Orion Music + More, a festival organized by Metallica — arguably the biggest heavy metal band in the world — is coming to Detroit this weekend; however, it’s not only a metal-fest. In addition to bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Deftones, Infectious Grooves and, of course, the headliners, the bill also features the likes of alt-faves Foals, Silversun Pickups and the Dirtyphonics, plus punks like Flag (members of Black Flag) and our own Death and the Dirtbombs — and many more.
However, the fact that Metallica is responsible for this most awesome of events means that many people will associate it with metal, and that’s great because metal music is fucking sweet. Just ask Battlecross.
This Detroit power metal five-piece, consisting of guitarists Hiran Deraniyagala and Tony Asta, vocalist Kyle Gunther, bassist Don Slater and drummer Michael Kreger, formed in 2004 — though they didn’t really start finding their metal feet until 2007.
“We’ve been growing since 2004, but 2007 is when it took its sound, took its form, of what we’re doing now,” says Deraniyagala. “2004 is when we started playing shows as Battlecross, but we sounded different. We were only a four-piece then. 2007 is when we lifted off and have the kind of sound that we have now, which evolved from all the lineup changes, the new bass player in 2008 and the new singer in 2010.”
Deraniyagala says the band started out with a raw, early-Metallica sound but evolved as they became better musicians. “We’ve always had the trash sound,” he says. “Back in 2004, we were really young and I think we sounded like old Metallica; we didn’t have harsh vocals, the guitars weren’t as technical. We were trying to find our sound and trying to find the right people. There were years when we didn’t have a drummer — it was just Tony and I, and a bass player practicing in a basement every Saturday working on songs. We finally got a drummer, kept playing shows and developed our sound, and weeded out the musicians that didn’t grow with us. We kept growing and growing, and pushing ourselves as musicians. We wanted to combine the different elements of metal while still keeping a classic metal sound.”
Battlecross hasn’t had it easy. Metal music isn’t exactly Detroit’s premier export (with a few notable exceptions) and so execs rarely look for it here. Bands of the same genre based in L.A., San Francisco or New York certainly have an advantage. So how do you get noticed?
“I think there’s so much talent here, I really do, not just in metal,” says Deraniyagala. “The hardest thing in this area is that we don’t have a lot of offices for labels and things like that like L.A., or places like that where you have access to get exposure to those labels. We don’t really have anything like that around here, so we’ve got to fight to push for that exposure and that attention. I think that’s where the sound of Detroit metal, Michigan metal, comes from — that angst.”
Maybe it does pay off in the sound. As John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) said, “anger is an energy.” That said, it must get tiring opening up for countless hair metal bands at venues like the Ritz and Harpos, and paying for the pleasure. “You work a lot of those pay-to-play kind of things,” says Deraniyagala. “Sometimes you have to play the game, but the best thing to do is be smart about it. You’ve got to pick the right shows that fit your band. You can’t just open for every headline band that comes through. You’ve got to find the right bands, pick the right shows, promote those, and also keep playing local shows. Branch out to local areas and show-trade with other bands if you can, bands that are in other areas of Michigan; build the scene here, build that support.
“That way, it builds exposure, it builds your fan base, and then you can pick the right bands to open for. That’s what we did. Not just playing the shows, but also supporting the scene. That’s what Battlecross has done forever. Going out to local shows, making [us] well known to those bands and the people who go to those shows. Those people will see you and remember you. You build a reputation as someone who will support what other bands do. It creates a mutual thing, a brotherhood of support. I think that’s helped a lot, how much love and support we’ve gotten from here, because we haven’t been that band that acts like we’re better than anyone else. Even with the press that we’ve been getting, I still go to local shows, I still watch local bands and show my support for that, because I really do love the music.”
Deraniyagala says that there are actually a lot of great metal bands in the Detroit area — you just have to look for them. “I love Wulfhook, who sound like Dio and Cowboys From Hell-era Pantera,” he says. “Writhing is another great band. Hellmouth is a great band too, and Beast in the Field is a favorite of mine. Black Dahlia Murder are doing well for themselves too. So you know there’s talent here, great bands that come from here. It’s just about building and hopefully bringing more attention to our scene.”
One of the great things that separates Battlecross from the bands mentioned above is its comfort with the traditional image of heavy metal: the eagles, swords, Vikings, power and glory. Some might see the Saxon/Manowar approach as cheesy, but what the fuck do they know. It is, quite frankly, superb. It’s machismo unleashed, loincloths and all. These guys are warriors.
“I think it just fits with what we do,” says Deraniyagala. “We do take what we do seriously, but we are very humorous and laid-back guys too. It’s not like we’re presenting an image of being serious. I think what Battlecross and our music represents is very similar to that imagery. It fits. Battlecross sounds epic and warrior-like. When you think of a warrior, you think of honorable and strong-willed.”
