Metal in the Garden of Good and Evil

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David Peisner WRITTEN BY
David Peisner

A winding dirt road weaves through thickets of oak trees covered in Spanish moss, past a rhubarb patch, a chicken coop, and several wire pens housing dogs and one semi domesticated wild boar, before ending at a cluster of rustic wooden cabins. Disused auto parts lie scattered, a beat-up sign reading "Goin' to Getta Gator" hangs on the back wall of a tall lean-to, and just a few yards into the woods is a large pile of alligator carcasses that gets consistently picked over by turkey vultures.

The property, which lies a few miles inland from Savannah, Georgia, belongs to a licensed alligator trapper, but on this July evening it's hosting a low-key barbecue for a couple dozen metalheads who happen to be friendly with his daughter. I arrive with John Baizley and Pete Adams, frontman and guitarist, respectively, for local heavy-rock heroes Baroness.

"We come here a lot," says Baizley, an energetic guy with a shaggy beard and big, prominent eyes that seem to pop out of his head when he talks. "It's nice to get out of the city to where it's not quite as hot, especially in the summer." It is a little cooler here than down on Savannah's sunbaked streets, but only a little. Although it's already dark, the temperature hovers in the 90s, and the air is so thick with humidity you can't bend down to tie your shoelaces without breaking a sweat.

Baroness' bassist, an easygoing dude named Summer Welch, has been here since this morning drinking beer, shooting guns, and smoking a pig with Jonathan Athon, bassist-vocalist for the swamp-metal band Blacktusk. Athon, a talkative guy with a shaved head, foot-long beard, and myriad tattoos notes that nearly everyone here is involved in the local music scene. Besides his Blacktusk bandmates -- Andrew Fidler and James May -- and three-quarters of Baroness, he points out two members of the defunct but influential noise-rockers Unpersons leaning against a pickup truck drinking beers.

Sitting on a homemade bench nearby is Susanne Warnekros, who runs Savannah's premier rock club, the Jinx. Jason Statts, who until a year ago was one of two bassists in surt {the destroyer}, sits in a wheelchair talking to Pat Mathis. Mathis runs the local label Hyperrealist, which has released records by pretty much every significant Savannah band, including Baroness, Blacktusk, the experimental post-punk/prog-metal crew Circle Takes the Square, and the dark psych-metal titans Kylesa.

Standing in front of the pig smoker, Athon unscrews the top of some homemade moonshine and takes a swig. "This," he says, "is Savannah."

Savannah in 2009 is not Seattle in 1991. There aren't great bands everywhere you look, amazing live shows every night, and major-label A&R reps prowling the streets for the next big thing. This is a small city of a little more than 100,000 people that doesn't even have a record store. A recently enacted ordinance has made all-ages shows practically nonexistent. As such, the metal scene here is small -- if a bomb dropped on this barbecue, it might cease to exist at all. But it's a creative hotbed, producing thunderingly heavy, reliably left-of-center artists who've begun exporting the Savannah sound to the rest of the world.

Kylesa have sold 75,000 copies of their last three albums and recently toured with fellow Georgians Mastodon. Baroness' 2007 release, Red Album, has moved 20,000 units for the indie-metal powerhouse Relapse, and their dynamic follow-up, Blue Record, may be the best metal album of 2009. That this has all happened in a picturesque coastal tourist mecca where the phrase live music too often means a dude in a Hawaiian shirt warbling Jimmy Buffett covers is all the more intriguing.

"Everyone down there has a DIY approach," says Mastodon guitarist Bill Kelliher, whose band is a musical touchstone for much of the Savannah scene. "Baroness are amazing -- I think they have some Mastodon elements to them. We took Kylesa on tour because we love those guys and have been hanging out with them for years. They blew a lot of people's expectations out of the water."

In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt's best-selling 1994 account of his time here, longtime resident Mary Harty describes Savannah as a "terribly inconvenient destination" that is "gloriously isolated," "a little enclave on the coast...surrounded by nothing but marshes and piney woods." This glorious isolation has had a noticeable effect on its music. The city has rarely been a regular stop on any touring band's itinerary, and in the scene's formative years -- the pre-Internet late '80s and early '90s -- music fans mostly fended for themselves.

"We developed like a species on an island," says former Unpersons bassist Matt Maggioni. "People had to make their own entertainment."

For more on Savannah's metal scene, pick up the December 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.

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