A roar from underground

Pub date May 4, 2010


MUSIC When asked if it’s a good time in history to be in a sludgy, uncompromising heavy metal band, High on Fire’s Matt Pike stifles a chuckle: “It is for me, man!” Reached by phone in Los Angeles as he prepares for a show at the El Rey Theatre, Pike is far from loquacious, but clearly enjoying the arrival of hard-earned, well-deserved success. His band, a thunderous, heavily-distorted power trio, bastard son of St. Vitus and Slayer, just signed on for a string of European dates opening for Metallica.

Before they set off across the Atlantic, High on Fire will appear at Oakland’s Fox Theater to play a concert called the Missing Link, a weighty omnibus of a heavy metal bill that brings together two potent touring packages, their itineraries cleverly fused into one mammoth night of music. Pike’s band is joined by tour-mates Priestess, Bison B.C., and Black Cobra. Headliners Mastodon deploys its own retinue of support: Between the Buried and Me, Baroness, and Valient Thorr.

The bands at the top of the bill are living proof of this epoch’s friendly attitude toward challenging, underground heavy metal. Mastodon charted at No. 11 with 2009’s Crack the Skye (Warner Bros.) and Between the Buried and Me hit No. 36 with The Great Misdirect (Victory). Oakland native sons High on Fire stormed into the limelight in February 2010; Snakes for the Divine (E1 Music) debuted at No. 62. Baroness’ Blue Record (Relapse) was the critical darling of 2009 — Decibel magazine named it album of the year — and it peaked at No. 117.

Those still working their way up from the bottom are no less optimistic. Speaking on the phone while peregrinating around L.A., Jason Landrian, singer/guitarist for crushing S.F. duo Black Cobra, is loving life. “I think it’s a great time to be in a heavy band. There are a lot more people paying attention and taking the music a lot more seriously.” Black Cobra, which was recently signed by legendary label Southern Lord Records, has ample experience with and appreciation for the bands it will share the stage with at the Fox. “For us,” Landrian says, “it’s a thrill to be involved with what seems like a cross-section of what’s going on right now in the underground scene.”

Superficially, the bands on the bill are easy to circumscribe within geographical boxes. Mastodon and Baroness both hail from Georgia, a state that is quickly becoming one of the nation’s most fertile breeding grounds for independent metal. Between the Buried and Me and Valient Thorr are also from Dixie, storming out of North Carolina university towns Greensboro and Chapel Hill, respectively. Priestess was founded in Montreal, and Bison B.C. in Vancouver (in the eyes of American rock critics, everything Canadian seems related). Black Cobra and High on Fire represent the Bay Area.

Yet this sort of convenient compartmentalization is redolent of a scene-based musical analysis that is rapidly becoming obsolete. A generation that came of age during the sodden triumph of the “Seattle sound” has matured into an army of bands that defy physical space. The insidious tentacles of social networking and the exponentially expanding capacity of cheap bandwidth have enabled independent musicians to bridge vast distances, to identify kindred spirits and isolated fans. Early Black Cobra material was written while the band’s two members resided on different coasts, swapped back and forth methodically with the click of a mouse. The Internet has been a boon to concert bookers and promoters as well, allowing them to ferret out undeserved markets and spread the digitized word.

Looking back through lists of past tour dates, the connections and inter-pollinations among this underground army of heavily distorted road warriors are practically infinite. It seems as if every band has toured with every other band on the Missing Link roster at least once. “We’ve known those guys forever,” Pike says when asked about Mastodon, and it’s only partly hyperbole — the members of Mastodon met at an Atlanta High on Fire show in 1999.

Though today’s metal vanguard takes advantage of technological innovations, it’s the relentless touring that reaps rewards. And while life on the road has its costs, the new century’s burgeoning crop of itinerant headbangers can depend on a tight-knit nomadic community — bearded and unwashed — that grows stronger by the day. “It’ll be a reunion with friends, which is a cool thing,” says Landrian. “You end up meeting all these people, touring around, and when you get a show like Missing Link happening, everybody knows each other.”

Armed with vans, smart phones, and arsenals of crushing riffs, the bands of Missing Link have the entire continent at their disposal. It’s a far cry from the specter of the 1980s, poisoned by feuding thrash titans and the internecine, hair-sprayed fist-fight for scraps from the Sunset Strip table. “That’s the thing about this underground metal scene,” Landrian says beatifically. “Everyone’s working together. There’s not a lot of ‘Oh, we’re competing with these bands to be in a position of honor.’ There’s a lot of camaraderie. Everybody sees each other in the same light.”


Mastodon, Between the Buried and Me, High on Fire

with Baroness, Priestess, Valient Thorr, Black Cobra, Bison BC

Sat/8, 4 p.m., $35

The Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

(510) 302-2277