STRONG-WILLED THEY ARE. After recording the debut album, Pursuit of Honor in 2009, Battlecross promptly lost its singer, and brought Gunther in as a replacement. It turned out to be a blessing, the band getting signed by world-renowned label Metal Blade Records soon afterward.
“It was a year-long process,” says Deraniyagala. “We had recorded our album in 2009, and we had been shopping it out to all different types of labels. We ended up self-releasing with our old vocalist. Right around that time, I hit up Metal Blade and after three months they hit us back but we had just lost a vocalist. We got Kyle in the band and had him go in the studio and put his vocals over three songs we had already recorded. We sent it to Metal Blade and they really liked it, and they kept in touch with us. It wasn’t like they heard it and immediately wanted to sign us. We built a relationship with them, and the final piece of the puzzle was [Shannon] Lucas from the Black Dahlia Murder who really helped us — he vouched for us. We practiced in the same place that they did. We were talking one time and I gave him a CD because he wanted to check out the studio we recorded it at. He listened to the stuff and helped us out, bridged the gap that Metal Blade didn’t have because they’d never seen us live. Building the relationships, having the good product, and having the good people behind you to back up what you’re doing.”
In this day and age, though, with downloading and streaming so prevalent, are labels even important anymore? “I understand what people are saying about labels, and as far as bands making money it’s a lot harder than it was,” says Deraniyagala. “But I think the labels are still relevant, because they have those connections to a broader audience that you wouldn’t have independently. We’ve gained so much access to new markets and being able to get our music out to a large audience because of being on a label. As far as sending stuff to a radio station, being an unsigned band versus being on Metal Blade, who do you think they’re going to listen to? They’re going to hear when the label has contact. Exposure-wise, it’s important. Bands have to find new, creative ways to make money. Record sales: it’s all different; the labels are still relevant but with times changing, they’re relevant in a different way.”
Getting on a label with a big reputation certainly hasn’t hurt Battlecross. The Canton-based band has seen its reputation blossom, thanks to a series of big tours and a high profile release of Pursuit of Honor. The next album, due out this year, will likely see them shift up another gear. Of course, do all that and the crazy fans will start to surface.
“I’ve seen our logo symbol, the star shape, tattooed on a couple of people, and I’ve also seen the lyrics to “Destroy” tattooed on a guy,” says Asta. “That’s pretty cool. It’s wild to see that kind of love, passion and dedication. It was a dude I’d never met before. Since then, he hit us up online and we talk back and forth. Keeping an open book with the fans, chatting and hanging out, we’re all about that.”
The two guitarists in Battlecross are noticeably humble, as well as witty and intelligent, dudes. They’ll talk about their band forever, but it is with passion for the music rather than misplaced ego. It’s impossible to begrudge them their spot on this weekend’s OrionFest. Asta can’t wait. “Metallica are my favorite band,” he says. It’s amazing, surreal, a dream and it’s happening. It’s one of those things that I’m really excited about, but I know that until the day of the show, I just won’t ever feel as excited as I will on that day. I’ve never seen Metallica before even though they’re my favorite band. Being able to afford to go is hard, so it’s cool that the first time I get to see them I’m on the bill. As far as it being in Detroit, that’s really cool too. Detroit really needs any help it can get as far as bringing music and events to the city.”
He’s not wrong. Those restaurants along Jefferson are going to love Metallica after this weekend, as will many businesses in Detroit. The festival is a blessing. Asta isn’t sure whom else he’ll be checking out though.
“Honestly, I really don’t know who else is playing,” he says. “There’s only a handful of metal bands. I would like to see the Deftones, but I really don’t know too much of their later stuff. I know Adrenaline, Around the Fur and White Pony, but anything after that I’m not sure what it is so I’ll just be listening to a bunch of songs I don’t know. I have a bad feeling. I heard them from afar in Montreal last year. We headlined the second stage for some crazy reason but earlier that day Deftones played and I got to see them from a quarter mile away on the jumbo screen.”
At least he knows what the Battlecross set will be like. “We’re definitely going to play some new stuff,” says Asta. “We’ll play a lot of stuff off Pursuit of Honor, but we’ll also play a handful of new material. I’m itching to play a new set because we haven’t played anything new on stage in forever. It’ll be great to not play the same set over and over again.”
And when Orion is over? “We have Mayhem Fest coming up with Rob Zombie, Mastodon, Machine Head and a bunch of cool bands,” says Asta. “I’ve got my fingers crossed on Europe too.”
The future, it seems, is bright for Battlecross. This weekend, the band gets to play in front of a big crowd, with one of the biggest metal bands in the world, in their hometown. It really doesn’t get any better than that. Now get those horns in the air.
Orion Music + More takes place on Belle Isle on Saturday June 8 and Sunday, June 9. Metallica and the
Red Hot Chili Peppers headline.
Brett Callwood writes about music for the Metro Times.