On November 9th, 2014, Jonathan Anthon, the bass player and vocalist for Black Tusk, tragically passed away after sustaining serious injuries during a motorcycle crash. It was a tragic day in the world of sludge metal as many were left to wonder what was to possibly to become of one of sludge metal’s most promising one bands and true, stalwart defenders of the Southern sludge sound. Luckily, the band decided that to truly serve Anthon’s memory, they must carry on, and carry on they did, touring extensively after the accident and now, nearly two years after his death, releasing their final album recorded with the vocalist, a masterpiece of punked out sludge that perfectly captures everything the band has done prior while still amping it up to exciting new levels.
Black Tusk has always been a sort of anomaly within the sludge scene due to the fact that, despite their penchant for slow, Southern tinged, filthy riffing, they have also always carried a much stronger d-beat undercurrent, at times calling forth just as much Discharge in their sound as they do Buzzoven. This has always been a positive aspect of the bands sound as it has always set them apart in a world of Eyehategod worshippers where the sludge sound can tend to be seen as a confining formula rather than a base line to build off of. With Pillars of Ash, the band has expanded on this formula, crafting it more closely to their specific needs and allowing it accent the bludgeoning, sludgy moments.
Take, for example, track number 6, “Beyond the Divide”. The track starts with a scarce but menacing sludge section before launching into a crunching, pounding, punk driven section that then continually dominates the track. The sludge acts as an undertone in this song, a nasty ghost lurking in the corner that lends a hefty amount of weight all while the punk aspects pummel you in the gut. Even more perfectly, it sets up the proceeding track, “Black Tide”, perfectly as the song drags the listener back into the thick, murky waters of whatever swamp this music crawled out of. It’s menacing and nasty, full of attitude and brooding, but done with such a kick in the ass that the tracks still feel full of life and energy.
As well as creating songs that are interesting and dark, Black Tusk has also mastered the art of the true head banging, fist-pumping, air-guitar-soloing long ago, and are more than happy to display that skill on Pillars of Ash. Tracks such as “God’s on Vacation” and “Still Not Well” display that even with their fierce devotion to the punk energy and mentality, the Southern knack for a good, dirtied up blues riff is still ever present. This type of riffing adds an undeniably fun characteristic to the music, one that inspires your friends who don’t listen to metal to head bang along with you, or allows you to blast the album full volume, windows down as you cruise along the highway.
Even by the time the album is ending, the energy is retained fully, never slowing down and refusing to surrender. The second to last track on the album, “Punk Out”, barely gives the listener time to breathe as the band powers on full speed ahead, nearly knocking the wind out of them and calling forth the spirit of bands like Municipal Waste much more than Iron Monkey. The final track, “Leveling”, takes a similar path, never slowing down until a sudden and abrupt piano outro (that honestly feels a bit forced, but then again, who really cares after the pummeling Pillars of Ash just delivered) finally plays the album to a close. In a way, it is a completely fitting tribute to Anthon, showing that even though he may be gone, his memory still lives on vicariously through his music and will never truly fade.
All in all, Pillars of Ash is yet another gem in the Black Tusk discography, a raging bull of an album that never truly gives the listener time to settle even at its calmest moments, not that there are many. It feels as though it is a fitting final, musical testament for Anthon to have made, delivering on all the key Black Tusk elements while still presenting them in new, interesting ways that keeps the sound from getting too stale. On Pillars of Ash, Black Tusk once again raises the bar for the sludge metal scene, showing that even without the fancy new shoegaze sounds of contemporaries like Baroness and Kyelsa they’re more than capable of remaining relevant and at the forefront. RIP Anthon.
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