Feature: Wednesday, August 29, 2002
Tin Gods

Aska’s music is magic overseas but here it’s, well, old-fashioned.

Now, Call and Knight could have set the lad straight — but that just would’ve taken too long and would’ve put Josh in a frame of mind unlikely to cut a couple of hot-shot celebrities a break on their check. Call smiled wide. “Thanks, man,” he said. “That’s us.” The young waiter left with drink orders, while Call explained: “We get this shit all the time. See — ” and Call looked himself and Knight over. Both were wearing their shoulder-length feathered hair down and were sporting at least one black article of clothing. “We look like rockers!”

The convenient assumption is that the thirtysomething members of Aska — Call, Knight, Daryl Norton, and newcomer Danny White — live in a time warp or in houses where the calendars haven’t been changed since 1985.

The band plays metal the way Mercyful Fate and Saxon knew it: simple, pounding rhythms; heavy, catchy riffs; lonnnnnng guitar solos; lyrics about, alternately, mysticism and sex; and falsetto wails. Looking like Cliff Huxtable’s idea of a rock star — long hair, leather pants, chains, and wristbands — is something each band member also takes seriously.

A neat “package” of appropriate metal looks and appropriate metal songs is what Aska’s been delivering for the past 12 years. All those musical styles that have come and gone since then (grunge, rap rock, art rock, pop punk), and all those looks that have also been “in” one day and “out” the next (flannel shirts, ball-caps-and-baggy-pants, shaved heads and goatees) have had no, zero, zilch influence on the quartet. They’re still all about black leather and silver studs, and their eponymous first album, from 1991, sounds a whole helluva lot like their fourth and most recent c.d., Avenger (Steelheart Records; 2001) — except that Avenger reflects a band at the height of its prodigious talents. Led by Call, one of the most underrated singers and guitarists in the Metroplex, the stalwarts of Aska are musical loyalists in a world of turncoats. No area outfit pounds out long-thought-dead power metal better or more sincerely than they do.

But there’s very little room in the Fort Worth-Dallas region for a band like Aska. Clubs around these parts mostly service acts of regional styles and genres: country, blues, and a lot of indie rock. Overseas is a different story. In places like Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, power metal lives comfortably right alongside power pop, hip-hop, and pop rock, and in every place but here Aska is a Big Deal: They signed with Italy’s Steelheart Records last year, and each member, with money from the advance, bought a house in the Metroplex. They’ve played in clubs across the globe and on U.S. military bases in 37 countries as part of the USO’s entertainment program for American soldiers stationed overseas. They’ve been lauded by the international media. And they just finished a crown jewel of a gig — opening for metal gods Judas Priest at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas.

Will Aska become a household name? Probably not — unless your household includes subscriptions to Metal Edge and Metal Maniacs magazines, a Manowar c.d. or six, and a stack of Witchblade comic books. But you could say Aska is the envy of a large percentage of better-loved, more-praised, and better-respected local acts. This band is doing what it loves, and each member could — if he wanted to — get by doing only this.

The men in Aska are, indeed, walking anachronisms: While each band member is obviously aware of the inexorable march of time — and is familiar with concepts like, say, taxes and homeland security — each is also a minor case of arrested development. These guys are into the same things they’ve been fascinated with since youth — cars, video games, guns, and chesty comic book heroines. You wouldn’t find a copy of Remembrance of Things Past or Ivanhoe in any one of the band members’ libraries. So you can almost understand why the easiest thing in the world would be to write off Aska as juvenile entertainment by juvenile minds. Aska can work and play their asses off, but they’re still never going to be accepted by mainstream culture. Heavy metal music has no redeeming social component: It’s aggressive music made by and for aggressive white males. In a multicultural world, power metal is truly the devil’s music — the blue-eyed devil’s.

