The aroma of burning goat flesh permeates the night air as five kids clad in denim, leather and studs take to the stage. Their name: Sorcerer. Their mission: the resurrection of metal.
It feels a little like Ozzfest in the Echo Park backyard of Laurel Stearns, a former Capitol Records A&R lady and manager who had happened upon the band with the stereotypically metal name a few weeks prior. She had an A&R moment — that “feeling” — and invited them to play at her Sunday goat roast. This will be their fifth show ever. A gaggle of music-industry types look on, dumbfounded, as the pitch-perfect power-metal screams of lead singer James de la Luna explode the heavens, causing dogs to whimper and startled neighbors to peer over garden walls. Guitarists James J. LaRue and Eli Santana emerge from clouds of dry ice, backlit and majestic, furiously harmonizing like latter-day Eddie Van Halens, high-speed arpeggios shooting from their electric fingers like bolts of proverbial lightning. Their gigantic bass player, Blake “B.A.M.” Mount, grimaces in the background while drummer Tyler Meahl pounds like a meth-addicted monkey. Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.
By the time we meet again, the band has signed with Prosthetic Records (Lamb of God, All That Remains), which will be releasing its debut EP this summer. It’ll feature two original songs plus two Judas Priest covers. And, in true metal tradition, the band has already undergone a name change, from Sorcerer to Holy Grail. (Apparently, there were a few too many Sorcerers in the kitchen — a 1970s band and an electronica DJ, both of whom, as one band member put it, were refusing to “pass on the scepter.” Not that Holy Grail is much of an improvement, judging by MySpace.)
Holy Grail’s songs have Dark Agey, testosterone-dipped names like “Fight to Kill,” “Immortal Man” and “Valhalla Calling.” Their thematic oeuvre spans “Chicks, Vikings, Ex-Chicks, Being Tough, Macho/Machismo, FEMA, Fabio, Conan, Rad Dinosaurs, UFOs and Bilderberg Group.” Imagine Wyld Stallions with actual chops. LaRue’s motto is “a thousand scales for a thousand days.”
Blond/brunette creative duo LaRue and Luna (known as “James Squared” to their friends) are the primary songwriters. From an “elite school of San Diego shredders,” LaRue is the romantic, arpeggio-obsessed blond. “Have you heard the steel foundries, have you seen the fucking factories?” he marvels, when I tell them I have been to Birmingham, England, birthplace of heavy metal. “Have you been to the Euphrates? Have you seen the Tigris?” continues LaRue (he rides a bicycle and shares a bedroom with drummer Tyler, and is clearly ready for Holy Grail’s world tour). Luna is the sweet-cheeked Warrior-Next-Door, replete with tousled fashionista mullet and the resonant lungs of a Stradivarius. He hails from Pasadena — birthplace of Van Halen — and he can’t step outside his door these days without someone telling him how they used to hang with the Halen. “Everyone in Pasadena has a Van Halen party story,” he says.
A former choirboy, 26-year-old Luna worships metal screamers like Klaus Meine (Scorpions), Rob Halford (Judas Priest), Ian Gillian (Deep Purple) and Sean Harris (Diamond Head), and his own high-octane performance style is inspired by the stage antics of David Lee Roth and James Brown. What got him into high-pitched vocals was listening to Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Trapeze), “one of those underrated hard-rock singers no one ever talks about. He did these power-metal screams live at California Jam in 1974 when he was a bassist and backing vocalist for Deep Purple, and made Coverdale [Deep Purple’s lead vocalist] look like Bret Michaels — it was that gnarly.” Later Luna heard Judas Priest’s Painkiller album, and that “sealed the deal for me.” Now he hones what he terms his “diaphragmatic power” with vocal coaching and warm-up scales — although the real secret to his falsetto is, he says, “in the pants.”
Luna, along with LaRue and Tyler, was in the retro-metal revivalist outfit White Wizzard until a semi-amicable split last year. Burned but not jaded, they segued into Sorcerer with a uniquely alchemical mission: to melt down their favorite metal (Sabbath, Priest, Scorpions) and birth a new metal ore. Whether they’re entirely new-sounding is debatable; it’s their look, their drive and their talent that could propel Holy Grail to realms beyond the existing, tight-knit metal scene.
“We’re like deviled eggs,” suggests guitarist Eli Santana when we meet a few weeks later, at another metal barbecue. Gentle and perpetually smiling, he lives on his friend’s couch in Playa del Rey, and was recently fired from his job at Starbucks for insulting an early-morning customer. (“It’s a shame. I really took pride in my foam,” he sighs.)
So Holy Grail is like deviled eggs?
“Yeah,” he says. “We took the core of what metal was and then we took the egg out and we put all this paprika in and we made it all fucking fancy and guess what? It’s deviled eggs.”
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“Yeah. The egg is the metal. And the devil is us — something completely new that the egg didn’t even think it was going to become. We’re the devil within the egg.”
Despite its meticulously wrought Megadeth-meets–Early Man aesthetic, Holy Grail — unlike the farcical Metal Skool or some posturing Brooklyn speed-metalists — is 100 percent nonironic about its shredding. More accessible than modern-day metal purists (like Helvetets Port, Cauldron and White Wizzard, for example), it’s not solely trying to champion the old metal ways; like Bill and Ted, these young sorcerers come “from the past and the future,” says Luna, adding that “heavy metal is shunned by people who don’t listen to metal. People who think heavy metal is dead are dead.” LaRue’s two cents: “As much as the dinosaurs exist today as birds, classical music exists today as metal. It will never die.”
Indeed, if there’s any realistic hope for a mainstream metal revival beyond the enduring success of Metallica and other dinosaurs, perhaps the young warriors of Holy Grail could be it. The evidence is there, from the Paris catwalks through to the success of metal documentary Anvil, the public at large is showing its willingness to re-embrace the metal. And like Black Sabbath, who rose to dark dominion in the direct wake of the flower-power movement, Holy Grail — attractive, talented and tight as the pants they love to wear — could indeed provide a perfectly timed antidote to the indie-folk glut of today. Just look at them — evolved, Obama-friendly metalheads deeply in touch with their feelings. “Have you ever been so overwhelmed with emotion that you wanted to say a million words, but couldn’t?” asks Santana, as the heavy-metal barbecue draws to a close. “To me, that’s the meaning of shred: being able to say every single one of those words, as fast as you can.”
And, believe it or not, there’s a tear in his fucking eye.