Pillars of Ash arrives with an unfortunate undertow of loss. A few weeks prior to Thanksgiving in 2014, Black Tusk bassist/co-singer/founding member Jonathan Athon was driving his bike through the neighborhood streets of his hometown Savannah when he was mortally struck by an elderly driver who ran a stop sign. After being put into a medically induced coma, it became quickly apparent that the resulting brain damage was too extensive for any possible recovery. The next day his family made the difficult decision to remove him from life support. He was 31 years old.
All three members of Black Tusk had always shared vocal duties to varying extents, with Athon — he of the coincidentally alliterative first and last names, an apt metaphor for the man’s cavernous on-stage bellow — picking up the bottom end of the voice range, perfectly, fittingly complementing the lower ranges of his floor rattling bass guitar. Athon was Black Tusk’s anchor, a playful berserker presence just mean enough to anchor the band’s sludge metal sound where the compact riffs and higher pitched shouts of bandmate Andrew Fidler threatened to veer the band closer to the crossover punk of bands like Cryptic Slaughter and D.R.I.
Eighteen months later, a Black Tusk without Jonathan Athon’s indomitable influence is still largely a theoretical concept; by a stroke of fortune, the majority of Pillars of Ash had already been recorded prior to Athon’s untimely passing, with the entirety of his bass and vocal tracks laid to tape. The band had already committed to a tour with Black Label Society prior to completing the album, and in the wake of the accident Fidler and drummer Jamie May opted to fulfill their touring commitments with ex-Kylesa bassist Corey Barhorst. The album itself was put on the backburner while what remained of Black Tusk worked their emotions out on stage and pondered what direction to take next.
Pillars of Ash actually bears a weird sort of similarity to AC/DC’s Back in Black, another album cloaked in darkness and loss first released after the death of a prominent band member, yet bearing little overt trace of sorrow or mourning (the similarities end there, though; there’s nothing here so questionable as AC/DC opting to devote half of their comeback album to newly written drinking songs after their former lead singer had just choked to death on his own booze-induced vomit).
As the final recording featuring Athon, Pillars of Ash feels more like a closing chapter than a new beginning. From opening track “God’s on Vacation”, Athon’s buzzsaw bass and throaty counterpoint vocals are omnipresent for the album’s entire(ly brief) 34-minute running time. It’s not his stage to shine on alone, though; like any other carefree Black Tusk album before it, the presumptive eternality of the core trio was still being honored throughout recording, with the finished product having no posthumous add-ons.
This is actually to both the band’s and the album’s credit, as Pillars of Ash may have crumbled under the weight of a shoehorned sense of gravitas. Tracks like “God’s on Vacation” and a cover of Tank 18’s “Punk Out” are meant to be fun mosh anthems, any catharsis to be had just as likely to come from sweating it out in the pit as from the music’s vaguely bummed out lyrics. “Black Tide” is as close as the album gets to epic, a fist pumping jam that combines everything great about Black Tusk into four succinct minutes: multiple vocalists offering a sort of cinematic dramatis personae, pace quickening then abating to simulate an expansive narrative drive and, most importantly, an abundance of memorable riffs.
It remains to be seen whether Pillars of Ash will go down as Black Tusk’s final record as a band. My guess is that they will in fact carry on, either with Corey Barhorst permanently filling Athon’s shoes or with another gunslinger in his stead, but that’s a story to unfold later. The takeaway for right now is that heavy metal has lost another one its greats, and Pillars of Ash is his last will and testament.