The main guy behind all things Aska is Call, who the Dallas Observer once said sang as if he “had half a ball.” Call not only pens the lyrics to nearly every Aska tune, he sings every song, comes up with the majority of the riffs, and handles 60 percent of the guitar solos. He also writes most of the sludge on the band’s web site (www.askaband.com), books shows, coordinates rehearsals, oversees the production and distribution of Aska T-shirts, and keeps track of the band’s contact list. Nothing in the band happens until Call has signed off on it, yet the married father of one carries himself like a happy-go-lucky flaneur. The dark-maned Call is about average height and is frighteningly thin, and in his smoky voice (though Call neither smokes nor drinks beer) he can chat up the hottest woman in the room without coming off the least bit desperate or intimidated. His good humor is infectious, and the party doesn’t start until he shows up.

The other guys in the band are bit more laid-back. Bassist Knight is a muscular outdoorsman who looks like wrestler Ric Flair and gives the impression that he’d much rather be communing with nature than talking with fans, while rhythm guitarist Norton is the dark, strong, silent type who — once he gets around to conversing — reveals himself to be quite the pipe-puffing philosopher. (Up until last week, Call’s younger brother Damon had been handling drumming duties; he quit to concentrate on his job with — of all places — the Tarrant County sheriff’s department.) The band, the way everyone now sees it, is much better off with Call as its frontman than it was when each member wanted the job. “We had the attitude we were gonna please ourselves, each of us,” Call said. “That’s a recipe for disaster. We ended up playing metal in way too many styles.”

Call and Damon grew up in Diablo, in the Canal Zone of Panama; their father worked for the U.S. government. The way of life there was pretty idyllic: “It was like a country club,” Call said. In Panama, he said, your lawns were mowed for you, you were surrounded by plenty of open space, and you could pick and eat fruit right off the trees. Call’s father’s record collection was, according to the metalhead, deep and wide enough to fill the shelf space of a small store. Disco and country-western predominated, though there was a little bit of everything else, too.

Call was in fifth grade when two momentous events happened: He met Darren Knapp, the guy with whom he would eventually form the first incarnation of Aska, and ... he heard KISS.

The record was Alive!, and the Call boys bought it at a yard sale with $2 of gift money that Damon regularly got from an Italian godfather whose sources of vast income were always suspect. When the boys told their father about this great new band, they didn’t get exactly the response they were looking for. “My dad said, ‘That’s nice.’ Then he said, ‘But I don’t think so,’ ” and promptly hid the record, Call said. Its MIA status was short-lived. The boys eventually found it and played it while their father was at work. The kids were spellbound — and hooked on metal. “At that moment,” Call said, “I wanted to learn how to play guitar. I wanted to do whatever I needed to be like those guys.” The Call boys then exposed Knapp to the kabuki-and-metal show that was KISS. Young Darren was immediately sold.

Two summers later, Knapp went to New York to visit. As soon as he returned home, he was greeted by an anxious Call. “I called him up, and I said, ‘Darren, I got a surprise for you.’ And he said, ‘Well, George, I got a surprise for you.’ ” The boys agreed to meet at Knapp’s house. “I knocked on the door, and he opened it, and I was standing there with my arm behind my back, and he was standing there with his arm behind his back, and at the same time we both showed each other.” What each future metalhead was holding was a six-string guitar. “We were, like, ‘We’re gonna form a band!’ ” The path to KISS-esque stardom seemed right around the corner.

During high school, Call and Knapp played in different garage bands around Panama, eventually joining together for a short time in a band called Virgin. Its drummer soon relocated to Texas, and Call was hot on his heels. Compared to Panama’s dull music scene, Texas seemed like a land of golden opportunities. “After [high-school] graduation, Darren left for New York for college, and I left for Texas. But we always kept in touch.”

In a short while, Call received a letter from Knapp, saying that college, basically, sucked. Call convinced Knapp to move to Texas to rock out. This was in 1986, at the height of heavy metal’s popularity.

Knapp made it to Texas, and both he and Call worked odd jobs in manufacturing plants while city-hopping around the state — El Paso, San Antonio, Austin. It wasn’t until Call and Knapp discovered the Metroplex in 1987 that they decided to settle down. “Our first night in Dallas,” Call said, “we knew: This was the place.” With some acquaintances, the duo formed Aska around 1990 and began gigging everywhere heavy metal was welcome: The Basement, Dallas City Limits, Joe’s Garage, On The Rocks, Smokin’ Dave’s, Savvy’s. “Since we’ve begun,” Call said with resignation in his voice, “the metal scene here has taken a nose-dive. All those places, man, you’d see bitches in Spandex, dudes in leather. The drinking age was 18 then. When that changed, metal clubs weren’t really lucrative anymore.”

