There was much anticipation at the ZACC basement a few weeks ago for Seattle band Helms Alee. The stoner-rock trio has a reputation for blasting melodic, Viking-esque songs heavy as a maritime storm. But before Helms Alee ever took the stage, an opening band called Swamp Ritual temporarily stole the limelight. The Missoula two-piece featuring Dustin Fugere on bass and Sid La Tray on drums has been together for over a year, but the band's brand of sludgy rock has seemed tighter in recent shows. The fact that Swamp Ritual didn't bring its usual stage accoutrements to the Helms Alee showFugere and La Tray often haul in their own light rack and fog machinedidn't detract from the performance. It already had the ingredients it needed.
For one, the duo is fun to watch. Fugere, 22, whips his long hair in the artful way a good headbanger does and both he and La Tray, 20, have a confidence on stage that isn't put on. For another thing, they're musically tight even while jamming out long, noodling songs. In other words, this isn't a band that needs gimmicks, though the group does require double bass stacksan accessory they did not forget to bring to the ZACCin order to get its big, fuzzed-out sound.
After the basement set, the crowd erupted into enthusiastic applause. A couple of people around me agreed that Swamp Ritual sounds a little like a guitarless version of stoner rock staple Fu Manchu. But one of my friends took it a step further: "They're proof that Fu Manchu doesn't need a guitarist." (Ouch, Scott Hill.)
Hyperbole stemming from post-show glow? Definitely. Swamp Ritual has a ways to go before they're on Fu Manchu's level, but the reaction is still genuine. Fugere and La Tray aren't entirely new to that kind of praise. They also play in thrash metal band Judgment Hammer with guitarist Jared Kiess and that group, since its 2009 inception, has been extolled for being deft, fast and incredibly entertaining. When Kiess moved to the East Coast for law school a few years ago, Judgment Hammer only made appearances during summer and school breaks when Kiess could get back to town. Fugere and La Tray started Swamp Ritual as a means to pass the time when their "real" band wasn't playing.
For the duo's first show, opening for another band at the VFW, Fugere and La Tray learned a bunch of Fu Manchu covers. They also got to showcase their original song "The Bearded Dragon," aka "Ritual Rising." It's a long jam that Fugere says has mutated over time as they've continued to revise it. (At one show, they played the 10-minute song as their "last song" to the chagrin of the bartender who was trying to wrap things up for the night.)
Fugere and La Tray are young, but their musical knowledge runs deep. That's especially true of La Tray, who grew up on classic hard rock, metal and punk thanks to his dad (and Indy contributor), Chris. He spent a lot of time digging through Chris' music.
"My dad has a giant iTunes collection and I've been going through it ever since I was a kid," La Tray says. "From day one, he got me into KISS. He showed me so much stuff at once I had to step back. I got into punk and then I slowly got into metal."
Last Halloween, Swamp Ritual played a KISS set in full makeup with a special guest appearance by Chris.
Slowly but surely, Swamp Ritual has become less a side project and more a central focus. Originally, La Tray and Fugere kept it a two-piece to make it easy to schedule practice and get on last-minute show bills. But lately, being a duo has become more of an artistic choice.
"Yeah, at first we didn't really want to commit to another guitar player when we have another band that we were committed to," Fugere says. "And now we just haven't felt the need to have someone else. We feel like it would kill itthat we'd become just another three-piece band. And there's a lot of those."
The musicians built on their live performance by adding the double bass stacks, lights and fog. And they also eventually moved La Tray to the front of the stage for better effect after seeing other heavy rock bands doing the same thing.
"We played with [North Carolina sludge band] Weedeater and we noticed that their drummer was right up in front of the stage and the amps were just cranked," Fugere says. "It's the same with Helms Alee. We realized if you are standing in the front it is the perfect mix."
They learned covers like Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave" and Sleep's "Dragonaught," but they also have added more originals to their repertoire with classic-sounding fantasy titles like "Ditch Witch," "Whiskey Wizard" and "The Outer Rim." Most of their songs have some lyrics, but they're sparse and esoteric. And, as heavy as the music is, its subject matter isn't necessarily dark, it's just expansive.
"What we play evolved from 1980s metal like Iron Maiden," Fugere says. "I think these days musicians don't necessarily tone it down, but it is a little less cheesy than it used to be. With some of the music [Sid and I] listen to, there's a focus on space and exploration. I can listen to a love song or a bluegrass song, that's fine. But I kind of know how my life works: I'd rather think about big concepts."
Swamp Ritual hits the road soon for a short tour to play Billings and then Festibowl in Denver (on April 20, of course). This week also marks the band's month-long residency at the VFW, for which it'll play every Thursday in April with bands like Shramana, Boss Fight, Kadmin and, on April 24, Judgment Hammer. This time, Swamp Ritual will be the featured act. And it's about time.
Swamp Ritual begins its residency at the VFW Thu., April 3, at 10 PM with Warning! Danger and No Fancy. $3. The residency continues every Thursday through April 24.