Savannah rockers Black Tusk make weird the new norm

Something the RZA, a CBS police drama and one bandmate's mom can all agree on

A young man who can't legally purchase cigarettes and whose hair swoops dramatically across his eyes stands at the edge of a modest stage, holding court with roughly a dozen people. The lights are schizophrenic. His singing style can only be described as Brandon Boyd meets the Cookie Monster. For his band's penultimate song, he steps behind the drum kit and announces that he and his teenaged cohorts are "going old-school" — meaning, a cover of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" theme song in the style of Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"This is gonna be weird," Andrew Fidler, guitarist of Savannah rockers Black Tusk, says about an hour later while standing in a dark alley behind the venue. Understatement of the year notwithstanding, he's got a point. In a few hours, his band will headline the 2011 Statesboro Rock Feast. This year's festival is being held at Dos Primos, a Statesboro restaurant that serves Greek Mediterranean food and hosts musical acts on the regular in its rather expansive space. Its servers wear tiny jorts and gigantic smiles, and its jukebox plays Kid Rock and Dookie-era Green Day, prompting frequent sing-alongs from the establishment's patrons. With $2, you can get shots with names like Dew Drop Dead and Big Fat Monkey Kiss. Three bucks will upgrade you to the level where the Alabama Slammer and Bigfoot's Dick reside. Tonight, several acts will play, including the above-mentioned youngsters, a funk group that'll cover Jimi Hendrix more than once, a hardcore punk band, a death-metal act, and a handful of others, culminating in Black Tusk's headlining slot at midnight. The group will play to about 30 people.

Closing out this rather random bill is weird, sure, but no weirder than most of the stuff that orbits the Hostess City of the South's latest heavy-music offering. Late last year, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan remixed "The Takeoff" — from Black Tusk's 2010 album, the excellent Taste of Sin — for a Nike video series. The band's "Fatal Kiss" was featured on Adult Swim's Metal Swim compilation, which boasts "16 tracks of rare or unreleased metal from the heaviest bands in existence," and puts Black Tusk alongside other hard-rocking Georgians such as Zoroaster and Kylesa.

When I talk to the guys before their Statesboro gig, they shake their heads at recently finding out that one of their songs is going to be featured on popular CBS police drama "Criminal Minds." Except that, just like with RZA's Nike video, they have no idea how it will be featured, exactly.

"We're kind of, like, playing a little game," drummer James May says. "We all have our theory on what they're going to use our song for. Like, a child-killing clown or something."

"Shit, it'd be cooler if he had our shirt on," bassist Jonathan Athon says.

"It's probably the scene with a drug dealer doing something," Fidler shrugs.

"The metal kid OD's in his room to our album," says May.

"And his parents are gonna come in and he's hanging from the ceiling fan, doing slow circles to our song," Athon finishes the thought.

Categorizing Black Tusk is slightly problematic, which seems to delight the band. The trio operates within the framework of heavy metal, a positively massive umbrella of a style rife with subgenres, and Black Tusk's particular brand of it tends to get prefaced with words such as "swamp," "stoner" and "sludge." But an easier and more accurate description would be the point at which hardcore punk and Southern metal meet.

Black Tusk's songs are frenzied and relentless, all speed riffs and three-way vocal shouting. The band's third full-length album, Set the Dial (Relapse), which drops Oct. 25, sticks to this model. You might say it wasn't broke, so Black Tusk didn't fix it. Or, to describe the band's music with the band's music, you could quote Taste the Sin's "The Ride": "Where am I at/where do I go/don't know where I'm goin'/but I ain't goin' slow."

The band is part of an increasingly rewarding hard-rock scene in Savannah, one that has produced a seemingly never-ending supply of quality metal in recent years, with bands such as Baroness and Kylesa blazing the trails that Black Tusk now follows. If Baroness is the contemplative older sibling and Kylesa the middle child destined for perhaps the greatest fame of all three, Black Tusk is that bratty youngster, a punk in the truest sense of the word. You can't help but root for him, though, especially when he acts out, insisting that the first words on his new album be group-chanted, "Six! Six! Six!" You know, just to fuck with the squares. Luckily, his mom is down with it.

"She's an aging, hippie rock lady," Athon says of the lady who raised him. "She grew up with the crazy stuff in the '70s. She's seen us once or twice and she loves it. I mean, she doesn't love the music, but she loves that I'm doing it. She rocks her Black Tusk sticker on the back of her car."