In 1992, after a gig at The Basement, Aska was approached by a USO promoter and asked to tour. No one in the band believed the guy. What he was saying not only sounded too good to be true but just not right: Call and company thought USO tours were chiefly gravy gigs for NFL cheerleaders and washed-up comedians. But eventually — on a plane to Saudi Arabia — the boys in the band realized that what was happening was for real. (“And when we got back,” Call said, “all those clubs had shut down or were in the process of closing down.”)

Getting invited to perform overseas was a blessing: Grunge, in its rawness, was at the time making mainstream metal, by comparison, appear calculated, self-interested, corporate — everything new anti-establishmentistas believed was evil about life under Reagan and Bush Sr. The band faced a dilemma: Either play to adoring fans across the ocean or play to no one at home. The choice was a no-brainer. “We were living the rock-star lifestyle,” Call said of Aska’s 14 overseas tours, “but clean. No drugs, none of that. Just lots of fucking.” Here, Call paused for a second, possibly realizing how he may have talked himself into a cliché. He continued: “Lots of fucking — of Daryl and Keith.”

Throughout their years of international touring, Aska managed — first — to cut four c.d.’s, and — second — to somehow remain devoted to heavy metal. “We’re as young as we feel,” Call said. “Those people who give up on the stuff that gives them joy — like comic books, video games, whatever; like that gospel verse: ‘I became a man, and put away childish things’ — then you become what? A codger? Life is to be enjoyed. You get one go-around. This is it. What are you gonna do? Enjoy it and leave a legacy and have a blast and not have to conform to society’s standards? Life is a rat race if you conform — that’s the part they leave out. It’s a sad philosophy that I know Europe doesn’t have. And that’s probably why they’re into metal.”

One thing you need to know about Call: He can work a room — especially if there are attractive women in it. And it’s not until I spend a few more days with him in the presence of good-looking gals that I realize that his ultimate goal with them is not necessarily sex (he says his wife Becky is “the most beautiful girl in the world”) or even a “connection”: All Call really wants is to sell these ladies a c.d. and — more importantly — get them to show up at upcoming Aska gigs. (“The chicks,” he said, “bring the guys!”) Call says his marital fidelity and sharp business acumen make him a “dork” in this way — but he’s a happy one.

It’s an experience being around Call when uninitiated Aska fans are everywhere, ostensibly looking to be initiated. Throughout our meal, Call’s head was on a swivel. He wasn’t even finished with his beef fajitas when he was already making small talk with the Australian family in the booth behind him. The evening was memorable for, if nothing else, seeing how Call can commandeer whatever minimal spotlight’s available: Josh, on a tip from a fellow worker, unmasked Call and Knight as impostors yet ponied up $16 for a copy of Avenger (which Call conveniently had stashed in his vintage Corvette out in the parking lot); Jennifer, an attractive Korean waitress, came this close to buying a c.d. but changed her mind at the last minute; and all of Don Pablo’s knew who in the hell Aska was by the time we left.

At the Canyon Club a few days later, Call’s charisma was still on full-throttle, but the room he was working wasn’t so receptive. These club folk apparently see Call’s kind every day, and it’s not that they were unimpressed with him, it’s that they were apparently too worn-out, too busy to respond to the rocker’s good-natured shtick. The big story of the night was that Judas Priest had essentially instituted martial law over the place, and everybody’s asshole was tight. The club manager laid down the ground rules. No one but performing musicians was allowed near the backstage area (a room about as spacious as a Motel 6 bathroom but with nowhere to sit). No one except bandmembers and club personnel was allowed in the performance area during sound check (both Knight’s wife and Damon’s girlfriend were removed). And no one — not even the opening performers — could get anyone in on the guest list (there basically was no guest list). Worse, for Aska, their performance duration had been reduced to 30 minutes. This meant that their set list had to shrink to a handful of songs.

