Bang Your Head 

An overdue appreciation of Missoula's unsung metal scene

In the early 1980s, a band called Prophecy would lug its gear onto the large corner stage at the Tijuana Cantina, plug into amps and play something no other band in Missoula was tapping into at the time: metal. The Tijuana Cantina, which stood across the street from the Top Hat on Front Street and had a Mexican restaurant above it, usually hosted pop cover bands. But on the nights that Prophecy took the stage, it was a different story. The band brought in its own big light setup, robust sound system and a riser to elevate the drum kit, and then delivered an assault of metal covers from bands like Kiss. Unlike most other local acts at the time, Prophecy also played a slew of originals like "Night of the Executioner" and "Killin' Machine."

click to enlarge Matthew Bile plays lead guitar for local dark metal band Walking Corpse Syndrome.
  • Matthew Bile plays lead guitar for local dark metal band Walking Corpse Syndrome.

"We were the bad boys," says Prophecy guitarist/singer Doug Koester. "We were rough around the edges. We were partying all night and livin' it up in the bars. And when we put on a show, we put on a show like we were playing to 20,000 people."

In those days, you couldn't walk into a Missoula bar or club and not hear a predictable string of radio pop blasting from the speakers. When live acts did play, they mostly covered Top 40 songs, too, from the Eurythemics' "Here Comes the Rain Again" to Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon." Prophecy stood out in a sea of jelly bracelets and Members Only jackets.

Nationally, metal was going through a metamorphosis. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath had started it in the 1970s with blues stewed in heavy riffs. Bands like Judas Priest took the blues influences out, and the British Wave Metal bands like Mö¨torhead injected punk rock. Metallica made the speedy solos of thrash popular. But during Prophecy's heyday on the local scene, glam metal was on the rise.

"The big hair thing was going on in L.A. and bands were starting to get signed," says Koester. "It was the beginning of Mö¨tley Crüe and Ratt, so those were some of the bands we enjoyed."

click to enlarge News_Feature1-2.jpg

At the same time, Koester remembers Missoula getting its first introduction to punk. Jeff Ament, who would later become the bassist for Pearl Jam, had just started hardcore punk trio Deranged Diction. The band's musical style may have differed from Prophecy's, but the two had one thing in common.

"Because they and us both hated all the Top 40 stuff, we got along," says Koester. "The punkers would come listen to us and we'd listen to the punkers. And we'd all trash the Top 40 bands when they were around."

For the time being, punk and metal appeared to be on equal footing. Both relatively new and definitely extreme, they shared the characteristics of outsiders: defiant, anti-establishment and loud. But the side-by-side status didn't last long.

Prophecy toured constantly around the northwest—in a camouflage school bus, no less—playing five or six times a week in clubs and bars. They didn't have day jobs. What little they did earn was enough for a group of rebellious 20-somethings to live off of.

"That's all we did. It wasn't much money," says Koester, "but at that time it was enough. And we were the heaviest thing playing the clubs. We put on a big show. We were going to be rock stars."

In 1987, MTV launched "Headbangers Ball," a video and interview show focused exclusively on metal. By the time it was canceled in 1995 (it reappeared sporadically in various low-grade, late-night versions on MTV2 thereafter), metal had been surpassed by various other genres. Grunge mania was in full swing. Locally, punk had found a foothold in downtown venues like Trendz and, eventually, Jay's Upstairs. Prophecy was long gone.

But metal never died. Over the past few decades, while other types of music found widespread popularity among local audiences, metal—whether by nature or nurture—has stayed underground and insular. Call it the redheaded stepchild of the music scene. Call the bands and their diehard fans fringe dwellers. But the truth is, there are a lot of metal bands keeping the scene alive, playing in and around Missoula, who deserve to be heard. We think it's time for an introduction.

YOUTH GONE WILD

Thrash metal band Judgment Hammer seems out of place in the warm light of Liquid Planet, where the noise level never goes above the hum of laptop computers and rustling newspapers, or the occasional whir of a coffee grinder. Guitarist Jared Kiess wears an old-school Testament T-shirt, faded jeans and white high-top sneakers. Sid La Tray's big long hair hits past the shoulders of his ripped jean jacket. Aaron Gericke wears a Megadeth baseball cap, and Dustin Fugere, who has hair to his chin, sports an Iron Maiden shirt. It's not that the quartet are wildly out of place, but when they walk by, customers definitely peek from behind their books with curiosity.

