From the streets and stages to the practice spaces and barroom corners, you'll hear it: Santa Fe is a music town. True enough, especially if you fancy the dulcet tones of classic rock covers, quiet singer-songwriters or soft piano meant to be doled out cautiously as the background music to an expensive meal or drink.
But what of the edgier sounds; the power chords that'd rather split your skull in two than show kindness to your eardrums; the outliers? What of the DIY warehouses littered with fringe folk and touring acts? They're out there, but few listeners seem to show them a level of attention that feels commensurate to the things they've accomplished.
Regardless of whether you're watching, metal in Santa Fe is as big as it's ever been.
"It's definitely not the norm, it's definitely not the status quo," says Shiloh Marin, a lifelong Santa Fean, metal fan and former metal singer who may appear at more metal shows than the band members themselves. "It's loud and
aggressive and speaks to that primal side of all of us. The metal scene is the strongest it has been, and I think it can only get stronger."
Metal bands, of course, have always been here, but the genre has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years. The bands are infiltrating the larger rooms like Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery and Second Street Brewery's Rufina Taproom while strengthening their hold on DIY spaces. They're releasing albums more prolifically and frequently than almost any other Santa Fe genre, and they're looking out for one another, reveling in each other's successes.
They've managed to eke out some respect with minimal resources. And though this story can't cover every last shredder, guttural screamer or blast-beat champion living and performing in and around Santa Fe, it should go a ways to prove metal's worth to the uninitiated. It is fearsome and powerful, even if you don't fully understand it yet.
With a full deck of shows coming up over the summer months, as well as the gargantuan Monolith on the Mesa festival in Taos on May 17 and 18, it's time to give metal the spotlight it deserves.
Augustine Ortiz doesn't get time to himself anymore.
Between his membership in numerous metal bands, the many shows he books and promotes, his day job as a developer, analyst and white hat hacker for Los Alamos-based company Attack Research, and his audio studio The Decibel Foundry, if Ortiz is awake, he's probably working. But it's been worth it: Nearly every local metal band of note either records or rehearses at his studio.
"I don't much sleep, and I work a lot of nights and weekends," Ortiz says. "A lot of people think [the studio] is my day job, and I wish that were the case—but I need balance. Even if The Decibel Foundry really took off, I'd probably still do my day job."
Ortiz may be the most pivotal element of the local metal scene, and he often barely breaks even if he makes any money from it at all. As the principal music writer and sole guitarist for death metal quartet Carrion Kind, he's an absolute shredder; as the lead guitarist for black death act Dysphotic, he proves he's mastered multiple metal angles. He hasn't done it alone, but in nearly every interview conducted for this story, metal purveyors of all faiths and creeds made unsolicited mention of Ortiz as the one person most deserving of credit.
He was likened to a wizard.
Ortiz fell in love with metal after unearthing his father's Black Sabbath eight tracks as a teen, and has proven a shrewd operator with keen skill for musicianship, business and networking. The metal scene wouldn't fall apart without him, but it's better off with him involved. Lucky, then, that he's committed to maintaining his contributions for the long haul.
But it wasn't always a strong scene. In the mid-aughts, Santa Fe was awash in Americana and country rock—and we're still recovering. Metal was relegated to sporadic shows. Then Ortiz joined forces with musician and promoter Pascual Romero (formerly of bands like In This Moment, currently of Devil's Throne) around 2012, and together they attempted to provide the metal scene with more life following the loss of venues like Warehouse 21, The Underground and Skylight in subsequent years. (Disclosure: This writer has a personal relationship with Romero, but he was not interviewed for this story.)
In many ways, Ortiz and Romero have succeeded. Bigger-name bands such as Intronaut and Cattle Decapitation have toured through Santa Fe, and musicians who had either played shows that were few or far between or who had lain dormant reunited to form new bands, including Ortiz' own Carrion Kind and Dysphotic. Marrow Monger, Fields of Elysium, Street Tombs and many more popped up, too.
Since then, DIY venues such as Ghost and Zephyr Community Art Studio have exploded onto the scene. The most paramount of all, The Cave (once dubbed the Dave Cave), still runs actively. Metal shows became a regular occurrence for the first time in ages, and the once-scattered legions of musicians who bore their songs and style grew stronger and closer and intermingled.
"I wanted to promote properly, and I wanted to make the scene what it was back in 2003, when [venues were] strong and youth bands were doing well," Ortiz tells SFR of his early efforts. "The metal genre was the most accepting of experimentation; playing metal was the most free."
Also in 2012, two guys named Dave and one named Dex transformed a warehouse/living space into a local metal mecca in Midtown. At the time, David Ahern-Seronde (of bands like Ol' Dagger and Cripple), David McMaster (of Street Tombs, Heretical Sect and Superstition) and Dex Valdez (Ol' Dagger) just wanted a place to host metal shows. They named it The Dave Cave, and it was an almost immediate success. Scores of starved metalheads flocked through, and by the following year, countless bands had toured to Santa Fe.