Since Aska was performing first, the band was asked to run through a song to help the soundman get the levels on his mixing board “right.” The band happily obliged.

What came out of the Canyon Club speakers was righteous. The song, “Crown of Thorns,” the first track on Avenger, is a riotous standout on disc, but its lyrical content — revolving mostly around a character who can be described as either a sword-and-sorcery comic book hero/villain or a captain of an army of Crusaders — gives a listener nothing really to connect to or empathize with. Live, it was something else. A bruising, medium-tempo, foot-stomping rhythm was a 300-horsepower engine that only a cadaver in a bad mood could have resisted banging his head to. Over it, a simple, steady, rhythmic chord progression effortlessly and perfectly served the vocal melody. “I am command-ah,” Call sang in a tone that was at once threatening and confident. And here, as with call-and-response blues, the dual guitars downshifted quickly into a neat little sidetrack of a riff and then promptly returned to the course before Call began again: “I ride the hellllllllm.” Guitars downshifted. “Armored defenders of the reallllllm!” Then the guitars downshifted once more and stayed in gear a little longer before resuming the jaunt. After that, a breakdown culminated in a full stop and Call’s delivery of the lines, in his best draconian accent, “The crown of thorns.” Which was when this fan experienced a mini-epiphany: A lot of music sounds great at high volume, but nothing can compare with balls-to-the-wall metal when it comes to energizing a listener. The lyrics initially sounded simplistic when coming through my quaint home stereo system, but in the context of loud, electrified guitars they spoke to my inner savage, the guy to whom being “command-ah” and “riding the helm” don’t sound like bad ways to spend an afternoon. Judas Priest, I thought, better watch out.

A few hours later, the Canyon Club began filling up. The line that had stretched down the long corridor that led to the bowling alley didn’t get any shorter, though. Young white kids you’d mistake for rednecks in any other social situation, wearing black T-shirts bearing the names of famous heavy metal bands, made bee-lines for the stage. A half hour before starting time and the “dance floor” area between the stage and main bar was just about full. By the time Aska hit the middle of their set, performing the crowd-pleaser, “Blood of the Wolf,” the fans were rocking.

Not a trace of irony could have been found within 100 yards of the building. When before launching into “Blood of the Wolf,” Call asked — with a straight face — if he could “hear all the werewolves tonight,” he got a few dozen “Ahh-ooooo”’s in return. When Call played his Gibson Flying V behind his head, he received a few hearty whistles. And when, between songs, Call delivered a short sermon about what he thought “true” heavy metal was, he got a raucous ovation. Right then power metal was a country unto itself, and George Call was vying for the office of its president.

There was no real let-down after the Priest show, when the guys from Aska actually got to hang out for a little while with the superstars. There were more gigs to get ready for, after all. The next one was at a two-story pool hall in Arlington which goes by the slightly ridiculous name of Fast Freddy’s. The drummer for the opening act, TYR, was going to be sitting in for Damon, who had just given the Aska boys the news that it was time to hang up the sticks: He had been feeling the crunch of working full-time, keeping up maintenance on his new house, and spending his weekend nights either rehearsing or gigging. Everyone in Aska saw Damon’s exit coming; the band had been auditioning drummers steadily since before the Priest concert. The night of the Fast Freddy’s gig, while hanging out by the bar before TYR took the stage, Call broke the news to me: “We got our new drummer, man,” he said. “And he’s here tonight, but he’s not playing.”

Keeping a steady drummer has always been a problem for the band — even though, according to Call, drummers around town basically line up outside Aska’s rehearsal space for auditions every time there’s an opening behind the kit. This go-around was reportedly no different. The guy Aska has landed is, by all accounts, their best yet. “He doesn’t look like a rocker,” Call said of Danny White, “but, man, is he amazing.”

By now, Aska — except for their drummer, who hadn’t shown up yet — had congregated in this corner of the bar where Call was holding court. Call got distracted by some particularly female fans, and along came Norton to take Call’s place near me. Norton’s a relative newbie in the band. He replaced Knapp about a year ago when Knapp became “born again” and not only quit the band but swore off heavy metal music completely. Norton was Knapp and Call’s guitar technician for about a year before he joined Aska full-time. The ride has been, Norton said, so far, so good.

