Formed in the wake of thousands of demon's mutilated bodies, Awake the Suffering is a light plunged deep into the crevices of darkness. With an onslaught of brutal metal driven by their passion for Christ and the spreading of His love and grace, ATS attacks the stage with enough raw energy and ferocity to level buildings in their wake. The vicious guitars of Jason, the ground-pounding bass of Fuzz, the thunderous drums of Jeff, and the other-worldly screams and gutterals of Myk come together to form a machine that no legion of the underworld can stand against. With their talents showing forth in their music and their stage presence, ATS puts forth everything they have in their shows for God, themselves, and the fans.
Awake the Suffering strips down to a lean, mean, metal machine-
There was a time not so long ago that Awake the Suffering guitarist Jason McMahan wanted to step down from the band he'd helped found.
God, it seems, had other plans.
"I decided that I couldn't play three or four out-of-state shows every week, so I gave it over to the rest of the group," McMahan told The Daily Times this week. "After a few weeks, they didn't feel right about it, and they offered to give it back because it was something we all felt God had given me to do from the beginning."
And so Awake the Suffering once again went through metamorphosis. McMahan wanted to scale back, playing fewer shows so he could spend more time at home, tending to his duties as a father and a husband. Other band members wanted to go for the brass ring, to pursue music as hard as they could, and chose to part ways.
But McMahan is used to challenge, especially when it comes to music. After all, what is a ministry worth if there is no struggle, no hard work, to give it value? And McMahan and his bandmates -- including longtime friend and Awake the Suffering bassist Brian "Fuzz" Gibbs -- very much see what they do as a ministry. Not an in-your-face, accept-Jesus-or-face-the-hellfire sort of evangelism, but a ministry all the same.
"I wanted to do 10 or 12 shows a year, to keep it local and do it for the ministry side of it," McMahan said. "I didn't want to play 150 shows back to back, because I need to be at home. My family is my first ministry, and I want to be a good father and a good husband."
That's a far cry from his teenage years, when McMahan gravitated toward death and Satanic metal. That was before he found Jesus, when his brain was consumed with dark thoughts and he spent his free time reading about serial killers and bizarre crimes. With salvation, however, he changed directions -- metal has been and always will be where his heart lies, but he realized it doesn't have to be a heart filled with hate and scorn, covered in scars.
First in Hallowed Refuge and later in Awake the Suffering, he and his bandmates tapped into such secular hardcore sounds as Rage Against the Machine, Tool and Korn, but the band's lyrics emphasized salvation and a better life through Christ. It hasn't been easy -- lineup changes have kept the band's new album ("Inside the Mind We Die," scheduled for release Saturday at the Maryville Metal Fest at Alnwick Gym) in the works for more than two years.
But after the last shakeup, McMahan and Gibbs feel like they've found like-minded musical brothers who want to keep Awake the Suffering local, God-centered and brutal-sounding.
"I found a Christian metal band called Old Man Is Dead that wasn't playing anymore, and we talked to two of the guys about what we were doing," he said. "I told them what God had been laying on my heart about not going out and playing a lot of shows, and they told me that was exactly what they were looking for. The lead singer (Myk Reece) has three kids, and he's the associate pastor of his church; the drummer (Jeff Millsaps) is the youth pastor of that same church. I play bass at my church, and Fuzz plays at his church, so we're all like-minded in our faith and beliefs and what we want to do."
With the departure of everyone except Gibbs and McMahan and the addition of Reece and Millsaps, the band went back into the studio to fine-tune "Inside the Mind We Die." Many of the songs, McMahan said, were written with the band's former female singer -- William Blount High graduate Ronnie VerValen -- and with Reece now behind the microphone, the tone needed to reflect it.
"That was difficult, because we'd made the songs around the voice of a female singer, with a lot of open singing parts, and Mike's not really that way," McMahan said. "He's more of a gritty, growling, eating nails kind of guy, so we had to rearrange the structure of some of them, and I really feel it changed the feel of the band. The songs were already solid, but his voice made it more heavy."
With Awake the Suffering stripped down to a four-piece, the songs are also leaner. McMahan carries out the guitar assault all by his lonesome, a lone gunner manning a .50-caliber on high ground while his bandmates lob grenades of pounding drums and throbbing bass lines around him. Reece summons up some guttural screams, but there's also a melodic feel to his vocals that make them understandable. Not poppy and not nice -- but coherent, a refreshing change from a lot of purveyors of similar metal.
"It's really weird that it's coming across as meaty and heavy as it is," McMahan said. "We've always had great guitar players in the band, but now it's a lot tighter because there's less room for me to mess up. With two guitars, it was easier to be off-tune occasionally or start off in the wrong key, but when it's just me, I have to be on my toes."
Being on his toes, however, is par for the course with McMahan. Not only has he steered Awake the Suffering for almost five years, but he's also been a champion of the local metal scene, especially in Blount County. Together with Christopher "Syn" Wright of Facelock, he's one of the Blount County scene's elder statesmen. He's respected for his views and beliefs but even more so because he doesn't push them off on others. Saturday's Metal Fest is an example of that -- Awake the Suffering will play alongside nine other bands, some secular and some Christian. It doesn't matter to McMahan -- the goal is to provide a safe outlet for young people to hear some heavy music, and if his beliefs can help someone else, then all the better.
"Being kind to someone, showing them love -- that's what I try to do," he said. "I want to be the person who's easy to talk to if they have issues. I don't judge them or tell them what they need to do or have to do; I just tell them that God's worked for me, and maybe he can work for them, too."
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