Black Tusk was born from sweat. There was blood, and maybe a few tears, too, but more than anything, it was sweat that marked the earliest years of Savannah, Georgia’s Black Tusk. Formed in 2005 by three lifelong friends—bassist Jonathan Athon, guitarist Andrew Fidler, and drummer James May—the band welded together a three-pronged vocal attack, dirty punk, sludgy heavy metal, and a big fat dose of Motorhead to create what they called “swamp metal.” The name stuck, and the sound spread as they hit the ground running and toured hard on their first EP, 2005’s rough’n’ready When Kingdoms Fall. They kept up a manic pace, recording two more demos (2006’s untitled demo and 2007’s The Fallen Kingdom. Hyperrealist signed on to release their 2008 debut LP, 2008’s Passage Through Purgatory, and 2009 saw them churn out a trio of splits with the likes of The Holy Mountain, ASG, and Fight Amp. Soon after that, the heavyweights at Relapse Record came calling.
The Philadelphia-based label and the band formed a partnership that lasts to this day, first collaborating on their 2010 breakthrough Taste the Sin and then on their highly-anticipated 2011 follow-up, Set the Dial. Since then, they’re released a pair of EPs—2013’s Tend No Wounds and the digital-only 2014 EP Vulture’s Eye—and kept pounding the pavement in the United States, Europe, and the UK alongside bands like Red Fang, Kvelertak, Down, Municipal Waste, Fu Manchu, Inter Arma, Intronaut, and so many others, as well as being hand-picked to appear on Metallica’s Orion Festival in 2012.
In 2014, they hit the studio with their old friend and accomplished audio engineer, Joel Grind, to get back to work on a new album that is now slated for release in early 2016. Before they could get their new record into stores and jump back up in their big white tour van, though, the band suffered a setback beyond what most could even imagine.
In November 2014, mere weeks before the band was due to kick off their biggest tour yet, Athon was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Several days later, on November 9, 2014, he passed away at the age of 31, leaving behind hundreds of friends, family members, and his beloved dog Cutter as well as his brothers in Black Tusk. Support poured in from fans, friends, and fellow musicians from around the world; stunned, Andrew and James laid down their instruments and tried to process the loss. For a few weeks, the band’s future was uncertain, but ultimately, the remaining duo made the difficult decision to soldier on and carry on in Athon’s memory. Athon himself could have chosen no better successor than Corey Barhorst, a longtime friend and veteran musician who heads up his own project, Niche, and previously held down the low end for Kylesa. Barhorst initially joined the band as a live member in time for their European tour with Black Label Society, but after that, was welcomed into the fold as a full-blooded member of Black Tusk.
Black Tusk has lived through the kind of hardship and heartbreak that would cripple a lesser band, but it’s that dedication, and gumption, and pure bullheaded stubbornness that’s taken them around the world and as far away from the lacey Spanish moss and sweltering streets of Savannah than any of them could’ve dared dream. As of now, the band is readying the release of their new album which features Athon’s final recorded performance with his two brothers in arms. It will hurt to hear that roar of his ring out over Andrew’s riffs and James’ thunder, but it’ll be a good hurt: it means that part of him will always live on, just as the band he and his best friends founded a decade ago lives on. As Andrew, James, and now Corey hit the road to support this latest album and share a beer or three with the fans who stuck by them through it all, they’ll keep that memory alive, and keep taking care of business—and Taking Care of Black Tusk.
TCBT / RIP JVA