San Antonio Was Once the 'Heavy Metal Capital of the World.' Will It Ever Be Again?

click to enlarge Art Villarreal, James Rivera and Robert "Bobdog" Catlin (left to right) perform with the South Texas Legion supergroup at TexPop's Metal Mayhem show. - Jaime Monzon
Jaime Monzon
Art Villarreal, James Rivera and Robert "Bobdog" Catlin (left to right) perform with the South Texas Legion supergroup at TexPop's Metal Mayhem show.
Guitarist Art Villarreal discovered just how big the legends of S.A.’s ’80s heavy metal scene loomed when Karion, one of his bands from that era, reunited a few years ago to play Germany’s Keep It True Festival.

In the crowd of 3,000 metalheads, he spotted t-shirts for old-school Texas bands like Militia and S.A. Slayer, another of his old outfits. But the fans he met weren’t just familiar with the names of the bands he played in 30 years ago. They also traded their unreleased demo recordings on the Internet.

“I had a Portuguese kid come up and ask what we had in the water down here,” Villarreal said. “He knew about bands from the late ’70s that I didn’t think anybody outside of here had ever heard of. He knew the demos I’d played on. We ended up hanging out for hours. But he wasn’t the only one. There was another kid from Japan, another one from Spain…”

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given the Alamo City’s nickname in the early ’80s: the Heavy Metal Capital of the World. An exhibit documenting the era recently ended at South Texas Popular Culture Center (TexPop), after drawing 250 fans to a concert reuniting members from some of that scene’s best-known bands.

“Heavy metal is a pivotal part of our musical history,” TexPop curator Ruby Garza said. “San Antonio was ahead of the game. This town was in love with metal before it was on the map anywhere else in the country.”

Thanks to the freewheeling spirit of early FM radio and the work of a risk-taking local promoter, the Alamo City helped break iconic bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden when they were still struggling to find a U.S. audience. At the same time, countless local musicians across the city created a vibrant scene envied by headbangers across the state.

Local music fans still love breakneck riffs and double-bass drumming, and metal is undergoing something of an international renaissance right now. But, even so, participants in San Antonio’s formative scene doubt the music can ever return with the same teeth-gnashing ferocity it once had.

Audio assault

Even though heavy metal has largely thrived outside of mainstream media exposure, its popularity in San Antonio owes a big debt to radio.

Before Clear Channel Communications turned the medium into cookie-cutter crap, DJs on the then-fledgling FM band prided themselves for discovering new and unheard music. And, here, on KISS-FM and its AM counterpart KMAC, jocks Joe “The Godfather” Anthony and Lou Roney became the city’s boundary pushers. Their love for riff-based hard rock had them spinning bands like Rush, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest long before they built audiences elsewhere in the U.S. The pair also championed a legion of relatively obscure ensembles like Budgie, Moxy and Legs Diamond that remain San Antonio cult faves.

“In the beginning, especially in the early ‘80s, [San Antonio] was our favorite town in America because they found us,” Scorpions guitarist Rudolph Schenker told the Current in 2016. “It was KISS radio.”

Roney, who now works in the real estate business, said breaking new bands came out of necessity at first. When he and Anthony, who died in 1992, landed at KMAC, the financially strapped station couldn’t afford a service to supply it with new major-label releases. So they bought their own.

“A lot of them were imports,” Roney said. “We’d listen to 20 and maybe like three of them. If there was something we liked, we’d just play it.”

As the new music developed an audience, they even delved into the promotion business, booking shows on a shoestring. Roney helped build a larger stage so the then-unknown Rush could fit all its gear into Randy’s Rodeo. Another time, he ended up playing lawyer in front of a federal judge to get last-minute immigration papers for the Canadian band Triumph.

That freewheeling approach was instrumental in crafting local tastes, old school metalheads say. If you grew up a rock-n-roller in San Antonio during the ’70s, you ended up hooked on the hard stuff.

“I challenge anyone to hear Judas Priest’s ‘Saints in Hell’ on the radio on the way to junior high school and not want to go out and start a band with twin lead guitars,” said Robert “Bobdog” Catlin, who shared guitar duties in S.A. Slayer with Villarreal.
Art Villareal and Karion shred in front of enthusiastic fans. - Courtesy
Art Villareal and Karion shred in front of enthusiastic fans.
Packing seats

Also setting the tone was trailblazing local promoter Jack Orbin, whose Stone City Attractions brought countless metal acts to town. The early exposure turned them into headliners here while they were still unknown in other markets.

Orbin, a one-time student radical, landed in San Antonio after a member of the band Sugar Loaf (yep, of “Green Eyed Lady” fame) accidentally torched his Colorado commune. After staging a successful benefit for the War Resister’s League, he decided concert promotion was a positive way to channel his hippie energy.

Orbin quickly gravitated to the heavy rock bands spinning on KISS/KMAC, which he saw as rebellious kin to the psychedelia he grew up on. And, grasping the city’s working-class demographics, he kept seats cheap — often below $5 — to fill the venues.

