Over the last month, Savannah's Black Tusk was faced with one of the hardest decisions a band would ever have to make.
After the passing of bassist Jonathan Athon in a tragic motorcycle accident in November, drummer James May and guitarist Andrew Fidler had to make a choice as to whether the world-renewed heavy metal act they had built with their longtime friend would come to an end, or would continue.
They chose to soldier on.
"If it were me, that's how I would have wanted it," May said. "That's how we thought about it: What would you have wanted the band to do if that had happened to you? I would have been, 'Keep going.'
"First of all, before the side jobs that we have, we're musicians. For us to stop doing this, where does that leave anyone?" he said. "I never would have imagined it without all three of us, but no one would."
The outpouring of love and support from fans and friends of Black Tusk captured the impact that Athon had on everyone around him.
Close to 100 tribute tattoos were inked in the days following the tragedy, and that was only in Savannah. Outside of the city, fans and musician friends made their own marks of tribute to Athon.
The response from not only the local community, but from the global music community weighed heavily in the decision to keep Black Tusk alive.
"It felt really good," May said. "Which is also part of the decision of why to keep doing the band. We knew the band was doing really good. There's been a lot of things we've done that I never thought we'd do. But after that (response), it's beyond us.
"The band is bigger than we ever could have imagined, and it was really obvious with his death that it was a big enough thing that it needs to keep going," May said. "It felt good to know that he touched that many people."
Prior to Athon's accident, Black Tusk had finished recording their fourth full-length album, and seventh studio recording, "Vulture's Eye," a follow-up to 2013's EP "Tend No Wounds," and had scheduled a European tour with legendary metal band Black Label Society.
Corey Barhorst, a former member of Kylesa and current member of Niche, will be filling in for Athon. Barhorst, a longtime friend of the band, was their first choice when they faced the question of filling the on-stage void.
The new face of Black Tusk has already been in rehearsals for the February tour. While the band will never be the same again, love for its only former member will carry on in the new album, which is set to drop next summer.
"I am really glad we ended up getting that done with Athon," May said of the new album. "I love the album. Athon loved it. The album had just got done - if we had stopped the band after that, we would never have played any of those songs live."
Mixing for the new record was finished prior to the accident, but May said Joel Grind of Toxic Holocaust wanted a second spin at the mix to produce the best possible sound.
"After all this happened, he (Grind) said he wanted to do it again and 'fine tooth-comb everything. See if I can get it sounding even better,' because this was the last album with Athon on it. So we wanted to make sure it's really, really good," May said.
"We got it back a few days ago and it sounds amazing. I can't wait for it to come out."
Touring with one of the biggest metal acts of the last decade is a huge step for the band. While they are already widely known and appreciated in the heavy metal scene, and belong to one of the genre's biggest labels, Relapse Records, taking the stage ahead of BLS will open the door to thousands of new fans across the world. It's a big step that moves the band forward.
"As of right now, Corey's doing it," May said. "We'll see how the tour works out. Hopefully it works with him. Musically, just 'cause it works, doesn't mean you can tour with people. Hopefully everything comes together and everyone gets along and we get it going again. We are prepared to know that things aren't going to be the same, of course, but what can you do?"
The Athon Memorial Fund was set up following the accident. Donations, which can be made via Paypal at email@example.com, will be distributed to other funds such as Friends of Statts and the Keith Kozel Medical Fund.
Jason Statts was a fellow musician who was a victim of a shooting that left him paralyzed on the night he played his first gig in Savannah. The annual Statts Fest has been a staple of the music scene for several years.
Keith Kozel, a member of the music community in Savannah since the '80s and frontman for GAM, Superhorse, The Hall Monitor and the Foxedos, is currently in need of a kidney transplant. A benefit concert back in October took place at The Jinx.
Both funds have been mostly supported by the Savannah community, and are shining examples of the camaraderie and support musicians in the Lowcountry have for each other.
Jonathan Vincent Athon was a huge part of that community. The endless stories that surfaced after his passing from not only Savannah, but all over the world, were another testament to the larger-than-life character and his impact.
In the wake of such an unexpected tragedy, the response from fans and friends that Black Tusk will continue on has been overwhelmingly positive.
"Everyone has been really glad. It's been all positive feedback that we're keeping on. A lot of people were thinking that we're going to stop it," May said. "Everyone said they would understand if we did, but they are really glad that we didn't."
Joshua Peacock is a writer and musician. He has been involved in music since the age of 5 and studied music theory, jazz and playwriting at the University of Iowa. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @JR_Peacock.