Judgment Hammer is one of the youngest metal bands in Montana—if not the youngest—with two of the members still in high school and the other two just a few years graduated. Kiess and Gericke played in a band called the Four Horsemen who, in 2007, rocked the Palace stage at local indie rock extravaganza Total Fest. Not just metalheads, but indie and folk rock fans seemed enthralled by the young band's ability to pull off thrash metal originals, with all the gratuitous guitar solos, headbanging and hair whipping of a Metallica throwback.

"Our influences are definitely old-school," says Kiess. "Our main influence is old Metallica...and old albums from Slayer, Anthrax, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel. We proclaim ourselves as the only Montana thrash metal band."

click to enlarge Local metal promoter Cheryl Fullerton booked shows for years at The Other Side, but that came to an end when Tom Read, the venue’s owner, died suddenly in May 2009. “Everybody felt comfortable there,” she says. “Everybody knew everybody—kind of how Jay’s was for the punk scene, The Other Side was for the metal scene.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Local metal promoter Cheryl Fullerton booked shows for years at The Other Side, but that came to an end when Tom Read, the venue’s owner, died suddenly in May 2009. “Everybody felt comfortable there,” she says. “Everybody knew everybody—kind of how Jay’s was for the punk scene, The Other Side was for the metal scene.”

Judgment Hammer recently put out a debut album called Arbiter of Fate, full of speedy solos and driving, whirlwind riffs in songs like "Lightning War," "Swift Justice" and "Brazen Serpent."

"We have songs about war and violence and swift justice, and there's one about the blitzkrieg, and one kind of about Satan," Kiess says with a devilish smile. "I mean, we do need a song about Satan. But I don't focus on the lyrics. You just need a vessel for a melody. Who cares what the lyrics are."

Kiess says that he likes the fast, upbeat style of thrash, as opposed to some of the darker, downturned doom metal that's been popular with new metal acts (aka nü metal). He says he's noticed old-school thrash bands emerging from places like California and Europe, but not Montana.

"I don't know if it's just that the culture of our town is not suited to our kind of music," says Kiess. "And the thing is, if somebody comes into town like the Sword—I mean, they opened up for Metallica—people have heard of them, and they'll go. Maybe those people would like our stuff but they don't want to give it a try because they don't know who we are."

But the band has received support from outside the state. After Arbiter of Fate went up on Judgment Hammer's MySpace page, the band got invited to play Thrasheggeddon II, a metal festival in Albuquerque, N.M., that showcases high-profile thrash bands. Judgment Hammer's now looking forward to playing in front of hundreds rather than the five to 30 people they usually draw in Missoula.

HEAVEN AND HELL

J.J. Keller passes around a bottle of Jägermeister at Universal Choke Sign's practice room. It's a spacious garage, located on Missoula's Westside, with a clubhouse feel: cigarette smoke curling through the air, a large drum set in the corner, a weathered leather couch and a refrigerator stocked with Coors and Clamato for red beers.

The band members are reflecting on Jay's Upstairs. Keller and Justin Tribble, both guitarists for Universal Choke Sign (UCS), played in a metal band called Tower back in the late 1990s. Per Carlson, UCS's bassist, also played at Jay's in a metal band called St. Rage. Together they made up a small metal scene—with other groups like War Cry and Die Sister Die—among Jay's much more prominent, full-swing punk and garage rock scene. And though none of the metalheads say they were completely alienated, they all certainly noticed a division—some nights more than others.

click to enlarge In 2005, 96.3 The Blaze started promoting Universal Choke Sign’s songs on the radio. Support from the station and the emergence of events like the PBR Band of the Year contest led to more exposure for the metal group, which includes, from left to right, Per Carlson, J.J. Keller, Dayv Drake and Justin Tribble. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • In 2005, 96.3 The Blaze started promoting Universal Choke Sign’s songs on the radio. Support from the station and the emergence of events like the PBR Band of the Year contest led to more exposure for the metal group, which includes, from left to right, Per Carlson, J.J. Keller, Dayv Drake and Justin Tribble.

