Wayfarer Carves Out a Unique Sound in Denver Metal Scene | Westword
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Wayfarer Carves Out a Unique Sound in Denver Metal Scene

The band looked to Western history and films to set the tone for its latest album, American Gothic.
Wayfarer makes "black metal of the American West."
Wayfarer makes "black metal of the American West." Frank Guerra

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Just over sixty years ago, Hollywood was revisiting Western history with such silver-screen stars as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. With the Korean War over and the Vietnam War beginning, there was a pressing need for American pride and identity, and men like Wayne cut the figure of the ideal cowboy, while the Old West presented a perfect machismo metaphor for the American dream.

Denver metal group Wayfarer "watched a lot of those movies" to set the tone before creating its just-released album, American Gothic, according to guitarist/vocalist Shane McCarthy. "We kind of immersed ourselves in...not necessarily the time period, but more of the vibe of America."

One film they watched is a general fan favorite for such Westerns: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which stars Wayne, Stewart, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin in a captivating tale that has stood the test of time since 1962, moving away from the usual tropes of its era and focusing on deeper character development. Wayne, better known for his showboating, women-carrying, shoot-them-in-the-face-not-the-back characters, provided a stirring but atypical performance as Tom Doniphon, whose spotlight is stolen but who remains the moral hero of the film. Doniphon's desolate destiny juxtaposed with his past strengths was translated by many audiences as an almost existentialist commentary on human nature and its drive to fulfill dreams, often dashed despite all efforts.

This aligned with the takes of other films McCarthy watched, which were also less about the early Wild West-centered, cowboy-versus-Indian myth and more about the slow-burning end of the "Go west, young man" decades. "I think that's a really fascinating time. You have your westward expansion, Wild West era, and then, when that's done, the railroad stretches from coast to coast and the nation is established, and all these big-money interests like oil companies are taking hold," McCarthy explains, citing later Westerns such as There Will Be Blood, Heaven's Gate and McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

"With the frontier expansion, there's just a lot of underlying notes of day-to-day people attempting to pursue the American Dream and build a life for themselves," he continues. "And then, inevitably, some larger power is stopping them, just not allowing them to fully pursue their dream, because it conflicts with their own."

That's the theme that Wayfarer, which also comprises Joe Strong-Truscelli (guitar), Jamie Hansen (bass/vocals) and Isaac Faulk (drums/keys), explores on American Gothic. It's a fitting title for a band that labels its music "black metal of the American West," and the group defines that beyond a doubt on the album. The release is a unique amalgamation of black metal supplemented by the eerie twangs of Southern Gothic and the folk of Americana, which unveils an atmospheric sonic landscape rendered by lyrics around doom, death and destruction, all set in the West during the Industrial Revolution.

Wayfarer often uses its music to comment on the past; its last album, 2020's A Romance of Violence, is almost like a novel, with each song a chapter telling a story about life in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1800s. And with avid historians in the group (Hansen majored in history), the bandmates want to be sure they know what they're presenting.

They applied their usual approach for this album: homing in on a concept that they continuously refine before working on songs and recording them. Strong-Truscelli says that McCarthy can be a well of information, comparing what he brings to the table to a mood board. "I almost feel like I'm talking to a director when I'm talking to him, because before we even write music, he's got this whole plan, like a movie already written out," the guitarist says. "When we get together with him, it's almost like we're a team for a film score."

American Gothic, notes McCarthy, is more about "the nation as a whole instead of just the idea of the American West and all through that lens. We want it to be definitely darker, sadder, generally more powerful and fully fleshed out. But you've always got to get perspective."

"The Wild West was super harsh, but there was a kind of freedom to it, because it was, in a way, lawless, and that made it dangerous," adds Hansen. "But there was this idea of, 'Just go out there on the frontier.' And then in this period, you have these big corporate interests and government lobbyists with a lot of corruption. A lot of power is coming in, literally seizing land from people who are then waging war against them. That's the kind of vibe we're trying to capture — the death of the American Dream."

Such a morose topic requires just the kind of metal that Wayfarer makes. The band, which formed in 2011, began as a typical black-metal act before leaning into the Western flair that elevates its sound. (Strong-Truscelli joined in 2016, after McCarthy's co-founding guitarist moved to Florida.)

"We were into the Western stuff and the Denver-sound stuff," McCarthy says. "At first it was more like, 'Well, we're starting a metal band. This is what we're doing.' And then eventually that influence just kind of creeps in subconsciously. I think it was somewhere in between the Old Souls album [2016] and the World's Blood album [2018] — which is the first one that  [Strong-Truscelli] was on — that we were like, 'This is clearly where it's headed, and we should just dive in.'"

While their tastes vary, the bandmates found common ground in the music they wanted to put out, which created a strong foundation for the Wayfarer oeuvre. "We definitely lucked out in the fact that we all kind of gravitate to the same things, or at least the same concepts," Hansen notes. "It made writing music very easy, because we always are on the same page."

The bandmates met each other through the Denver metal scene, though Strong-Truscelli and McCarthy go back much further. "I've actually known Joey since I was twelve or thirteen, because he taught me how to play guitar," McCarthy explains.

"The metal scene here is small enough that all of us, just being young and going to shows, we crossed paths a few times," he continues, adding that Wayfarer members also play in other local metal bands. Hansen, McCarthy and Faulk all are part of Stormkeep and Lykotonon, while Strong-Truscelli and Faulk are both in Falcon's Eye, and Faulk performs in Blood Incantation and Abysmal Dimensions.

Cross-pollination is something you also see in the metal environment. But these musicians agree that the strength of the Denver metal scene lies in how those bands still manage to create their own unique sound.

"There's an adventurous spirit in the Denver metal scene, which I appreciate a lot," Hansen says. "We're surrounded by very, very talented musicians, and we all push each other and support each other, without even sounding remotely like each other."

And in a scene where everyone knows one another, it makes it easier to join a band of like-minded musicians. "I had gone to [a Wayfarer] show before they had a bassist," Hansen recalls. "And after the show, I was kind of drunk, and I was just like, 'I don't play bass, but I would love to play bass with you guys!' And that's how it started. And here we are, all these years later."

In those years, Wayfarer made significant strides. Even though it was released during the pandemic, A Romance of Violence was a very successful album, and the tours to support it last year did just as well, with a packed show at the Bluebird in March. The band also had a European tour and played the Fire in the Mountains festival in the Tetons.

"We've got some stuff on the books for next year that has not been announced yet but are already some things that will be the biggest opportunities yet," McCarthy adds.

In the meantime, Wayfarer is gearing up to tour with Baroness, and will open for the Savannah-based heavy-metal band at the Summit on Saturday, November 11, with Destiny Bond. After that tour, Wayfarer will join forces with German metal group the Ruins of Beverast on its East Coast tour.

So even if the American Dream is dead, as American Gothic suggests, the band's dreams are just now coming to fruition. And while Wayfarer is on tour, know that there are plenty of talented Denver metal acts to listen to before the band's full record-release show for American Gothic next year. "There are a lot of really unique, interesting things happening here," says McCarthy. "And it's happening in one area. I think it's easy to take for granted."

Wayfarer opens for Baroness at 6 p.m. Saturday, November 11, at Summit, 1902 Blake Street. Tickets are $29.50-$44.50.
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