Norton is the only steady member of Aska who holds what could be considered a full-time job: He works with cars. But like Call and Knight, Norton thinks of himself as a full-time, full-blown professional musician. The time hasn’t come yet for him — or anyone else still in the band — to make that decision all artists dread: When to give up on your art because it’s not paying the bills. Here’s where one of Call’s metaphors is appropriate: He says he envisions himself climbing a ladder — is he going up or down? At this point, to hear Call tell it, he’s definitely moving up. Right alongside him, he believes, are Knight and Norton and, pretty soon, Danny White.

As Norton was talking about balancing a career with “a job,” a tan guy in jeans and a white tank top, wearing a bandana, walked in with two young women, and he and his entourage exchanged happy greetings with Norton and the rest of Aska. It didn’t come out until later, after Aska had begun performing, that the guy in the bandana used to play drums in the band, and, according to him, had “never been paid once.”

Throughout the night, there was a lot of tension in the air. After Aska finished their set and bandana-man, his girlfriends, and I finished a few games of billiards, the tension became palpable. The guys in Aska remained near the stage while bandana-man and his ladies stood near the bar. I traveled back and forth between the two groups, trying to be neutral, and I got it on both sides. “Don’t believe a word out of George Call’s mouth.” “That chick is with a different guy every night.” “They never said, ‘Thank you,’ or anything.” “Why do you think they’re here? They’re just trying to start shit.” And on it went: The soap opera that is Fort Worth-Dallas’ heavy metal scene.

Overall, the Fast Freddy’s performance was a smash — a lot of metalheads, wearing their appreciation in their faces, packing the space near the stage, responding with “Ahh-ooooo”’s to Call’s request for the werewolves in the house to announce themselves. You could see how a band could get attached to this. Comic books, werewolves, Crusader commanders: A lot of people like this stuff. Metal culture, no matter what you might read or see, still lives.

Call’s only real responsibility the next day was to pick up Aiden, his 17-month-old son, from his sister-in-law’s house in Lewisville. On the road in his Jeep (which he drives when not behind the wheel of his ’Vette), Call talked about how styles of music have changed over the years. The question came up: Is Aska a museum act?

“We didn’t grow up in the ’70s,” he said. “We grew up in the ’80s. Metal acts grew up in that time. We’re a product of those times. We’re now a new movement of metal. It harkens back a bit, but it’s today. We didn’t write Avenger in the 1980s. It’s today. There are more metal bands that have sprouted up over the past 10 years than there were in all of the ’80s.”

Playing metal in Fort Worth-Dallas, awash in alt-country, rap, and indie rock acts ... well, there are easier paths to take. The word on Aska in national and international fanzines leans toward the favorable. Rock and a Hard Place: “Aska is on the fringe of greatness.” CMB: “Aska really have moved into the major-leagues of a truly first-class, pure metal band.” And Powerplay: “I can’t help but think that the big league is beckoning.” Locally, Aska is — no pun intended — a four-letter word. The Dallas Observer is a favorite source of angst for Call.

“You can’t take anything the media say here seriously,” Call said. “They’re so jealous of us. That’s it: We’re in the same city as these critics, and we’re in the same competition for women. They think, ‘Aska might fuck my old lady or the chick I’m trying to pick up.’ It has to be something primal or else [local media] wouldn’t take all these cheap shots at us.”

Call eventually arrived at his sister-in-law’s house, and spent a good five minutes knocking on the door before a teenage boy answered and let him in. His sister-in-law was still out with Aiden at the mall, so Call and the teen, Raynor, talked hunting, family, and school — and Aska.

“Hey, man,” Call said. “Is your friend gonna buy that c.d.?”

“Josh?” Raynor said. “I dunno.”

“You tell him he has to buy it,” Call said. Then, to no one in particular, Call said: “When niceness fails, use intimidation.” Then, enacting a possible situation with Josh, Call held a fist in the air and, deepening his voice, said, “You like the c.d., right, Josh?”

