States Of Metal: Utah's Religious Backdrop Breeds Faith In Heavy Music

The Mormon church's overbearing presence in America's 45th state inspires hardcore reactionaries and heavy metal visionaries.

States Of Metal: Utah's Religious Backdrop Breeds Faith In Heavy Music

Each month, Kerrang! examines the history and current scene of one of the 50 United States in order to better understand the American landscape united under metal. These are the States of Metal.

And while you’re reading, listen along to our States Of Metal playlist, featuring killer tracks from each state we feature. Scroll through to listen to music from Arizona and all of the states we’ve profiled in the past:

Mention Utah to someone, and the first thing that will come to their mind is almost certainly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormonism. And there’s a good reason for that -- over 60% of Utah’s population is Mormon, and the church is heavily represented in the state’s laws. Beer in Utah is only half as alcoholic as it is elsewhere, and alcohol can’t be purchased on Sundays. The bone-deep presence of this restrictive American religious doctrine has fed into an image of Utah residents as white-bread church-going fuddy-duddies, who practice good clean living and dedicate their lives to the idea that Christ walked in America.

It makes sense, then, that many of Utah's metal and hardcore fans make music to rebel against a faith-based world imposed on them, similar to how the pioneers of black metal’s second wave lashed out at the boring, state-sponsored Christianity of Norway in the ‘90s. But Utah is more than just a Mormon colony -- the state is home to both major tourist hubs, like Salt Lake City and Park City, and vast areas of mountainous wilderness. This mixture of natural splendor and stifling spiritual influence inspires a drive for musical innovation and a loyalty to the state's scene that's more diehard and pure than any belief in the divine.

“What I associate [Utah] with, and what I’m really inspired by, are the mountains,” says Jake Rogers, vocalist for Salt Lake City metal act Visigoth. Though their 2018 release, Conqueror’s Oath, blew up in the metal underground last year, Visigoth are a traditional heavy metal band, taking their cues from classic NWOBHM and latter-day Bathory. Jake relates this over-the-top approach to being surrounded by his home state’s untamed outdoors.

“We’re nestled right in these absolutely spectacular, jagged, monolithic stone edifices that are just constant sentinels over this city," says Jake. "The majesty that this imparts...has always been very, very important to me. I come up with a lot of the ideas I want to do musically when I’m out in the mountains. It imparts a bit of the -- and I know this is the most overused word in metal, but -- the more epic sounds in our songs. I get those feelings from this kind of landscape.”

Jake’s been an active part of Salt Lake City’s heavy metal scene for some time, making waves in the late 2000's with his one-man black metal act Gallowbraid (“I’m not sure how Gallowbraid even blew up -- I was 15 when I wrote that,” he laughs with an almost audible head-shake) shortly before starting Visigoth in 2010. But rather than rail against religion, Jake is quick to point out that Salt Lake City is a diverse metropolitan hub with a metal scene to match.

“One thing I really like about the Salt Lake metal scene is that it’s relatively small for how large the city is," he says. "We’re kind fo the only band who does traditional heavy metal here, so we end up playing a lot of local shows with extreme metal bands”

Jake goes on to say that while the Mormon influence on Utah is visible, it doesn’t define Visigoth entirely. “I think people exaggerate how much the Mormon presence affects their day-to-day life. But I, of course, have the privilege of being able to say this, being a straight white guy living here...The way it affects me most directly is that I can’t buy cold beer at a liquor store.

“Outside of Salt Lake City, it really is what people think, though,” he quickly adds. “If you head out to Utah County, which is just south of Salt Lake City, you get into that...Literally, a church on every corner. And some of the more extreme are based in, or made up of people who grew up in, those areas.”

“I know it’s Utah, and people scoff when you say you grew up in a rough area or a rough place, but...where we grew up was rougher,” says Anthony Lucero, frontman for scathing hardcore act Cult Leader. Anthony grew up in Kearns, about half an hour southwest of Salt Lake City, which he describes as far less hospitable than Utah's Mormon caricature would suggest. “We had some pretty crazy shit happen when we were kids -- drive-bys, stuff like that. The hardcore scene and straightedge scene was super violent where I grew up. Just lots and lots of fights, all day, every day where I went to school. All of that’s got the backdrop of just the total Mormon domination over all the laws and culture. Anywhere there is something extremely regimented, there is also very strong outsider pushback.”

Anthony describes the population in Kearns as pretty diverse, with considerable Latino and Polynesian communities (the latter a byproduct of the Mormon church doing lots of missionary work in the Pacific Islands), though he says the hardcore scene was mostly made up of frustrated white Christian kids. And while he himself wasn't raised Mormon -- “I grew up in my own intense fundamentalist religious situation,” he says -- he still noticed how much the church’s stranglehold on the state caused kids to react with extreme hostility, making hardcore their new religion.