The proprietors built a half-pipe in the space's yard, drawing even more fans, along with skaters, punk lovers and general rabble-rousers. In other words, if you've not congregated around a bonfire at The Dave Cave while a show raged inside, have you ever truly lived?
The space has run without incident since then (the unofficial motto is "Respect the space") and played host to some of the biggest names in modern metal—all with sweet slots for local acts.
By 2015, the original party animals had moved on, though they continue to play music, and the moniker was shortened to The Cave. Today it's run by couple Ben Brodsky (of Street Tombs) and Heather Honyumptewa, and it's as well-attended as ever, even if the shows occur less
It remains a testament to the DIY spirit and community-minded ethos of Santa Fe's metal scene.
In Midtown Santa Fe one recent night, while waiting for a Street Tombs show at The Cave to begin, I wander toward the distant and heavy sounds of metal. I've been told local act Marrow Monger practices nearby, and I'm fairly certain it's them. But I can't figure out which door to enter.
With members of once-active bands like Insight and Torn Between Worlds, Marrow Monger has a lineage to be proud of, and from the muffled sounds tearing out of the warehouse on Calle del Commercio, they're living up to the reputation. Ten minutes later, with the help of some very nice metalheads I encounter in the darkness, I'm inside the practice space, banging my head and barely able to take proper photos.
According to drummer Bryce Payton, Marrow Monger is just waiting for the artwork to come in from his sister Lindsay Payton, an illustrator known for embracing creepy horror elements. Then, they'll release their newest album, recorded at The Decibel Foundry and titled Versus. For now, it's a waiting game, and Payton is quick to identify a collaborative songwriting spirit within the band.
"We didn't have any expectation like, 'We want the album to sound like this,'" Payton says. "Everyone in the band has the ability to do whatever they want, and we've been able to make it work."
Marrow Monger's newer material feels like equal parts throwback death and progressive thrash with more complicated elements and unbelievably heavy breakdowns; it fits well into the local schema, but it's distinctive.
"In this region, I think we have some of the best musicians around,"
Payton continues. "There's so much talent, everyone is so diverse—and you don't really get that a lot of places. I wish people understood [that metal] is as much an art as going to any kind of show or gallery."
At the rehearsal, the band is already tightening new material, and while it's similar to the few unreleased tracks I've heard off Versus, it's also pushing the sound further in terms of complexity. Guitarists Collin Stapleton and Matt Tuck harmonize brilliantly while bassist Paul Stapleton hits those bone-rattling low notes. It's not that they're sick of the older stuff but, according to singer Dan Mapp, they're always writing and trying to do more. Mapp's screaming vocals are unearthly and
perfectly complement the heaviness; someone should sign this band.
Marrow Monger hits the road later this summer and plays live at Zephyr
Community Art Studio on May 29.
The Guitar Guys
"I've thought about it as cross-pollination," Quanah Lee says of the scene. "Something about the metal community has a connection to it, and I've jammed with so many bands over the years that it makes me want to go watch all the other different bands that have started, to see the way their art has manifested."
Lee is a founding member of Fields of Elysium, a wild and mathy prog-metal group known for off-kilter beats and complex technical guitar harmonies layered over guttural death metal vocals.
"I kind of laugh about it and say we're almost a mix of Cannibal Corpse and Simon and Garfunkel," Lee says, noting that some of his favorite things to play on guitar include Beethoven and Bach. "A lot of people say metal is very classical in origin, and I think if [classical composers] had had access to MIDI controllers and pedals, they'd probably have had fun with it—there's a depth of technicality, and I feel like metal has found a way to highlight that."
Lee is also behind Quantars, a custom guitar-building company through which he conceives and builds gorgeous instruments that make use of woodworking techniques and design elements with the metal player in mind.
"They incorporate a lot of artistic outlets," Lee says, "but there was definitely a stack of learning curves. I had a pretty intuitive understanding of the instrument down to the design features and subtle lines, but I had to fill in the technical sides."
Lee's learned a lot since his first run of guitars and says he's about to release his 12th build, a heady milestone. But it's one that Lee might not have envisioned during the darker days of local metal.
"It seems like when venues close, there's not enough of a musical market to propagate metal," he says. "I don't know what the proper environment is for the perfect musical venue, but I remember life before The Cave; and there are certain environments that can stimulate the necessities of metal."
For now, Lee says Fields of Elysium is trying to wrap its upcoming album, In Ancient Contemplation, scheduled for a July 1 release with a show at Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery.
