California has quite a heavy weight metal history. While for many in mainstream society the first thought will be of the hairband heydays of the Sunset Strip, we’re not going there here, there is little sign of a resurrection of all that and no loss at all in the lack thereof. California was also key in giving birth to thrash metal. Of course Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth are on the radar of even the casual fan of heavy stuff (and of many who are not fans at all) but there were more good thrash bands coming out of the bay area than you could shake a stick at. While a resurgence there would be most welcome, I’m just not seeing one happen currently (though one of my all time favorites Blind Illusion definitely took a great step towards returning to form on their latest EP).
True Traditional metal, while never as hugely popular as hair or thrash, has been a field in which California has yielded an embarrassing amount of riches. While often not appreciated enough back in the day (much like Cali’s doom pioneers Saint Vitus, the number of people claiming attendance at early shows for many of these bands has inflated far beyond what the actual attendance was) names like Cirith Ungol, Brocas Helm and The Lord Weird Slough Feg are now rightly hallowed and revered in the metal underground. There is still a lot of good stuff happening. The aforementioned trio are all still active. Ruthless just put out what may be their best album ever, Hexx released a really good album after reforming though it sadly seems to have gone largely unnoticed, Saint Vitus if not meeting past glories is coming a lot closer with Reagers back at the mic for their new one, Night Demon have launched themselves into the scene with amazing energy and dedication along with a briefcase chock full of great trad metal tunes, and the list can go on…but for any scene to truly flourish there has to be new blood and that is the focus of this article. Hence this look at four bands across the true metal spectrum that constitute some seriously worthwhile and heavy contributions from the state of California to the state of current metal.
First up from Oakland is Mesmer. I cannot say enough good about this mob who come on like some unholy amalgam of Thin Lizzy and Venom with a dollop of doom here and there. They released a self-titled EP three years ago which absolutely stopped me in my tracks when I first laid ears on it and had me hitting the repeat button over and over. From the ferocious lung ripping bellowing of “Forever Darkness, Forever Death…” on the opening title track to the last fade of the guitar harmonies on closer “Tyrant”, these four lads show a serious dedication to song craft and an iron clad, fiery, blackened heart and soul of pure heavy metal. Just lend an ear to “Wings of Evil” and tell me it isn’t everything metal was meant to be and deserving of anthem status? Its heavy, memorable, palpably evil, and if it does not get your head banging you might want to go back to your boy band records and leave this stuff to the adults. Having caught them on a trip to Oakland a couple of years ago, I can assure you this band absolutely brings it live. It has been a little quiet on the Mesmer front lately but that last word from them prior to this article is they are getting ready to demo tracks for a full length to be recorded this winter and issued early next year.
Second up is (at least to my memory, which admittedly has taken some damage with age ?) California’s first serious entry into the epic doom metal cauldron. Los Angeles’ Stygian Crown are a very recent arrival with their first three song demo “Through Divine Rite” just showing up last summer. Think traditional epic doom metal of the Solitude Aeturnus, Candlemass, Sorcerer school and then put the very talented Melissa Pinion on the vocals to set it a bit apart from those bands. I’m not normally the biggest fan of side project doom bands from other genres but in this case the majority of the other band members coming from local death, black, and/or thrash bands like Gravehill and Morbid Eclipse does not seem to pose any problem at all and perhaps at times lends an extra level of heaviness to this. The three songs on offer all stand as strong compositions on their own, both paying appropriate homage to their influences and staking out a recognizable identity of their own. And that appears to be set to continue as the new song I heard when catching them live a couple of months ago fit in seamlessly with this triumvirate with the whole lot having the heaviness kicked up more than a notch from the studio versions. The band hopes to record their full-length debut around January. If you love severely heavy riffs married to massive melodies in a framework of doom that is as metal as it gets you could do a lot worse than check this lot out.
Third up are Fortress from Whittier. `Their debut S/T EP dropped this spring, a just short of 20 minute storm of true metal raining savage riffs, piercing solos, and powerful vocals with a more than passing resemblance to Bruce Dickinson. There is quite a lot here to please fans of the Maiden, Priest, Dio persuasion. The song writing skills on offer are substantial and songs like “Blood Moon” would hold their own on any prime time Maiden album. They’ve been gigging a fair amount locally lately and having caught a couple of those shows I can attest that the energy and drive find their way a few notches upwards in a live setting. Just this month they added a new tune on a split with Haunt and are currently going into recording for their first long player. If you cut your musical teeth on the heavy weights of true metal back in the 80’s this is going to bring both some great memories and new hope.
For our fourth and final entry we return to Oakland for War Cloud. It would be easy to forget these days that there is more to a 70’s influence then the scads of “occult doom” bands claiming it. The 70’s gave birth to the venerable Maiden, Priest, Riot and the NWOBHM movement. And that sort of 70’s influence is where War Cloud come in (and there are other bands out their working the 70’s influence in the right way like New York’s Tower). A case can be made that 70’s Hard Rock gave birth to Heavy Metal, or alternately that it morphed into it…either way its nice to see bands hanging onto the Rock with a capital “R” part of it instead of losing themselves in smoky haze of faux Satanism and Psychedelic meanderings. War Cloud’s issued their debut two years ago. That debut started with the double shot 70’s metal swagger of “Give’r” and “Chopper Wired” to be joined later by more 80’s influenced numbers like “Divide and Conquer”, “No Man’s Land” and “Red Witch” and the hopped up on pots of coffee and cross tops mayhem of “Speed Demon”…quality control top shelf across the entire span. This fall sees the release of their 2nd full length and from the first two tracks released this may be a considerable step forward from what was already a very good thing (last minute addition having just clasped my mitts on the new one…it is indeed a step forward and a bit more thrash/speed metal influence creeping in than on the debut). I haven’t had the chance to catch them live yet but am looking forward to doing so.
Outro and Official Links
So there you have it. There is a lot of good stuff going on in the trad metal underground worldwide and California is more than holding its own in those surging seas. Will the scene grow and draw more folks out to the shows? Time will tell…but I’ll wager this…20 to 30 years from now the above four bands will have their material sought after and be held in high regard by a larger number of folks than they currently are…sadly that seems to be a recurring cycle in metal.