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For the surviving members of metal band Power Trip, the Grammys are a bittersweet coda

Power Trip band members sit on a couch as they pose for a photo.
Power Trip, from left: Nick Stewart, Blake Ibanez, Chris Ulsh and Chris Whetzel. “I hope we changed people’s perceptions about what a metal band can be,” says Ibanez.
(Shane Kislack / For The Times)

On Monday night, just a few weeks after a freak deep freeze brought Texas to the brink of an electric-grid collapse, the surviving members of the Texas metal band Power Trip gathered at guitarist Nick Stewart’s house in Dallas.

The four — Stewart, 32; guitarist Blake Ibanez, 29; drummer Chris Ulsh, 33; and bassist Chris Whetzel, 33 — had spread out across the state and country during the fall and winter surge of the pandemic. They’d hadn’t all been in the same room since the early fall of 2020.

“I just got here like five minutes ago; it’s so strange to me to be seeing these guys for the first time in six or seven months,” said Ulsh, who now lives in Philadelphia.

“It’s been a long time, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Stewart said. “I guess it hasn’t really hit me until right now.”

The last time they were all together was for a funeral. On Aug. 24, Power Trip’s singer, Riley Gale, died at 34, a brutal loss of one of their genre’s most viscerally compelling performers and empathetic songwriters. In a devastating year for music, Gale’s death hit especially hard — a young singer at the height of his powerswho had shared stages with Ozzy Osbourne and Danzig and whose band was poised for stardom.

Riley Gale performing with Power Trip. The singer died on Aug. 24, 2020.
(Angela Owens)
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Although no cause of death has been publicly released (a representative for the group said, “The family has not released the toxicology report to anyone, so Riley’s cause of death cannot be confirmed”), one of metal’s most important and inventive groups of the last decade now has to stare down a future without its singer — and close friend.

Monday’s interview was the first time Power Trip had spoken publicly as a group since Gale’s death.

On Sunday, Power Trip is nominated for its first Grammy, for metal performance, for a version of its song “Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe),” released off a surprise live LP in June. For a group that takes its ferocious cues from ’80s thrash and hardcore, the band members are unexpectedly earnest about this potential award. They had huge ambitions as a band, and each said that their peers acknowledging their achievements with Gale would be a truly meaningful coda as they grieve.

“Losing Riley was the saddest thing that ever happened to me,” Ulsh said. “But I’m so proud of everything we accomplished together. One of the coolest things from the start was that there was no ceiling to this band, and this Grammy nomination is a perfect example of that.”

Seven months on from Gale’s death, the band and its peers understandably struggle to talk about what he meant to their lives. “Just heard about Riley. Goddamnit. Sending love to his family and friends and his band,” Anthrax’s Scott Ian wrote on social media after news of Gale’s death broke. Ice-T wrote, “I’m devastated... Still don’t know how... I’m speechless.”

Asked about fond memories of his friend and bandmate, Ulsh took a few beats to try to describe their last days together.

“It still feels very fresh. It’s hard to talk about,” Ulsh said. “We were close. I spent a lot of my downtime on tour with him. It’s still hard to fathom.”

“We’ve never been through anything like this,” Ibanez agreed. “But it’s definitely brought us closer. You’re together all the time, then in the blink of an eye, you know you’ll never see each other again.”

“But this has helped us all realize how much we love each other,” Stewart said.

Riley Gale leaps into the air while performing with his band.
Power Trip at Brooklyn’s Elsewhere Music Hall on May 10, 2018.
(Angela Owens)

Power Trip’s members have played together for more than a decade, but even though they released their last studio album, “Nightmare Logic,” in 2017, their worldview seemed perfectly timed to the present moment of public fury and big-picture social critique.

Their music pulls from the hard-riffing roots of Texas metal forebears like Pantera but caught the ear of the tastemaking L.A. metal label Southern Lord. Power Trip arrived at its brand of thrash metal through a lens of basement hardcore punk and fervent prison-reform politics.

Even the most demanding tough-guy metal fans could recognize their sincerity and ability. Gale was not an overtly menacing physical presence onstage, in the way many metal frontmen try to posture. But alongside peers like Code Orange, Turnstile and Oathbreaker, something about Gale’s conviction connected deeply with fans well beyond metal’s typical catharsis.

“Power Trip was the first heavy band I can remember that was universally beloved since, like, Slayer,” said Albert Mudrian, editor of the metal magazine Decibel. “Everybody knew the stars were aligning for them to take the next step. There aren’t many extreme bands who crossed over, who can crack a Billboard top 10. Power Trip were in the position to join them.”

The band was especially attuned to the ongoing movement against police violence. Power Trip’s 2013 song “Conditioned to Death” riffed on Michel Foucault to depict prison’s strangling of human potential. Gale guest-howled on “Point the Finger,” a 2020 single from Ice-T’s metal band Body Count released at the height of the racial justice protests after George Floyd’s death. The band’s song “If Not Us Then Who” quoted civil-rights activist John Lewis.

Even the stampeding licks of “Executioner’s Tax,” an older song now up for a Grammy in a live version, hits harder in light of the roiling demonstrations against police brutality over the last year.

“Death hides behind veiled faces / It only takes one swing and you’re gone,” Gale screamed. “The executioner, the beginning and the end / He carries cold hard steel masked with the taste of medicine.”

Listening to that live recording today “definitely hits home,” Whetzel said. “It takes me right back to that show. It touches me now in a way I wouldn’t have imagined.”

Although the pandemic had already shuttered the band’s world of sweat- and spit-soaked live shows, the group was working on new material and in January 2020 had just thrown the second edition of its hometown festival, Evil Beat, with Deafheaven, Carcass and Torche. Even mainstream outlets like NPR took notice of their rise.

“It’s easy for me to downplay what we accomplished, but the response has been pretty incredible,” Ibanez said. “To get this outpouring of respect and love was very cool. It’s helped a lot. It makes me feel like what we were doing had a purpose.”

Few metal bands take the Grammys as a defining barometer of success. But as Power Trip slowly begins to think about both its legacy and its future (the band has no idea yet what its next steps in music will be: “We do want to continue to play music together; we just are not sure what that looks like at this time,” Ibanez said.), it keeps turning back to its songwriting with Gale and the way the music resonated with fans, those deeply immersed in metal as well as far outside that sphere.

Riley Gale crouches on the floor during a performance.
“Power Trip was the first heavy band that was universally beloved since, like, Slayer,” said Albert Mudrian, editor of the metal magazine Decibel.
(Angela Owens)

A Dallas LGBTQ transitional-housing center, Dallas Hope Charities, plans to name its new library after Gale, who helped raise thousands in donations and invited its volunteers to set up outreach efforts at Power Trip shows. “If that is something that brings them calm to their anxiety and lets them have that quiet time and that space, that’ll be there for them,” Chief Executive Evie Scrivner told the Dallas Observer, announcing the library after Gale’s death.

“It’s easy for a band to say they’re ‘anti-authoritarian,’ but Riley was looking around and seeing people who were really oppressed; that’s what he reacted to,” Mudrian said. “He wasn’t lamenting his own situation so much as he was listening to the stories of other people. That speaks to a generousness he had as a person.”

All four band members are just beginning to assess what Gale meant to their lives and what their band has meant to metal. But as a valediction for this time in their career, they’re proud that this recording of “Executioner’s Tax” is a testament to Power Trip’s importance to metal, at the Grammys and far beyond.

“I hope we changed people’s perceptions about what a metal band can be,” Ibanez said. “We didn’t have to compromise; we just were who we were, and people respected that about us. I hope that’s how people will remember us.”


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