On a rainy December day in 2014, Black Tusk drummer James May sat across from me at a mostly empty Congress Street Social Club. His best friend and bandmate Jonathan Vincent Athon had died tragically about a month before. I was surprised he was even there.

 

Who wants to answer questions about their life and band from some local journalist so soon after a tragedy? Release a statement on the web and leave it at that.

Perhaps it’s the punk ethos they’ve lived by since they were kids. They aren’t afraid of facing you. They are tough as nails. They won’t take your crap. They won’t take it from anyone.

Although clearly still in mourning, May shared details of the band’s next step. They had been tapped to tour with Black Label Society before Athon passed. So they did, adding peripatetic Savannah musician Corey Barhorst (Kylesa, Niche) on bass. They honored the memory of their brother in music, and carried on. They felt they had to.

At every Black Tusk show I’ve been to since his death, there’s been a bottle of whiskey with Athon’s picture on it, sitting on stage.

Death is just part of life and life moves on past death.

After Athon passed, longtime friend of the band Damad frontwoman Victoria Scalisi and Fidler’s wife were both diagnosed with cancer. Scalisi passed, but Fidler's wife beat her demon. It’s been a trying few years for the band, to say the least.

Black Tusk will never be the same band without Athon. But it will always have his spirit. The sixth studio album, and first with Barhorst as a full-time member, “T.C.B.T.,” is the mark of a new era. They’ve hit a reset button while also continuing the legacy of the band they built with their original bassist.

Beyond the congenial Southern charm of Savannah, telecasted as our heart and soul, is a dirty underbelly. Violence is as much a part of the city’s landscape as Spanish moss. It has always made incredible sense to me — technically an outsider — that Savannah’s most well-known musical exports in its modern history have been heavy music and hardcore hip-hop.

A violent place breeds violent music in response. Black Tusk is a product of its home. May and guitarist Andrew Fidler were born and raised here. They were bred on a vibrant punk scene of the late 1980s and 1990s, plus the scores of metal bands that collided with this city. They were born swamp rats and crafted by fire into metallurgists.

Although Black Tusk is rooted in hardcore punk, they steered into different styles of metal over their discography. Minor Threat, Black Flag and other giants of hardcore were the driving inspiration for Fidler and May early on. But the band always worked in inspirations from metal gods like Black Sabbath throughout, creating a unique mixture of styles that could only come from a place and scene like Savannah.

 

Black Tusk has always been a group effort. Barhorst, Fidler and May trade lead vocals, and lyrics, throughout the new album. Their individual fingerprints are all over it.

It is that community-minded aspect that was ingrained in the band’s foundation from the early days around barbecues and a shared love of rock ’n’ roll. It’s a sense of family. Barhorst seems as much a part of Black Tusk now as May and Fidler.

There’s an extraordinary dichotomy at work that extends far beyond just making music. It’s a community of like-minded humans adopting each other like family. That mindset bleeds into all the music they write, creating perpetually interesting heavy music that draws on every member's input equally. Barhorst’s key skills, most prevalent in his work with Niche, even show up on the new album.

 

Black Tusk is often distilled down to the sludge metal genre, which also includes other Savannah-founded metal bands Kylesa and Baroness. But all three are musically far more than a simple annotated title.

For Black Tusk, hardcore punk and experimental have also played an important role in the band’s songwriting. Sludgy, often melodic, riffs are paired with lightning-speed portions, all topped with hardcore-inspired vocals from all members, an amalgam May dubbed swamp metal.

Black Tusk, musically, lives somewhere between Minor Threat, EyeHateGod, The Melvins and The Misfits, following in doom metal, hardcore punk and sludge metal traditions. But the music is punk at its core and “T.C.B.T.” turns slightly more toward that direction.

“T.C.B.T.” is gut-punch rock ’n’ roll; high-octane, punk-rooted metal, shrouded with a cloth of gothic themes. Even after the loss of Athon — and his indelible voice — and addition of Barhorst, Black Tusk is as raw and powerful as they’ve ever been.

The riffs on “T.C.B.T.” are punchy and commanding. The album moves in dynamically interesting ways that shift easily from melodic, metal instrumental portions to a straightforward, pounding blitzkrieg of distortion. The lyrics are shadowy, spiritual even, and most certainly are inspired by the last few years of tragedy and loss.

Black Tusk looked at what they do best and did that the best they could. The result is an album that might be their strongest studio effort to date and most certainly heralds a new dawn for the Savannah punks.

"T.C.B.T." releases Aug. 17 on Season of Mist Records. You can buy it here.

Joshua Peacock is the arts and entertainment features writer for Do Savannah and Savannah Morning News. Empire of Sound has won multiple Georgia Press Association awards. Contact him at jpeacock@savannahnow.com.