"There were some real confrontational points in the late 1990s when we first started playing at Jay's," says Tribble. "One night, we got into it. We were playing, and we had a whole bunch of metalheads there, but all of those punk guys are pretty relentless—respect for them, they're tough as nails. It was a rough night. Fists got thrown. But we were able to continue playing there."

They persevered in part, he says, because of support from soundman and Kiss fanatic Justin Lawrence, who loves metal but had his foot in the punk scene playing for punk band Humpy. "Justin had our back," adds Tribble.

When Jay's Upstairs was shut down in 2003, the music scene dispersed. House parties sprung up, temporary warehouse venues popped up, and then disintegrated. Metal bands started getting gigs at Buck's Club, a remote venue off Brooks Street, while punk, garage and other indie rock shows stayed in the heart of downtown.

Cheryl Fullerton, UCS's band manager, was drowning in a corporate job at the time. She'd grown up in Missoula listening to tapes of thrash bands like Nuclear Assault and Exodus.

"I've always been drawn to that form of music and its angst," she says. "We used to pull over when we had to go hang out with people who weren't really into metal and get all of our headbanging out in the car back when we were young. You almost have a need for it. I was getting frustrated because there weren't any shows to go to. It came down to the point where, if nobody else was going to do it, I was."

Fullerton started booking shows in Buck's Club's adjacent room, called The Other Side (formerly the Cowboy Bar). The 450-person space worked well for popular, national acts, but on nights when only a handful of people showed up, the emptiness was glaring—and costly.

"My first show was bad," she says. "You think that you're going to do something and that automatically people are going to show up. It was the beginning of an education."

But Fullerton gradually began to turn the metal scene around. She started up a production company, Demonlily Entertainment, focused exclusively on metal shows. She began brokering national metal acts to hit Missoula, including Primer 55, Straightline Stitch and Psychostick, while slotting local bands to open. Some shows flopped and some scored, filling the venue from stage front to the back wall.

Local bands got another boost when, in 2005, 96.3 The Blaze began promoting metal songs on the radio, in particular The Local 406 Show. UCS admits the arrangement began with a few inside connections at the station willing to help them out. Those connections led to radio play, and listeners eventually began requesting the band's songs.

Then metal reached an even wider audience with the arrival of a new local event. The Other Side hosted The Pabst Blue Ribbon Band of the Year contest, which pitted bands of every kind against each other, including the inHUMANS (absurdist hip-hop), Black Velvet Elvis (post-punk), Corn Mash (Americana) and metal. In 2008, metal bands Blessiddoom, Walking Corpse Syndrome and Lazerwolfs all advanced to the final round thanks to support of fans and voting from the judges' panel. None won the final competition, but the event provided the kind of exposure that metal bands rarely received in Missoula.

"The PBR thing helped us out because we were just starting out," UCS's Carlson says. "There were hippies out there digging that shit. A lot of different people saw us. And that helped us immensely."

In May 2009, Tom Reed, owner of Bucks Club and The Other Side, died suddenly, and the club closed. Fullerton was caught off guard by the tragedy. Reed had become a close friend and supporter of the shows she promoted. The days following his death she scrambled to find new venues for national bands she'd already booked. Places like the Elks, the Palace and the Badlander helped at the last minute. Meanwhile, rumors that The Other Side might sell and open again fizzled as months passed and the bar remained boarded up.

"Everybody felt comfortable there," says Fullerton. "Everybody knew everybody—kind of how Jay's was for the punk scene, The Other Side was for the metal scene. Its closing has left a hole."

And, with that, right when the metal scene was beginning to find traction, it found itself virtually homeless again.

