At a recent metal show at Peabody's in Cleveland, I noticed that the audience was visibly surprised when Mantic Ritual took the stage. These four young thrash musicians from Pittsburgh were unquestionably odd-men-out, an anomalous addition to the forbidding bill: The "U.S. Plague" tour, featuring Marduk, Nachtmystium, Black and Merrimack.
"The booking agent didn't want it to be four straight hours of black metal," says Mantic guitarist Jeff Potts. Even the local bands on each stop tended to stride onstage with the trappings the headliners employed -- corpsepaint, nail-spikes, fog and anger. "We're jeans and T-shirts and guitar solos," Potts says.
"What the fuck is this?" one audience member mumbled, as Mantic plugged in. Halfway through the first song, he repeated the statement, this time shouting it at the top of his lungs with a smile exploding on his face and a "WHOO!" at the end. The audience's initial surprise gave way to fist-pumping fervor, as Pittsburgh's finest old-school, breakneck thrash quartet converted the faithless.
As captured on the band's album Executioner, released last year on Nuclear Blast, Potts, drummer Adam Haritan and bassist Ben Mottsman create pure, unadulterated metal with blistering thrash fury. Executioner also features singer and guitarist Dan Wetmore, who's since left to pursue other interests, including a return to school. In his place is Dave Watson.
"As soon as Dan said he was leaving, it was a no-brainer," says Potts. He and Watson knew each other from school and played together informally, and Watson mixed Mantic's demo. They started rehearsing together in August, but took things slowly. "It's a big decision to make for these guys," Watson says. "With them being my friends, I wanted it to be right." As Potts says, "We wanted to do some live shows, see how it worked. It was perfect."
That's clear to anyone who's seen them onstage. Charismatic and talented vocally and on guitar, Watson is a seamless fit for the band. By the time the "U.S. Plague" tour began, the new lineup was set in stone, and off they went: Just four thrash guys in a van, sandwiched in the middle of a black-metal line-up. A roadie for Marduk saw their setup at the beginning of the tour. He asked, "Just you four?" Yep. "The whole time?" Uh-huh. He shook his head.
The tour, which recently concluded, wasn't all golden; not everyone was as appreciative as that new fan in Cleveland. There was a night or two of crossed arms and flinty glares (as flinty as one can be in pancake makeup, anyhow). Watson got the flu. Routing was planned for tour buses -- not bands driving themselves in vans -- with hauls averaging nine hours. Then there were nights like Tulsa.
"This kid came up to us after we played, complete black-metal kid, corpsepaint and everything," Potts says. "And told us he'd never enjoyed himself at a show until he saw us play."
Now home in Pittsburgh, they're working on material for the next release, a collaborative process that gives Watson the opportunity to add his own voice, metaphorically as well as literally. "Even when I first started, I thought, 'Should I sound like Dan?'" Watson says, of the band's former singer. "But I've got to sound like myself, like I sound when I'm pissed off -- not how Dan sounds when he's pissed off." The line-up change has galvanized the rest of the band as well. "It's good to have a new person around," says Potts. "We've stepped up our game."
Stepping up the game hardly seems possible once you've heard Executioner and seen the group live. On Fri., Jan. 15, Mantic will play its first local show since wrapping up the tour, along with fellow local metal-gods-in-training Satan's Sidekick. Don't miss the chance to catch the band in a small venue while it's still four thrash guys in a van, because Mantic Ritual may soon become four thrash guys in a giant pimped-out bus.
Mantic Ritual with Satan's Sidekick, Best Evers and Stratosphere. 10 p.m. Fri., Jan. 15. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $5. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com