“There were just so many kids who grew up with some sort of religious oppression,” he recalls. “When they found punk or hardcore, it grew into this excuse, almost, to let loose on a whole different level. Their lives were super regimented, and under the thumbs of their families, but at a show you could do whatever the fuck you wanted. I’d never been exposed to anything like that before, so when I got to the first show, it was just...it made sense. The violence was really scary, but it was also exhilarating. Everyone goes through their own dark life bullshit, but the way I grew up, where I grew up, and discovering the hardcore scene there, it dug its claws in really, really deep.”

Above: Cult Leader. Photo by Bobby Cochran.

More than anything, though, Anthony emphasizes the loyalty and fandom inspired by growing up in a place where little else is going on.

“Just the cultural pushback, itself, causes and creates a really intense personality type when it comes to someone who’s completely addicted to heavy music,” he says. “It makes you bear down so much more, and it makes the people so much more intense. There just seems to be something about how much the music means as an outlet in somewhere like Utah.”

Like those of other off-the-beaten-path U.S. states (another good example being Arkansas), Utah’s metal and hardcore scenes grew from a handful of central hubs and pivotal bands. Raunch Records, a skate and music shop, was pivotal for young fans of heavy music in the ‘90s. Owner Brad Collins was a scene fixture, and his radio show on KRCL was a gateway for devout fans looking to hear heavy riffs from other states and even countries.

Above: Eagle Twin. Photo by Russel Albert Daniels.

“I think a point of contact for the local scene was [radio station] KRCL,” says Gentry Densley, vocalist and guitarist for bluesy sludge metal duo Eagle Twin. A little older than his countrymen in Visigoth and Cult Leader, Gentry’s love of music grew out of the skate scene, and blossomed as he was introduced to more underground heaviness via Collins' show. “I would just record [Brad's show] over old tapes, and have all this stuff like Celtic Frost and Corrosion of Conformity and whatever he was playing. So that was the best introduction. And then we would go down to his shop, and he’d turn us on to all this stuff, and you could buy seven inches pretty cheap. It was pretty much Skid Row where his shop was, under a viaduct. People would come into the store with head wounds bleeding from getting into fights...that was kind of our upbringing!”

Salt Lake City and outlying towns like Ogden and Provo slowly developed healthy DIY scenes -- though the DIY aspects of it were born out of necessity more than anything else.

“I would play out in places like Midway, and we’d play in a barn and have all the high school kids come and mosh around in some hay bales,” says Gentry. “Some of the same people who started the Salt Lake Underground zine got a whole Mormon church that was no longer being used, and they put on shows there -- Nirvana played there before they broke. There was a pretty big camaraderie between the metalheads and the hardcore kids. But the straightedge thing got ultra-violent here -- people went to prison. That was a rough time unto itself.”

One of Salt Lake's more revered straightedge bands was Clear (or xclearx), whose brooding, metallic hardcore brimmed with misanthropy and rage -- and whose line-up included Eagle Twin drummer Tyler Smith. They were also one of the state’s first extreme bands to gain national attention, making them hometown heroes for the tortured and pissed-off kids in the local scene.

“They were definitely rock stars to me,” says Anthony Lucero. “When they played, the shows were huge -- there were tons and tons of kids there -- but they were also the only band that I knew of who had gone on tour. And where I was coming from, if you went on tour, you were doing some big shit. So I really, really looked up to them, and I loved their music. I still do, actually--I just went back to their shit not too long ago, and it still rules.”

Anthony's love of Clear also led him to Form Of Rocket, a wonky heavy rock band featuring both Tyler and Gentry from Eagle Twin. “They were amazing. They had some important things happen, but then they hit a wall, and didn’t go any further than that. If there was any band from Salt Lake who I think should’ve gone further, it would’ve been those guys.”

As metal and hardcore bloomed in Utah, bands grew, mutated, split up, reformed, and rearranged their members. Raunch Records moved repeatedly, closing in 1997 only to reopen in 2009. Anthony shifted from bass to vocals and helped form Cult Leader from the ashes of extreme metallers Gaza. Tyler and Gentry left Form Of Rocket and started Eagle Twin in 2007. Jake formed Visigoth with former members of the band Destructinator. Other outlying acts emerged as well, such as deathcore pioneers Chelsea Grin, who formed in Salt Lake City in 2007.

But even as the scenes in Utah has changed, the musicians behind it remain dedicated to making unique heavy music...and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, deeply loyal to their home state. Indeed, while Utah's religious environment comes off as frustrating and inspires rebellion, the artists from there seem almost grateful for all it has given them, good and bad. Rather than try to desperately escape Utah, they've embraced it, and become devout parishioners of its sturdy, driven scene.

“I think that’s one of the linchpins that sticks out in my head,” says Jake Rogers. “The metal scene is very tight-knit here. Everyone knows each other. And people are really supportive -- people support each others’ bands and goes to smaller shows.”

“I go back all the time,” says Anthony Lucero, who now lives and works in Los Angeles. “I go back as much as I possibly can. I’m actually going to go back tomorrow. People need to let go of the idea that it’s this suit-and-tie place and look past that, into the culture. There’s some beautiful nuggets of culture in Salt Lake City that are not attached to this idea everyone else has about Utah."

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