A few minutes later, Aiden appeared. He was immediately snatched up by his father and covered in kisses and hugs. The relatives now in the room didn’t act as if Call’s actions were out of the ordinary. After a bit of chitchat with the family, Call grabbed Aiden’s portable bed and car seat, and set out for the Jeep. Aiden didn’t fuss the whole way back home; he just let his dad fuss over him — in Spanish (which Call speaks fluently). To help Aiden get ready for a nap once they got home, Call sat his son in front of the tv and popped in a DVD disc called Baby Praise. (Call said his wife is “very religious.”) Images of small children set to Christian music cast a spell over Call’s blond child. He didn’t move from the tv or say a word. “Kids,” Call said, “They love looking at other kids. It’s amazing.”

Aiden soon fell asleep, and big-kid Call put in a DVD disc of his own choice: Manowar: Hell on Earth, Part 1. Here was the heavy metal band on tour throughout Europe in the late 1990s. Lots of screaming teenagers, lots of insanely long lines of insane fans, lots of leather, lots of topless babes, lots of chugged beers. Naturally, Call got contemplative. “There’s something happening in the metal world,” he said. “Worldwide. The U.S. is not the center of the universe.

“This [video] should give you a clear perspective of what it is. This was during alt-rock’s heyday, and you don’t have 20 bands on one bill, like a Lollapalooza, it’s just one band, Manowar, and probably an opener. Look at how many people.”

When Black Sabbath turned the peace-love-and-understanding vibe of ’60s-era rock into a rumbling death knell, heavy metal was still outré. Though “crossover” bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush experienced much mainstream success with the sound, real metal — metal with no aspirations of commercial viability — remained largely underground throughout the ’70s. The genre received the kiss of death in the early 1980s when “glam bands” took metal to the top of the charts. Stateside audiences lustily follow trends, and in no artistic medium is this fact as painfully obvious as in popular music. As with any sound du jour, there was a backlash against power metal which has kept the style off the American radar ever since. Italian kids, Russian kids, Asian kids — every type of young, non-American music fan, though, eats power metal up.

Still, Call is pleasantly content with the way things are going for him and his band: “To be able to strap on a guitar, see the world, and get paid to do it?! I have no complaints. I’ve made some of my wildest dreams come true, and I haven’t given up on the rest. When I’m not playing and I’m on the road, hey, I’m out in the pool ... I’m gonna have a good time, enjoy myself, and be as moral as I can be to the extent of my morality — you know, don’t do to somebody else what you wouldn’t want to have done to you. You’re here once — make something out of it.”

Call said he understands that his band probably won’t be a favorite on MTV’s TRL or “The Edge.” And another gig like the one with Judas Priest might also be a long time coming. But Call said Aska won’t give up until the band has secured status in the small but formidable universe of power metal — a likely event. Major heavy-metal labels that showed interest in Avenger are already asking Call about Aska’s next c.d., which Call said will be recorded within a few months; and a steady diet of performances at local spots like Fast Freddy’s and J. Gilligan’s will by all accounts keep the band busy and in the black. “We’re not trying to do anything trendy or be, like, the next Limp Bizkit,” Call said. “In fact, if we notice something ‘trendy’ in one of our songs, we’re like, ‘Take it out.’ We’re not interested in it. It’d be like if you asked a country guy to do rap — just ’cause it’s ‘in.’ If we did that, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves.

“We know our style is not popular with the masses,” he continued. “We don’t compare ourselves to Creed or [Stone Temple Pilots] or, I dunno, Godsmack. Our influences are,” here Call paused and leaned forward, “Manowar. Primal Fear. Virgin Steele. We’re playing music and drawing people, and we’re appealing to a crowd by playing this type of music that mass media have tried to sell to the public as dead. Well, if it’s dead, then where are all these people coming from who’re going to our shows? And even if it is ‘dead’ in the U.S., the U.S. isn’t the world. Overseas, you can listen to techno, then you can listen to metal, then you can listen to pop — you don’t have to pretend. Here, if you’re not listening to what’s ‘in,’ then, you know, it’s sad to say, but you’re just not ‘in.’ And Aska — to tell you the truth — will just never be ‘in.’ That’s the way we want it.”

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