“Bands like Judas Priest, Rush and Triumph would break here, and we’d put 4,000 to 6,000 people in Municipal (Auditorium) while they were still playing clubs in other cities,” said Orbin, who retired in 2015. “Then they’d be able to take the numbers we were doing in San Antonio and use that as a selling point to other venues around the country. We helped grow those bands.”

Starting with a scream

While KISS and Stone City laid the foundation, many credit the adrenalized rush of the early ’80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal — hungry young bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head — with spurring a generation of local metalheads to action. Seeing teens across the pond start their own bands and self-release records led to a flood of demos, photocopied fanzines and self-organized shows.

Buster Grant was one of the kids caught up in that manic energy. He was hanging out watching a neighborhood garage band practice when someone urged him to scream into a Radio Shack microphone. That scream landed him a job as Wyzard’s lead singer, and the band was soon self-releasing an EP called Future Knights. The group built a rabid Southside following and its record has since been rereleased by labels in Germany and Greece.

“I toned it down a little bit over the years, got more melodic, but metal was what opened the door for me,” said Grant, who still works in the music biz, singing in a variety of projects and running a voice studio. “But it all started with that scream. Metal opened the door for tons of other people from the South Side.”

S.A. Slayer, the best-known of San Antonio’s early ‘80s metal outfits, released its first EP, Prepare to Die, after mopping the floor with the competition at an Eisenhower Road Flea Market battle of the bands. In 1984, the band was forced to add the “S.A.” part to its moniker after the West Coast thrash legends came out with vinyl before they did. The outfit broke up around the time of an infamous — and bootlegged — Slayer vs. Slayer gig at Villa Fontana.

Few other local metal bands managed to release commercial recordings in that era — studio time was a pricy proposition and ProTools was still years in the future. But despite the lack of recorded documentation, the Alamo City boasted more metal bands per capita than any other locale in the Southwest. Wicked Angel, Ritual, Byfist, Syrus, Tarrot and Seance gigged relentlessly and packed local venues, even if their immediate influence escaped the national spotlight.

“What we were doing wasn’t about image,” Villarreal of S.A. Slayer and Karion said. “It was organic. We all had the long hair and the leather because that’s what you wore if you hung out in the smoking section at the high school.”
S.A. Slayer's Donnie Van Stavern shows off his iron fist. - Courtesy
S.A. Slayer's Donnie Van Stavern shows off his iron fist.
Petri dish full of headbangers

Feeding on the creative energy, S.A.’s scene became a “petri dish full of headbangers,” said Jason McMaster, vocalist for Austin’s Watchtower, which played the Alamo City as much as it did its hometown.

“It was really a D.I.Y. affair,” added McMaster, whose late ’80s band Dangerous Toys went on to gold records and MTV rotation. “The metal kids learned from the punk kids. You’d record demo cassettes and sell them for a dollar at the shows. Whoever was old enough to drive the van would steal money from mom’s wallet, gas it up and you’d be off to play for beer money.”

Before long, it was San Antonio’s scene that drove the Texas metal market.

“Every local show was just an event,” said Reuben Luna, who spent years as Hogwild Records' resident metal expert. “We had the crowds and people wanted to play here. So much so that people would refer to Helstar, who were from Houston, as a San Antonio band.”

Indeed, when Britain’s Kerrang! magazine, the era’s heavy metal bible, gave a glowing review to Helstar’s debut album, Burning Star, it incorrectly identified the band as hailing from the Alamo City.

Seeing the opportunity to bring in underground touring bands that hadn’t yet popped up on Stone City’s radar, teenager Marc Solis formed OMNI Productions. With limited financial resources, Solis and his crew hit the streets with flyers and created a database of high school kids who would distribute them on campus. His crew brought a virtual who’s who of ’80s metal — Megadeth, Metal Church and Celtic Frost, among others — to local clubs.

Later, Solis built on the experience to serve as general manager of the Alamodome. He still works in the sports and facilities business.

Given San Antonio’s blue-collar history, the up-swell shouldn’t have been surprising, said Dan Bukszpan, author of The Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal. Around the same time, rust belt towns like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit also emerged as hotbeds for the heavy stuff.
Metal’s earliest and most enduring support came from the working class, he said.

“Traveling bands could come through and pack those places, so they loved playing them,” Bukszpan said. “They wouldn’t have the same love for going through New York or San Francisco.”

click to enlarge S.A. Slayer performs at the battle of the bands that won them their record deal. - Courtesy
S.A. Slayer performs at the battle of the bands that won them their record deal.
Splintering Scene

But by 1986 or so, the party was winding down. As happened in other cities, San Antonio’s metal scene began to splinter, in many ways a victim of its own success.

