Charlie Southern brushes back the tangled mass of hair sprouting from his head while nodding to a sound that only he can hear. His movements are subtle, almost imperceptible. But when he speaks there's an undeniably stoked inflection behind every word.
"That show was crazy ..." he says, recalling a recent performance at 529. Southern is the guitarist for Sadistic Ritual, a young Atlanta five-piece whose high-speed shred fest rekindles a classic early '80s thrash/death metal crossover assault.
In person, Southern's relaxed presence is a far cry from the whiplash headbanger he lets loose on stage. On the night in question, April 16, Sadistic Ritual was the first of four acts on a locals-only bill with Mangled, Living Decay, and Hellgoat — all monikers that sound as much like demonic incantations as they do band names. As he recalls moments from the show, including a parade of devil horns pointed toward the heavens and a savage mob shoving its way to the front of the stage with unbridled aggression, the excitement in his voice becomes palpable. Nearly 200 people had crammed into the tiny East Atlanta bar that night. And when not one more body could squeeze through the door, the black-clad mob took over the patio, cluttered up the sidewalk, and eventually spilled out onto Flat Shoals Avenue. No one saw it coming, but it was the best turnout 529 had seen all month. And it was a school night.
"Whenever that many people come out during the week for a bunch of local bands — and nobody from out of town is playing — something's up," Southern says.
Atlanta has long been teeming with metal, from Leechmilk's Parasite House parties around the turn of the millennium to heavy hitters such as Mastodon, Royal Thunder, Order of the Owl, and more. But something different is driving the next generation of metalheads. Over the last two years, Atlanta has witnessed a groundswell of young and focused metal bands. A new scene is looking beyond the slow and sludgy pace that's defined Southern metal for a decade, and embracing a loud, fast charge. Sadistic Ritual, Mangled, Death of Kings, Disfigurement, Dropout, Dead in the Dirt, and more have laid the groundwork for a metal community that has more in common with DIY punk and hardcore. These bands live together, share practice spaces, book each other's shows, and screen-print each other's T-shirts and stickers. They've jump-started a movement that's become the city's most vital underground rock scene this year.
"It's more of a community than just a scene of bands bumming around," says Matt Moyer, bass player and vocalist for Mangled. "What matters is that there are more shows happening and more people helping each other out — there's a tangible metal scene going on here for the first time in a long while, and it's been kicking up strong lately. Mangled, Disfigurement, Sadistic Ritual — we all came out with our bands around the same time, which was a kick in the chin that this town needed."
Many of Atlanta's new metal bands started out playing shows and parties at the now defunct PS Warehouse on Wells Street in Downtown and Jack's Pizza on North Highland Avenue. Once they began playing more established venues, local indie label Boris Records took notice. Run by Sam Leyja, organ player for avant-garage/R&B outfit Tiger! Tiger!, Boris Records' releases helped unite the scene.
While growing up amid San Antonio and Austin, Texas' metal boom in the late '70s and early '80s, Leyja designed T-shirts, ad art, and backdrops for a handful of labels, including Rotten Records and Metal Blade, as well as bands such as Holy Terror, Fates Warning, and D.R.I. (That famous chrome running man on the cover of D.R.I.'s 1987 Crossover LP is Leyja's work.)
"That was a long time ago," he laughs. "Most of that stuff is pretty terrible. I prefer animation now."
Leyja's goal with Boris Records since its May 2012 debut release of Spewtilator's "Inhale Awaits" 7-inch has been to cultivate an energetic music community similar to the Texas music scenes of his youth. But it's not about reliving the past.
"This is a different scene with different people and different music," Leyja says. "Nostalgia is bullshit."
For Leyja, the appeal of the current metal scene is the diversity of the bands.
"They all have their own sound," Leyja says. "Something that makes a scene really good or exciting is when a lot of bands all have their own thing going on. As soon as they start sounding the same is when the scene starts to suck."
To document this creative high, Leyja has released a handful of 7-inches by Disfigurement, Mangled, and Sadistic Ritual, with more releases, including a Disfigurement CD, slated for the coming year.
While diverse, the bands of Atlanta's metal underground have speed, dexterity, and monstrous growls in common, from the Norwegian sophistication of Disfigurement's Abyss of Hatred to the maniacal death metal grooves of Mangled's Sewer Metal.
Each band draws from a mixed bag of influences while steering clear of overt genre loyalties. When Mangled vocalist Ryan Ritchie snarls "Grab your ankle from the drain and drag you screaming to your death" in "Gutted in the Gutter," he's combining horrific imagery with hardcore's intensity.
"The separation between punk, hardcore, and metal is sort of an old thing," Ritchie says. "It's all pretty much hand in hand now — punk kids hang out at metal shows and metal kids hang out when bands like Manic or Dernier Combat play. A lot of people in this scene come from punk backgrounds."
For sheer technical prowess, Disfigurement features some of the strongest players in Atlanta. Dead in the Dirt's socio-political-charged grindcore and metal mix makes it the most punishing band in town. Dropout's melodic, European death metal stylings transcend the genre's typically morose blueprint. Mangled's caustic freak-outs are fitted with propulsive rhythms the likes of which most metal has never seen. Sadistic Ritual channels staggering energy into its riffs. And, despite his modesty, Southern's lightning-fast dexterity with his guitar strings — he's only 21 years old — is jaw-dropping.
"I don't know anything about theory or anything like that," he says. "I just sit around and try to make up cool riffs all day."
Sadistic Rituals' Hellish Mercenary 7-inch is Boris Records' latest offering. The lashing guitar attacks bound by the blackened outer limits of thrash, dissonance, and screaming tempos in "Neurotoxin" erupt with so much skull-rattling speed and intensity that it threatens to rip itself apart at every searing riff. And what the song "Hellish Mercenary" packs onto vinyl only hints at the blitzkrieg behind the band's songs when they're played live.
"The live shows are where this scene is really happening with these guys," Moyer says. "It's where it's happening for all of these bands."
Cassette label Ritual Ugliness Productions has found a niche capturing the live shows. Owner Bob Davis sees his efforts as a living archive, stamping in time Atlanta's 2013 metal scene.
"The tape releases are an extension of the recording project, and I approach them more as a creative art project," he says.
Davis moved from New Haven, Conn., to Atlanta in 2011, and was impressed by the shows he caught at Jack's and 529. After buying a handheld microphone to make field recordings, he taped a Mangled practice one night last February. Davis was so inspired by the recording's raw sound that he continued documenting the live scene.
"There are too many talented musicians and great bands for them all to pass unknown and forgotten into history," Davis says.
Thus far, Ritual Ugliness has released a handful of live tapes, including Mangled's Tales From Beneath the Streets Vol II: Live Sewage, Cheap Art's This Is What You Get, You Fuckers, and Sadistic Ritual's Live at Jacks. But Davis is most excited about his recording of Hellgoat's black metal mass on that ominous Tuesday night at 529 when Sadistic Ritual played. It's due out at the end of June and will be titled Ceremony of Death.
"The band's performance is hellish, the atmosphere of the recording is cavernous, and there are so many unsettling moments throughout the recording — lots of inhuman screams coming from the audience," he says.
It's the same show that haunts Southern: savage, aggressive, crazy. A night in the life of Atlanta's new music scene that's loud and fast, and all of the sudden, it rules.