The Unwashed Masses: Crust punk pioneers Amebix play Reggies

Of all the bands involved in the initial synthesis of metal riffs, industrial bleakness, punk speed, and psychedelic dissociation later called crust punk (henceforth crust, and its adherents crusties) the UK-based Amebix stands out for its dedication to the unwashed nihilist squatter lifestyle as much as its influence on later bands. Emerging from a Devon schoolyard in 1978 as “The Band With No Name,” Amebix spent most of a decade jobless and often homeless, making music and collecting the dole. Reunited in 2009 and pared down from a quartet to a trio, Amebix plays Reggies Rock Club this Friday with the core of its original membership intact.

One can only speculate on the path that brought Amebix back together. Bassist and singer Rob Miller (onstage, he dubbed himself the Baron) spent a number of years after their breakup as a swordsmith on the Isle of Skye, while his guitarist brother Chris (Stig) soldiered on with the 1987 lineup’s other members in the aggressively mediocre crust band Zygote. Their current tour features Stig and the Baron together with veteran drummer Roy Mayorga, formerly of such groups as Nausea (early ‘90s crust punk), Shelter (mid-‘90s Hare Krishna-affiliated hardcore punk), Soulfly (late-‘90s Brazilian-influenced heavy metal) and Stone Sour (unspeakably bad Midwestern nü-metal featuring members of Slipknot).

Amebix’s brooding, guttural sound relied on bass that alternately slithered and pounced, drums from a pagan funeral orgy, and guitars that slashed but never shredded. But guitar tones weren’t all that heavy metal bestowed on crust. Grandiosity and an edged-weapon fetish were also prominent parts of the Amebix experience. Over three increasingly negative albums–their 1984 debut “No Sanctuary,” 1985’s “Arise!,” and 1987’s “Monolith”–Amebix went from singing about taking the kingdom of heaven by storm to waking in a sweat from the American dream as the bomb bays opened. Punk may have given Amebix its politics and the Baron his growl, but metal taught them to mix yearning with apocalyptic anxiety. Fearing the Bomb and mental hospitals, Amebix simultaneously celebrated axe-wielding pseudo-Viking nihilism. On the balance, it was a sort of tribal paranoia, primitive in its aspirations, absurd in its fears, and deeply, deeply rooted.

Taking as their logo a sketch of a demonic head by Aleister Crowely associate Austin Osman Spare and “No Gods, No Masters” as their slogan, Amebix nevertheless managed to find a certain accommodation with the soul-draining, nuclear-proliferating world around them. Traveling around Europe for a decade, they eked out a living, on one occasion selling the doors in their squat to buy glue. There were better moments, as with the six months they lived in their drummer’s parents’ Dartmoor manor house. When the parents returned, Amebix was banished and the drummer was diagnosed as a schizophrenic; the band wrote a song about one of his anti-psychotic prescriptions.

Time would go to prove their appeal was as much a matter of lifestyle as of sound or lyrics. Elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S. too, Amebix inspired generations of crusties to think of the world as hostile, life sensibly paranoid, and clothes never washed. But even a black shirt can’t hide the crust forever–it’s a temptation to call train-hopping squatters black-clad, but the sun ends up fading it to a fashionable gray. Crusties have never been one of punk’s more populous subclans, but there’s been a consistent stream of folk answering the call to turn off and drop out. No surprise that they get compared to hippies too–one former Amebix member is now in Hawkwind, a nearly three-decade-old psychedelic folk act. But as the relatively clean-cut (but still darkly dressed) Amebix faces a crowd half its age, with the band’s patches and lyrics tattooed and stenciled on them, a song off “Monolith” comes to mind: “The Power Remains.”

Reggies Rock Club, 2109 S. State St. May 29. Friday, 6pm. (312)949-0121. $15. reggieslive.com