South of Heaven
Rise of the Texas Metal Collective
November 2011 and all's quiet on Fun Fun Fun Fest Saturday night at the Dirty Dog Bar. Rend, one of the Texas Metal Collective acts that's made the Sixth Street venue its home these past two years, performs to a mostly empty room despite there being no cover.
One guy that didn't fall for the rumor of festival headliners Slayer appearing at Emo's East slams back shots at the bar while checking out some local metal. He knows exactly when and where Slayer is playing because he's the band's anchor, drum innovator Dave Lombardo. Rob Hicks of Austin metal outfits Critical Assembly and Nothing In Return spent 45 minutes drinking with Lombardo that night.
"In the short time we hung out, a good 15 or 20 people came by to shake his hand and wanted to take a picture," recalls Hicks. "I'm sure everywhere he goes, he gets that."
Not everywhere, maybe, but then Lombardo didn't end up at the Dirty Dog by accident. If you want metal in Austin, the Dirty Dog is your bar.
This is a big deal. Austin hasn't had a full-fledged metal bar in years, and the opportunities for such bands have dwindled because of it. On top of that, local metal has played out like a war of attrition for decades now: For one band to cross over, 20 more die on the beach.
On the Frontline
Legion are the bands – metal and otherwise – that have come to Austin because of the mythology and campfire tales of those who made it. Beyond Gods and Empires, the band that founded the Texas Metal Collective, is just one of them.
The dream goes like this: You leave your opportunity-starved hometown to come to Austin. Your band gets booked at cool venues, starts scoring opening slots for buzz bands, and then recording and financial excess follow.
Here's what really happens if you're a band like Beyond Gods and Empires.
You move to Austin in 2002 when pop and indie rock rule the day, even as your band's evolving sound gets heavier and heavier. The week after you get to town, the Black Cat – one of the few venues Downtown with a steady audience for heavy music and local bands – burns down. So, on a stretch of East Riverside that the Downtown crowd mostly stays away from, you find yourself at the Back Room, which will cease its heavy niche in a few years (revisit "Welcome to the Jungle," July 28, 2006).
You land some weeknights at the Red Eyed Fly, playing with acts with whom you have almost nothing in common. Over the course of the next few years, you bounce from Room 710 to Redrum to Trophy's and back - all of them now closed. You press your own records and put them up for consignment all over town. Eventually, the idea of building an actual following seems impossible without institutional support.
"Everyone says it, even At the Drive-In [in "Napoleon Solo"]: 'Austin's yellow brick road,'" nods Beyond Gods and Empires singer Marc Villarreal, who brought the band here from the Rio Grande Valley 10 years ago. "It's this magical place if you're from another part of Texas. So you come here, and it's not really Oz."
There are countless bands with this story, but for those operating heavy metal, it's especially familiar and visceral. The genre's appeal remains especially strong to the marginalized, like Beyond Gods and Empires, which has done its time getting rejected. When Villarreal moved to Austin, he had been a rising star in his hometown. Now, at 33, he's a college graduate working as a server at Applebee's – when his parents wanted him to be a doctor.
"We all work in the service industry in order to do this," Villarreal says. "I'm not supposed to wait tables for the rest of my life – not unless it's a means to an end, which I could accept. It's not beneath me, but if this is all I'm doing, fuck that."
On a shitty Sunday night in July, the Dirty Dog is packed, even though a late-evening storm just spent three hours drenching the city. Most of Sixth Street is quiet – parking Downtown has never been easier – but the rumblings from Dirty Dog reverberate down almost to Red River. Close to 150 people fill the bar, decked in black T-shirts and cargo shorts, for a tour kickoff from Texas Metal Collective band Prey for Sleep.
"Marc [Villarreal] and I were talking about how much we wished there was a stronger metal scene here," explains local metal fan James Gonzalez, who founded the TXMC as a loose confederation in May 2010. "So we got together at a pool hall in South Austin and brought in other bands."
They began booking shows at venues that would give them control of the lineup, the first at Trophy's that July 4th, and most of the rest at Dirty Dog. TXMC shows never have a cover – Dirty Dog offers a small guarantee and pays out according to bar sales – and they hungrily book metal bands from various subgenres. Ben Davis, Dirty Dog General Manager, never intended for his venue to become a metal bar.
"I'm not a metal guy at all," he laughs. "I'm a trained musician, so I grew up listening to jazz. It kind of flustered me for a while, but I quickly got over it when I realized how laid-back and cool these guys are."
Dirty Dog has had its doors open since 2005, an eternity for a live music venue on a stretch of Sixth Street defined by DJs and sidewalk hustlers shouting out, "Dollar shots! Dollar wells!" In its initial incarnation, it was an "Extreme Sports Live Music Venue," which meant that it didn't have an identity.
"I'm from the old school, with Bob Schneider and Dahebegebees and MC Overlord," Davis offers. "I tried to make that work here, kind of like a Baby Antone's, and it just wasn't cutting it. So I decided, 'Let's open the gates, and let whatever comes in here and wants to play, play.'"
For TXMC, it's an ideal combination: Dirty Dog has an impressive sound system and an open-minded staff. The pairing has been transformative for both parties. Dave Lombardo drinks here, as does Fun Fun Fun Fest headliner and Cannibal Corpse singer "Corpsegrinder," and Shawn "Clown" Crahan from Slipknot.
Metal's enduring, of course. Locally, it runs the gamut from mainstream (the Sword) to indie (Eagle Claw), and every point between: blackened (Averse Sefira), crusty (Mammoth Grinder), old-school (Ignitor). After nuclear fire rains down on us all, the roaches will shrug off annihilation, pick up guitars, tune them to Drop-D, and shred through the rubble. Metal always survives, but the Texas Metal Collective prefers a different metaphor than the apocalyptic.
"The cactus," Villarreal says. "That's the symbol for our whole culture. It's a broad term for the bands who get this, the fans who get this, the venue – it's the metaphor for everybody who gets it. It's a culture."
Gonzalez sells T-shirts celebrating the cactus. On the back, there's a skeleton in boots, standing atop a hill of cacti, hoisting a TXMC flag.
Tonight, Prey for Sleep lunger Hunter Townsend calls for the other bands to join him onstage, then opens it up to everybody in the bar. "If you want on this stage, this is your fuckin' stage," he shouts. Within minutes, there are 40 people up there, another 100 on the floor.
"This is what community looks like!" Townsend bellows.
The place is frenzied now, Villarreal near the back where he can survey the whole scene. Some nights it's his band up there, some nights it's Prey for Sleep, or someone else. That's never really the point. Townsend, sweaty and crowded in, grabs the mic again.
"We are the cactus," he shouts. The rest of the room yells back, finishing his thought: "And the cactus survives!"
Thrash & Burn
Beyond Gods and Empires and Prey for Sleep are two leading lights of Austin's Dirty Dog metal scene. Here's five more to keep an eye on.
1) Of the Sun (www.reverbnation.com/ofthesun) Sung/screamed vox, shred guitars, and atmospherics equal identity.
2) Blood for Master (www.reverbnation.com/bloodformaster) Slow-and-low doom with touches of ambient electronics.
3) Brink of Disaster (www.brinkofdisaster.us) Thrash and groove-based metal.
4) Rend (www.rendmetal.com) Prog, thrash, and a proud, ever-present Pantera influence.
5) DSGNS (www.reverbnation.com/dsgns) The post-hardcore end of the spectrum, with an emphasis on melody.
Texas Metal Collective's Free Metal Thursday continues Aug. 16 and 30.