FADE TO BLACK

The two drummers from Walking Corpse Syndrome (WCS) sit side-by-side pounding their bass drumheads, which are decorated with twin ghoulish faces. Songs like "Rotting Silence" and "Path of the Righteous and the Wicked" weave creepy organ melodies with muddy bass lines and growling, nearly indiscernible vocals. The musicians wear black clothing decorated with chains and hooks and other industrial accessories. It's a gothic style that has sometimes garnered the band snide remarks about being sponsored by the gothic chain store Hot Topic. (The exception to WCS's style is bassist/electric violinist Bill Sludge, who takes rebellion a step further by wearing slacks, a button-up shirt and preppy sweater.)

Guitarist Matthew Bile shrugs off the Hot Topic teasing. In fact, he makes a lot of his own clothes, including a shirt full of lights. It's just one part of the band's overall do-it-yourself ethic.

"If [the outfits] look as good as something professional," he says, "I'll take it as a compliment."

click to enlarge Walking Corpse Syndrome prides itself on producing DIY concerts in and around Missoula. “If you can’t find somebody who will take you under their wing, you gotta do it yourself,” says guitarist Matthew Bile. “We put down our money, we do our advertising for it, we go out, we beat the streets, hand out fliers and we try to get as many people as possible.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Walking Corpse Syndrome prides itself on producing DIY concerts in and around Missoula. “If you can’t find somebody who will take you under their wing, you gotta do it yourself,” says guitarist Matthew Bile. “We put down our money, we do our advertising for it, we go out, we beat the streets, hand out fliers and we try to get as many people as possible.”

Bile grew up in Billings' DIY punk scene in Billings before immersing himself in local metal. He played in bands at Jay's before forming WCS in 2007. And, like other metal bands, he coveted a chance to play The Other Side with its big stage (perfect for two drummers), its professional PA system and built-in metal crowd. But, he says, the band's main interest has always been producing all-ages shows.

Bile is straight edge (though not preachy about it), meaning he chooses not to partake in any drugs or alcohol. Though the rest of the band doesn't hold that same philosophy, they all adhere to the idea that kids need a drug-and-alcohol-free place to hear live music. Even when The Other Side was hopping with shows, Bile booked WCS at the Union Hall and at out-of-town rental spaces in Deer Lodge and Kalispell, where all-ages listeners could attend. (They also used to rent Higgins Hall at The Boys & Girls Club of Missoula until the venue started requiring a no swearing contract; Bile says the band couldn't comply.)

"If you can't find somebody who will take you under their wing, you gotta do it yourself," says Bile, who often works the door for his own shows. "We put down our money, we do our advertising for it, we go out, we beat the streets, hand out fliers and we try to get as many people as possible."

The band's homegrown approach almost always means it doesn't make much money, if it even breaks even. Booking bars has become more difficult due to cheaper options like DJs and karaoke. Another problem, he says, is that even when they do book a gig, there are a lot more types of entertainment to choose from these days.

"We have trouble getting people to log off 'World of Warcraft' to come see live music," Bile says. "It's not all gumdrops and lollypops like some people think it is. We really have to work hard. And we're not the only band doing it."

WCS recently recorded its sophomore album, Narcissist, at local studio Buzz Records. It's an amalgam of death and groove metal, though the band prefers the term dark metal to describe the overall sound spawned by a patchwork of influences. Bile's proud of the album—he calls it the band's baby—but cautions against fans expecting the studio effort to replace WCS's live shows.

"Things can go wrong and things do go wrong live, and there's more energy," he says. "And sometimes it's being pressed butt to nut with somebody else sweating your balls off, but you're letting go and having fun. It's never how it sounds on the album—sometimes it's better and sometimes it's worse, but god dammit you gotta take that chance."

RAINBOW IN THE DARK

The first time Undun was kicked off the stage was in 2000 at a cancer benefit show in Butte. According to guitarist Josh Warren, a promoter had invited the band to play the benefit, and the Montana Tech radio station had even advertised the show by playing some of the band's heavier death metal songs. But when the group plugged in the amps and started pounding out some grinding riffs, the promoter wasn't impressed.

"We started playing," says Warren, "and she comes over and says she doesn't like what we're playing. She wanted us to play 'Sweet Home Alabama' instead."