For guitarist Zac Hogan, the evolution of the metal scene has been a firsthand experience. Previously, he played bass for local act Casso Vita and he was a member of sadly defunct doom trio Drought, a band this writer loved in a way that's a little too serious. These days, Hogan splits his time between Dysphotic and St. Victim's, a death metal outfit that rolls up elements of punk rock for fun, energetic thrash songs. Hogan is the primary songwriter for both bands, and says the familial elements of the Santa Fe metal scene keep him creating, but that his love for writing and listening to the stuff is more of a feeling than anything else.
"Performing is one thing, getting up there and having a release from all the bullshit in your life," Hogan says, "but there's also the factor of camaraderie; some sort of family outside of family."
Dysphotic plays Monolith on the Mesa in May, and also plans to kick off a tour this July.
"Blackened doom is probably the best way to describe it," vocalist Ashley Romero says of her band Devil's Throne. "We do have slower parts, but we're not like a traditional doom band."
Devil's Throne is sort of a superband, with members from Dysphotic and St. Victim's alongside Romero and her husband Pascual (yeah, the same one who worked with Augustine Ortiz). Musically speaking, Romero stays out of it, but the vocals and lyrics are entirely her domain.
"For some reason, I don't know why, I'm really drawn to the different types of mythology," Romero explains. "It makes for great metal songwriting."
She values storytelling—Devil's Throne songs are all narrative-heavy. It's a far cry from her high school days as a clarinet player, but after Romero moved from her tiny hometown of Anson, Texas, to Southern California, metal became a more pervasive art form in her life. Romero is also a self-trained singer and has developed a technique of screaming—the metal vocal style of choice—that she says doesn't "shred" her vocal chords.
"It'll sound stupid," she says, "but once I started screaming from a more natural place, I could actually scream an entire song."
Romero's style is definitely evil, a lower-than-expected growl that, unlike most metal singers, is intelligible. It's frankly a bit of a cop-out to write off an entire genre for not being able to understand the lyrics, but making out Romero's ups the connection factor even as we're pretty scared of her ferocity.
As for why the area has embraced metal so heartily?
"There's just something about the isolation of the desert," Romero says.
Devil's Throne performs at the Monolith on the Mesa metal festival
in Taos this May.
The Family Business
Of all the Santa Fe metal bands throughout the ages, none has withstood the test of time like Savage Wizdom. Founded in 2005, the band's one consistent member, Steve Montoya, says he's kept it going because "I've always managed to surround myself with good musicians."
Montoya and company are a bit of a throwback. He even describes the sound as "hard rock" as opposed to metal. "Like Zeppelin or Black Sabbath," he explains, though he maintains that the Savage Wizdom sound can keep up with the heaviest of the heavy.
The original members have all moved on over the years, but Montoya's son
Steven—"We call him that so nobody gets confused," Montoya says—has come into the fold, first as a bassist and now as a guitarist. Montoya says he's offered his son the keys to the kingdom a couple times, but young Steven has his sights set on making a name for himself with his own band some day. For now, Savage Wizdom is kicking off the recording process for their next full-length at The Decibel Foundry. And though it's completely written, Montoya says he's already focused on the next songs.
"Songs come to me constantly," he says. "Even though we're starting to record, I've got 16 more in my head right now."
Of course, this merely scratches the surface, and it's true what these people are saying: Metal is huge in Santa Fe. But there are dozens of musicians and plenty of other bands to check out, most of which simply couldn't fit here. There's the new energy of Choking on Air and the crushing brutality of Heretical Sect; there's the sometimes-silly activity of Strangled by Strangulation and the national and international stoner metal releases of local label King Volume Records. Think of this like a starting point; a primer. The rest, as they say, is up to you.
The upcoming summer is slammed with metal shows at various venues across town for longtime listeners, new fans or those who are knee-deep in this story and wondering how to get involved. The following are not indiciative of every single show going down over the next few months, but they're certainly a start. All shows start at 8 pm —except Monolith, which is day-long.
Friday May 10:
Pound and Actionnesse
@ Zephyr Community Art
Studio, 1520 Center Drive,
Ste. 2, $10
Friday and Saturday May 17 and 18:
Monolith on the Mesa @ Taos Brewing Mothership, 20 ABC Road, El Prado, $70-$155
Friday May 24:
Hyperdontia @ The Cave, 1228 Calle de Commercio, $10
Saturday May 25:
Giardia @ Zephyr Community Art Studio, 1520 Center
Drive, Ste. 2, $10
Tuesday May 28:
Heretical Sect @ Second Street Brewery (Rufina Taproom), 2920 Rufina St., 954-1068, free
Wednesday May 29:
Mercury Tree @ The Cave, 1228 Calle de Commercio, $10
Monday June 10:
Barghest @ The Cave,
1228 Calle de Commercio, $10
Thursday June 13:
Hexxus @ Zephyr Community Art Studio, 1520 Center Drive, Ste. 2, $10
Tuesday June 21:
Vanum @ The Cave,
1228 Calle de Commercio, $10
Saturday July 1:
Fields of Elysium CD Release @ Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery, 2791 Agua Fría St., $10