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Heady metal 

A locally obscure North Little Rock metal band has a following that extends across the world.

click to enlarge RWAKE LIVE IN NYC: Photo by Fred Pessaro / BrooklynVegan
  • RWAKE LIVE IN NYC: Photo by Fred Pessaro / BrooklynVegan

Rwake. The R is silent, so say “Wake.” Or, if you're the type who believes in pronouncing words with all intended flourish -- if you, say, relish pronouncing Chile “Chil-ay” instead of “Chili” -- try it loudly slurred and phlegmatic. That's how frontman Chris Terry, known far and wide as CT, sounded early in the life of the band, when, under heavy drug influence, he tried to pronounce “Wake,” the group's original name. “It was like primordial man,” he remembers, or rather remembers his bandmates remembering. And it stuck: “ARRRGWAKE!”

That sort of primal yawp signifies well for Rwake. If you haven't guessed, this is a band that makes dense, visceral music, punctuated by vocals that aren't so much screamed as they are thundered. The name has an imperative quality, too. Like, “awake, rise.” Accordingly, Rwake's narrative follows a steady, willful rise that begins in North Little Rock a little more than a decade ago and ends, at least in this story, with the band prepping to play one of Europe's largest summer festivals.

That Rwake enjoys international acclaim yet remains largely unknown in Arkansas is a consequence of its scene. The six-member act operates broadly within metal, but its sound and ethic doesn't resemble Metallica or any of the genre's big names. Rather, Rwake works within the sprawling world of underground metal, an arcane and stratified umbrella genre made up of sects connected only by their commitment to taking an already abrasive formula long scorned by mainstream culture — one of blistering guitars, crashing drums, roaring vocals and taboo-flaunting lyrics — and pressing the issue.

“Within the underground metal scene, they're definitely well respected,” said Erik Larson, who played in Alabama Thunderpussy and Avail, two of underground music's most esteemed. “People who are fans are rabid fans. It's almost like jazz; it goes over people's heads. If you don't understand what's going on, it sounds like this swirling metallic mess. But then you pay attention to the dynamics of all the melodies and harmonies and even just the back and forth vocals, and it's inspiring.”

Sonically, Rwake has less in common with totemic metal bands like Megadeth and Slayer than it does with early hard rock. There's a visible through line from Black Sabbath to Rwake, especially in terms of tempos and guitar figures. But it's easy to overlook. On top of its slow, thunderous groove, Rwake piles layer upon layer: demonic screams on top of guitar on top of guitar on top of Moog synthesizer on top of samples of noise and spoken bits from B-movies and TV shows. Heavy, glacial sections often give way to vast, complex, progressive rock-style instrumental passages that stretch for minutes on end. Together, it's a sonic sludge (in fact, sludge is the subgenre with which Rwake's most closely associated) that's as gut-punching as it is cerebral.

“They've really pushed the boundaries of heavier music,” said producer and musician Phillip Cope, who fronts Savannah genre stars Kylesa and produced underground metal's most acclaimed record from last year, Baroness' “Blue Album.” “There's so much raw energy in their music, especially the most recent [album ‘Voices of Omens']. It really grabs you and makes you a part of its world, which is sometimes kind of scary.”

In person, Rwake does not look very scary. Or even like they play in a metal band. Only CT and guitarist Kiffin Rogers sport beards and long hair, and CT alone is visibly covered in tattoos (he's got Black Oak Arkansas frontman Jim Dandy's autograph tattooed on his right hand). At a recent Monday practice above Downtown Music, bassist Alan Wells, who owns the club, arrived like he'd just come from the deer woods, in camo pants and a thick jacket. Everyone else — guitarist number two Kris Graves, known to all as Gravy; keyboardist and vocalist Brittany Fugate, better known as B.; drummer Jeff Morgan — came with haircuts and T-shirts and hoodies and ball caps that, anywhere outside of a band practice space, would convey nothing more specific than regular folks.

Which, of course, is what they are. When he's not booking bands for Downtown Music or working on “Slow Southern Steel,” a documentary that explores Southern metal and includes interviews with the likes of Hank III, Phil Anselmo and members of Mastodon (see a preview here), CT's lately kicked around service industry jobs. Alan works a factory job in addition to managing Downtown Music so his kid can have health insurance. Gravy's a manager at Pizza Hut. B. owns The Darkside Tattoos on Main Street in Little Rock. Jeff, who has a child with B., works at the Walmart distribution center in Searcy. Kiffin's lately been caring for his family.

Rwake's nowhere near a sustaining force for its members. Because of jobs and children, the band's toured sporadically and, according to CT, turned down a lot of tours it should've taken. “Voices of Omens,” the group's debut with independent metal powerhouse Relapse Records, has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 copies, a solid number among the label's roster, but one far removed from genre heavyweights like Mastodon.

But fame's never been a major motivator for Rwake. It started, in 1997, with CT, Gravy, Jeff and another friend simply jamming for fun. As it grew, in members and stature, the band became the driving force for the local underground community, hosting massive metal shows at house parties and out of the way venues because no one in Little Rock would book them. In 2002, Alan, who's only been with the band since 2008 (but has long been a compatriot), saved enough money to open Downtown Music. In the last eight years, as Rwake's toured and released albums nationally, it's helped grow Downtown's reputation. “A lot of bands want to go to Little Rock [and play Downtown] because of Rwake,” Alabama Thunderpussy's Larson said recently.

If Rwake hasn't even approached mainstream fame, it's grown perhaps a more impressive fan base. “They're a band's band. All the Relapse bands love them,” said the label's Rennie Jaffe, of arguably the most influential underground metal roster in the business. The members of Lamb of God, currently touring internationally with Metallica, are fans. Last year, underground metal super group Shrinebuilder (which includes members of The Melvins, Neurosis and Om) hand-picked Rwake to open sold-out dates in Chicago and New York.

“There's a real majesty to heavy music,” Shrinebuilder's Scott Kelly said recently. “It feels like you're firing a bolt into the center of the earth when it hits the right moment. Rwake does that. And they're evolving. Their new material blew me away. It was somewhat daunting to go on after hearing it.”

At that recent Monday night practice, Rwake gathered to prepare for a busy spring and summer. On Saturday, March 13, the band headlines Downtown Music's eighth anniversary concert. At the end of the month, it heads to Chicago to record a new album, and in June it travels, for the first time, to Europe, to play at Hellfest Open Air in Clisson, France, alongside metal forefather Alice Cooper, Deftones, KISS, Motorhead and Slayer. It's one of the biggest extreme music festivals in the world.

In the band's room above Capitol Avenue, members move purposefully, connecting instruments and microphones to amplifiers, studying lyric books and passing a marijuana pipe. The space looks like a teen-ager's bedroom, with posters of KISS, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Clint Eastwood from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and a goldfish swimming in a bong lining the wall. Boxes and cords and gear are strewn across ancient, plum-colored carpet. The room's redolent of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Before warming up, B. offers a guest rolled up toilet paper for makeshift earplugs. Moments later, the band bludgeons its way through a new, doom-y track from its forthcoming album. Afterwards, CT suggests that they play a new, “pretty song.” It starts with weaving guitar figures that are, in fact, warmly melodic. Not just from Gravy and Kiffin and bassist Alan, but also from drummer Jeff, who directs a guitar into his snare head, sending a buzzing wash of noise over the melody. Meanwhile, B. manipulates a Theremin, the electronic instrument that emits an eerie whir common in horror movies. Variations on that last for at least five minutes, before the guitars get heavier, Jeff returns to drums and CT and B. start screaming so loud they're doubled over. The song lasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 minutes. And, yes, it's epic.

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