Clearly, she'd gotten the wrong idea.

click to enlarge Undun has been asked to turn down, turn off or play something else during several live shows. Most recently, organizers at last year’s Western Montana Fair told the band to quiet down. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” guitarist Josh Warren recalls saying. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JESSICA MAUER
  • Photo courtesy of Jessica Mauer
  • Undun has been asked to turn down, turn off or play something else during several live shows. Most recently, organizers at last year’s Western Montana Fair told the band to quiet down. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” guitarist Josh Warren recalls saying.

Since then, the band counts several times it's been asked to turn down, turn off or play something else. The most recent example was at the Western Montana Fair, during a show sponsored by The Blaze. Three songs in, the sound operator told the band it would have to quiet down to appease some members of the fair committee. Warren recalls saying, "If it's too loud, you're too old," and launching into another song. But by then, the sound guy had shut off the PA.

"The grandstands were full," says frontman Corey Hayes. "There were old people in Rascal scooters, women pushing strollers. People stopped to listen. The special-needs kids were bobbing their heads. But I guess those [in charge] didn't like how loud we were."

It doesn't really faze the band members: getting the plug pulled, people misunderstanding the type of music they play—it's all par for the course with metal, says Hayes. But finding venues where they didn't have to censor themselves or quiet down or be asked to play covers was the band's main goal.

In fact, even before The Other Side closed, Hayes had his eye on the Palace. The Palace/Badlander complex on the corner of Ryman and Broadway opened in May 2007, hosting rock shows with relative success. Looking for an opportunity, Hayes volunteered to help with security during the August 2008 Total Fest.

"I kind of stuck around and started to nag [the owners] about doing metal shows there," he says. "They wanted a huge deposit because they thought we weren't going to draw a big enough crowd and, maybe, that somehow the place was going to get torn up."

Hayes persisted and ended up with a Thursday night show at the Palace called Metal Militia, just six months before The Other Side closed. He brought in big metal acts like Skeletonwitch. He hosted a benefit with Demonlily for the Watson Children's Shelter, which featured heavy rock band Royal Bliss and several local metal acts. Lazerwolfs played a tribute show to Judas Priest. Project Independent, a statewide metal competition, made its home at the Palace. And Dimestock, an annual tribute show to Pantera's late frontman Dimebag Darrel, which the Other Side used to host, spent its fourth year at the basement venue. All the while, new local metal bands sprung on the scene, including Beef Curtain, Maggedon and Doomfock, among many others.

Colin Hickey, who books shows at the Palace and Badlander, says that recent Metal Militia nights have been slow. There's a lull in metal bands touring to town, and metal DJs don't bring in the crowds.

"Metal Thursdays were great when real bands played," Hickey says, "but off nights, when there were just metal DJs, it was horrible. No one showed up."

Hickey acknowledges the void The Other Side has created for metal bands. At The Other Side, you could book a show on short notice. But for the Badlander and Palace, bands are booked three months in advance—at a minimum. And, unlike weeknights at The Other Side, he says, local metal bands are competing with indie rock, hip-hop and every touring act that comes into town.

"We love to do metal shows," says Hickey. "We're a fan of them. My issue is booking."

PIECE OF MIND

When the lights hit the stage, the piercing sound of air-raid sirens fills the room. Blessiddoom guitarist Russ Reel and his sister, bassist Sherri Reel Johnson, dive into chugging riffs and squealing false harmonics as a police beacon, decorated with two large American flags, flashes red behind them in the shadows. Backup singer Chelsi Raymond paces, while on either side of the stage two young women dubbed the "Daughters of Doom" dance scantily clad in goth gear. Suddenly, frontman Eddie Johnson saunters into the light dressed in an ATF uniform and sunglasses, his long blond hair snaking out from under a top hat. He yells to the crowd: "Get the fuck up," and several people stick their rock horns in the air as drummer Pauli Doom's pummeling double pedal kicks up the wall of heavy sound.

