Black Tusk are a minimal band in the same way that Motörhead are were (Motörhead + past tense = strange). A 3 piece who knock together punk, rock and metal much the same way they have since forming and releasing When Kingdoms Fall in in 2005, they have stuck to their ‘swamp metal’ sound and made it their own style, with a we’re–all–doomed–let’s–party attitude and untampered heavy metal appearance.
Even the intricately detailed artwork, this time provided by Jeremy Hush and Jacob Speis in a change from former illustrator and Savannah neighbour John Dyer Baizley, still completes the checklist of skulls, naked women and swarming insects. But after the death of bass guitarist, founding member and friend Jon Athon in November 2014, it might be expected that Black Tusk would rein in their lyrics about death and destruction. However, as an album name like Pillars of Ash suggests with its unavoidable connotations of decay, that is not the case. The lyrics blend nihilism with metaphysical musings:
Quenching my thirst, nothing will end this
Searching, one is all I need
My life falls apart
Driving me insane
Save me from this hell (Still Not Well)
Now compare to:
You will never know, true believers see
Altars left in time, shadowed in secrecy (Walk Among The Sky)
They have kept to their unfussy, raw sound; recorded and mixed by Joel Grind (the latter twice; once at Cloud City Studios and then fine–combed at Falcon Studios), Pillars of Ash has a fuzz similar sound to Black Tusk’s previous material (mostly recorded at Jam Room Studio by various producers), and features the final recordings of Athon’s bass playing and gruff, hoarse vocals. The vocal duties are split three ways, but can all be described as shouting, which is fine by me; opening track God’s On Vacation enters with
And they’re not wrong. In Desolation In Endless Times the pace is always pushing forward, and even as the intro of Bleed On Your Knees moves in and out of half–time the twist of the accelerator is never far off. With that said, there are few bands greasy enough to contend with Black Tusk grooving in half–time, such as in the verse of Damned In The Ground and interlude of Walk Among The Sky. I would have liked for them to have used this touch a bit more, but after a week of listening I’m still instantly pressing ► at the end of Pillar of Ash’s 34 minutes and 40 seconds.
The classic Black Tusk touches are all here; Damned In The Ground is full of Andrew Fidler’s chunky riffs and James May’s drumming and Still Not Well lurches forth with a great stop–start riff at 2.00. The intro riff of Born Of Strife stands out by the merit of it being a shredding guitar line on a album heavy on rhythm and light on melodies (even the vocal pattern this track is far more rhythmic than it is melodic), and the guitar line in the verse is great. I wasn’t sure about cover Punk Out at first; apparently a Tank 18 song (a Savannah band who I found a grand total of one mention of outside of the sleeve notes here) it certainly explains the crossover element of Black Tusk’s sound, but with repeat listens the double vocal attack, two–step rhythm and awesome bridge fit into the album really well. Given the brawling approach of the half hour that precedes it, the use of a piano in the mellow outro of closing track Leveling sounds very adventurous, but as a metaphorical last act of remembrance it make sense (it sounds good too, it’s just unexpected). Black Tusk don’t plan for this to be their final album, but if it was it would be a great departure and remembrance for for Jonathan Vincent Athon.
Planets align tonight, stars are shining bright
Time is drawing nigh, hold the chalice high
Just a sip away, faith the only way
We’re prepared to die, walk among the sky.
– Walk Among The Sky