, some punk/hard-core vectored, some not,” says Eron Rex, publisher of ThrAsheville Zine, which documents the local music scene. “They all sound different, with each band having its own take on the genre.” This variety makes it difficult at times to tell who fits in where.
“We’re not sure what kind of band we are,” says Tim Luther, bass player for Broad River Nightmare. Formed in summer 2012, BRN’s songs range from grungy anarchy to “slow sex” (as described by one fan), with lyrical dashes of wry humor and political irony. Singer Bobby Seay describes the music as “a way to tap into those darker emotions we might be feeling, release all the sh*t you come in contact with in life, while still having a good time.”
From song to stage
BRN’s approach to songwriting (“Sometimes we’ll just slam into a chord, and it takes off,” says guitarist Aron Forester) exemplifies the open mentality of the Asheville metal scene. Canton’s Amnesis aims to draw in outsiders with a recognizable stage presence and sound the band has worked hard to cultivate. “When you go to an Amnesis show, it’s different than what you would expect from a metal show,” says lead singer Jaysun Brenneman. “I concentrate on the pop-loving girlfriends of metal heads who don’t wanna be there, or that older couple who stumbled upon loud insanity. If they come up to me after a show saying ‘you were great,’ I’m doing something right.”
Lead guitarist Jason Miller adds, “The metal scene is making a comeback; the bands in the area are fighting for a voice.” Signs of his optimism can be seen in newer acts like local power-trio Niah, self-described as “organic music for a new age of angry.” That outfit couples its experimental insanity with promotion of the unexpected.
“When people ask what kind of music we make, I say it’s the kind of music that hurts people,” says bassist Nathan Kairis. “For some reason, people think that’s cool and want to hear us.”
Local venues are beginning to tap into the strange nucleus of Asheville metal. “A strong local lineup will pack the Boiler Room with a crowd that appreciates the club for catering to this often-ignored scene,” says Andrew Wheeler, who handles sound and booking for the club. “Bands such as Mind Shape Fist, Amnesis, Vic Crown and others have proven the vitality of local metal.”
The Mothlight recently made it a point to host the infamous Charlotte-based Young And In The Way, while new lineup formats like New Mountain’s “Four on the Floor” present the music of local bands in unconventional ways. Justin Ferraby, booker for The Orange Peel, sees this growth as a result of bands spreading the metal gospel in the community. “Long gone are the days of bands just getting drunk and doing the next craziest thing,” says Ferraby. “I think they understand that what they put into it, they should ultimately get out.”
Metal sharpens metal
In addition to recognized venues, there is a plethora of underground shows publicized by word-of-mouth. “Money is not an incentive,” says Niah’s Jerome Widenhouse. “If it is, you’re doing it wrong.”
Kairis adds, “I’d much rather play next to a washer and dryer with friends, than play on a big stage for guys with sideways caps. The scene is maturing; it’s not just a bunch of butt-rock.”
For the metal veterans of Vic Crown, this atmosphere is a world away from their reception 16 years ago. “There’s been a resurgence in the scene,” says guitarist Patrick Rothe. “Right around when Vincent’s Ear closed down, things got bleak. A lot of clubs didn’t want ‘our crowd’ in there.” VIC Crown embodies the homespun nature of Asheville’s metal scene, producing its own recordings and merchandise. Their sound is a concoction of Gulf Coast sludge, homicidal drumming and singer Mark Faust channeling the chaos around him. “All I sing about is the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny,” he says.
Band members see the current metal scene as a symbiotic relationship, where better-known acts can provide access to venues while reaping benefits from newer artists’ marketing prowess. “We like to play with bands that are younger and hungrier,” say Rothe. “We’ve broken attendance records at venues just by looking at younger bands and saying, ‘You guys wanna play at The Orange Peel with us?’”
The rapid growth of the Asheville scene in recent years has led many bands to think about new ways to form a cohesive network around Western North Carolina. Stronger local networks facilitate chances to tour outside the region, which ultimately benefits metal bands on their home turf. “I think bands are so passionate, they sometimes end up overplaying here,” says Ferraby. “The biggest thing for me is that they play more outside of Asheville as representatives of what a great scene we have.”
Work hard, play hard
For many local bands, however, reliable transportation and decent touring gear is a struggle, as is money. Older bands find it hard to balance touring with life outside the band. Vic Crown’s Colin Townsend took time off to finish school in Columbia, S.C. But he couldn’t stay away long, making monthly pilgrimages back. “Music is the medicine,” he says. “And I need a lot of medicine.”
Just as integral to the success of metal bands is getting people outside the die-hard fan base out to shows. “It’s hard when people won’t give you a chance,” says Forester. “I can remember an era in my life when the prospect of a local show was really exciting.”
While getting people off their couches and iPhones can be a challenge, local metal bands see themselves as part of a larger artistic movement. “Asheville’s a unique blend of artistic ability, not just in music, but all forms,” says Brenneman. “Asheville pride is all about our ability to create without being segregated by style.”
The most striking quality of Asheville’s metal scene is the joy its players take in their craft, regardless of material success. “Creative minds are in a space in the industry now where they’re really treated poorly,” says Forester. “But if you can find a band that’s still playing together, knowing all of this, you’ve probably found people who’re doing it because they love it.”
Or as Kairis puts it: “All the metal has soul in Asheville. And some crust.”