"Attention citizens," Johnson growls militantly, "please stand before your telestrator...and prepare...for the five...minute...hate!"

click to enlarge Blessiddoom’s known for its elaborate live shows and stark political commentary. The group’s most recent album, Dystopia, suggests American citizens have lost their taste for independent thinking. “It also gets back to an important aspect of metal,” says drummer Pauli Doom, “which is defiance.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF BLESSIDDOOM
  • Photo courtesy of Blessiddoom
  • Blessiddoom’s known for its elaborate live shows and stark political commentary. The group’s most recent album, Dystopia, suggests American citizens have lost their taste for independent thinking. “It also gets back to an important aspect of metal,” says drummer Pauli Doom, “which is defiance.”

That line, if you don't recognize it, is a slight variation of one in George Orwell's 1984. Blessiddoom's police state props and Orwellian references reflect the band's interest in American political commentary. The group's most recent album, Dystopia, focuses on the view that American citizens have lost their taste for independent thinking.

"In this country I think there is an addiction to the idea of being oppressed by the government," says Johnson. "My sentiment is that there's nothing more patriotic than to stand up and dissent. But I use the American flags as a positive symbol, like, 'Guess what? We're taking this back for ourselves.'"

"It also gets back to an important aspect of metal, which is defiance," adds Doom. "The [stage performance] also has a certain amount of shock value. And I'm not against shock value."

Blessiddoom plays a fusion of classic Judas Priest with Black Label Society's chunky groove metal. Its style is a far cry from the cacophony and animalistic growling of, say, black metal bands, who are sometimes labeled devil worshippers (usually not true) or, in the case of a couple of Norwegian metal bands, cathedral burners and murderers (sometimes true). But people still get the wrong idea about Blessiddoom's songs titled "Sepulchre" and "Could You (Sacrifice)."

"Let me just say that there is no satanic grave robbing in our music," laughs Doom. "And there's no misogyny, which I think sometimes metal and other rock 'n' roll can get tagged with."

Blessiddoom began playing shows at The Other Side in 2006, and the band's opened for national touring acts like Skeletonwitch and Hemlock. The band often travels to Spokane or Great Falls, which has a thriving metal scene. But, unlike the Prophecy days, most independent bands like Blessiddoom can't make much of a living wage off tours.

"You can't be in a metal band if you want to make money," says Johnson. "Even some of the biggest names don't make money. They go home after tour and they have day jobs."

In some places, like Missoula, it might come down to the fact that metal isn't the genre of choice for music audiences. It's just too loud, too dark, too raw, too something. But, for local metal bands that like the sinister, underground feel of it, sometimes that's the point.

"Some people will never understand the element of it being therapeutic for people who are outcasts or loners, who do have intelligent things to say," says bassist Sherri. "I think a lot of metal bands do."

"It's not easy," adds Johnson. "You have to do it because you love it. And because you can't imagine your life without it."

RIDE THE LIGHTNING

Doug Koester walks through the door of the Independent office to drop off a copy of Prophecy's 1984 eponymous album. The raised letters of "Prophecy" loom over the bright, bleeding red background of the cover, which was, oddly enough, designed by local artist Monte Dolack. Now, Koester looks quite different from the photo of him displayed on the back of the record. Instead of a sleeveless T-shirt, cool gaze and long feathered hair, he's clean-cut, dressed in a nice suit and displays a warm smile. He's now a fundraiser and regional manager for the American Heart Association.

"Things change," he says. "Back then it was like, 'A real job? Are you kidding me?'"

Koester still plays music, though it's now for a country band called County Line, scheduled to open at the Wilma Theatre next month for national act Jake Owen. Koester says he's content with his current band—he switched from guitar to bass—and he no longer cares about making it big. But he does recall the Prophecy days with fondness.

"It was the edgy, it was the loud, it was the rebellious," he says. "It was the in-your-face. We used to say, 'Prophecy rocks your face off.' It was that kind of feeling."

As much as things have changed since Koester shredded the stage at the Tijuana Cantina, many things remain the same. Local metal bands, whether they're playing speed metal or sludgy doom chords, are still edgy, loud, rebellious and aimed at rocking your face off. And they're still on the fringe of the local music scene.

Koester knows it, and he's tickled to finally have the genre's local history, as well as the current stories, come to light. He just has one request when he drops off the old album: "When you play it, be sure you turn it up loud."

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