Eager to widen the genre’s audience and lure more female record buyers, major labels promoted the Sunset Strip-style glam of Mötley Crüe and Cinderella, whose teased hair and power ballads soon ruled the pop charts. Meanwhile, die-hard metalheads went underground, chasing the thrashy sounds of Metallica, Slayer and more obscure bands that drew as much inspiration from punk as they did from Judas Priest or Saxon.

Ultimately, the kind of anthemic, fist-pumping metal favored by San Antonio’s pioneering bands fell out of fashion. Kids found new twists on musical rebellion, from grunge to hip-hop to electroclash to… well, whatever the fuck it is now.

Even so, the influence of groups like S.A. Slayer, Syrus and Wyzard continues to this day. They may have never achieved the notoriety of Maiden or Priest, but they showed a legion of local fans what they could achieve with some sweat and a D.I.Y. spirit.

“You saw those bands and realized this was local, this was something attainable,” said Mando Tovar, guitarist for long-running San Antonio doom metal band Las Cruces. “But, at the same time, you also knew you had to practice your ass off if you wanted to be a quarter as good as they were.”

Riding on

With radio gone and major labels showing little interest in rock outside of stadium-filling legacy acts, it seems unlikely San Antonio will pack in huge metal audiences the way it once did. When Mastodon, one of the top-drawing metal acts of recent years, last passed through town, it played the 1,500-seat Aztec Theater — a far cry from the old 6,000-seat Municipal.

Of course, critics have lauded a creative renaissance in metal. They point to challenging bands like Yob, who construct layered 20-minute epics inspired by the writings of philosopher Alan Watts, or Myrkur, a one-woman band that mixes black metal with delicate folk instruments.

But the reality is those bands fill clubs, not arenas.

In many ways, the genre has evolved into a boutique interest like jazz, which draws small but dedicated crowds. In part, that’s because it’s grown more stratified and sonically extreme. Contemporary metal acts toiling in narrow sub-subgenres like “blackened death” or “neo-gothic” doom that bear little resemblance to the meat-and-potatoes riff-rock that spun on KISS and KMAC.

What’s more, San Antonio’s no longer a guaranteed stop on every metal tour. But, observers said, that has to do more with changing economics than a lack of fan enthusiasm. A number of Austin venues require touring bands to sign so-called radius clauses that exclude them from playing in the Alamo City since it’s only a 90-minute drive away. Plus, with little to no label support, many bands simply can’t afford to take a chance on second-tier markets like ours.

“There’s certainly room for a dedicated and well-organized promoter in San Antonio,” said Nathan Carson, whose Portland, Ore.-based Nanotear Booking puts together tours for the aforementioned Yob and others. “But even if you miss out on some of the bigger shows, there are still plenty of up-and-coming bands looking for places to play.”

To Carson’s point, there’s still likely to be a metal bill any given weekend in San Antonio. And the city boasts multiple venues that, if not exclusively booking metal, still book a whole fucking bunch of it. That’s something not all towns can claim. Plus, it’s hard to imagine mega-shows like May’s Judas Priest-Saxon-Blackstar Riders bill or August’s Slayer farewell tour passing us over.
Aggravator performs at the Muskelrock Festival in Sweden. - Courtesy
Aggravator performs at the Muskelrock Festival in Sweden.
Fresh blood

So, while the crowds may be smaller, S.A. bands are still thrashing it out, some even grabbing attention for their efforts.

Two-piece psychedelic doom band Cursus released its 2017 debut LP through Houston’s Artificial Head Records and hits the road tirelessly. Tovar’s Las Cruces is hard at work on a new album and remains a fixture at doom metal festivals. And thrash unit Aggravator, whose tours and festival appearances have taken it as far away as Norway, is preparing to drop its fourth LP.

For many, San Antonio’s headbanging ’80s wave remains a key inspiration.

“My uncle listened to S.A. Slayer. He’d show us the records and tell us about them,” Aggravator drummer Mike Cortes said. “Growing up in San Antonio with heavy metal all around us definitely influenced us to play the kind of music we play.”

Joe Cutthroat, who plays baritone guitar in local sludge metal act Hötzi, shoved the genre aside when he discovered punk in his teens. Over the past few years, though, he’s been looking back to those rivet-head years for inspiration.

“I kind of let my guard down and got into that stuff again,” Cutthroat said. “If you’re from San Antonio, heavy metal’s in your blood.”

Naturally, many of the ‘80s scene stalwarts are still flying the flag too. Some of them on an international stage.

Former S.A. Slayer bassist Donnie Van Stavern’s Riot V is releasing a new record, Armor of Light, and remains a regular at European metal fests, including the gargantuan Wacken Open Air. S.A. Slayer’s Catlin has toured extensively with industrial supergroup Pigface. And his former bandmate Dave McClain went on to drum for Machine Head, still a top metal draw worldwide.

“I don’t think it will ever be like it was; the niches just get smaller and smaller,” Villarreal of S.A. Slayer and Karion said. “But who knows. I’m of the belief that if you keep practicing and really kick ass, you’ll find an audience.”

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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