San antonio was once the ‘heavy metal capital of the world.’ will it ever be again sa sound

Before Clear Channel Communications turned the medium into cookie-cutter crap, DJs on the then-fledgling FM band prided themselves for discovering new and unheard music. And, here, on KISS-FM and its AM counterpart KMAC, jocks Joe “The Godfather” Anthony and Lou Roney became the city’s boundary pushers. Their love for riff-based hard rock had them spinning bands like Rush, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest long before they built audiences elsewhere in the U.S. The pair also championed a legion of relatively obscure ensembles like Budgie, Moxy and Legs Diamond that remain San Antonio cult faves.

Roney, who now works in the real estate business, said breaking new bands came out of necessity at first.

When he and Anthony, who died in 1992, landed at KMAC, the financially strapped station couldn’t afford a service to supply it with new major-label releases. So they bought their own.

As the new music developed an audience, they even delved into the promotion business, booking shows on a shoestring. Roney helped build a larger stage so the then-unknown Rush could fit all its gear into Randy’s Rodeo. Another time, he ended up playing lawyer in front of a federal judge to get last-minute immigration papers for the Canadian band Triumph.

“I challenge anyone to hear Judas Priest’s ‘Saints in Hell’ on the radio on the way to junior high school and not want to go out and start a band with twin lead guitars,” said Robert “Bobdog” Catlin, who shared guitar duties in S.A. Slayer with Villarreal.

While KISS and Stone City laid the foundation, many credit the adrenalized rush of the early ’80s New Wave of British Heavy Metal — hungry young bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head — with spurring a generation of local metalheads to action. Seeing teens across the pond start their own bands and self-release records led to a flood of demos, photocopied fanzines and self-organized shows.

Buster Grant was one of the kids caught up in that manic energy. He was hanging out watching a neighborhood garage band practice when someone urged him to scream into a Radio Shack microphone. That scream landed him a job as Wyzard’s lead singer, and the band was soon self-releasing an EP called Future Knights. The group built a rabid Southside following and its record has since been rereleased by labels in Germany and Greece.

“I toned it down a little bit over the years, got more melodic, but metal was what opened the door for me,” said Grant, who still works in the music biz, singing in a variety of projects and running a voice studio. “But it all started with that scream. Metal opened the door for tons of other people from the South Side.”

S.A. Slayer, the best-known of San Antonio’s early ‘80s metal outfits, released its first EP, Prepare to Die, after mopping the floor with the competition at an Eisenhower Road Flea Market battle of the bands. In 1984, the band was forced to add the “S.A.” part to its moniker after the West Coast thrash legends came out with vinyl before they did. The outfit broke up around the time of an infamous — and bootlegged — Slayer vs. Slayer gig at Villa Fontana.

Few other local metal bands managed to release commercial recordings in that era — studio time was a pricy proposition and ProTools was still years in the future. But despite the lack of recorded documentation, the Alamo City boasted more metal bands per capita than any other locale in the Southwest. Wicked Angel, Ritual, Byfist, Syrus, Tarrot and Seance gigged relentlessly and packed local venues, even if their immediate influence escaped the national spotlight.

“It was really a D.I.Y. affair,” added McMaster, whose late ’80s band Dangerous Toys went on to gold records and MTV rotation. “The metal kids learned from the punk kids. You’d record demo cassettes and sell them for a dollar at the shows. Whoever was old enough to drive the van would steal money from mom’s wallet, gas it up and you’d be off to play for beer money.”

“Every local show was just an event,” said Reuben Luna, who spent years as Hogwild Records’ resident metal expert. “We had the crowds and people wanted to play here. So much so that people would refer to Helstar, who were from Houston, as a San Antonio band.”

Seeing the opportunity to bring in underground touring bands that hadn’t yet popped up on Stone City’s radar, teenager Marc Solis formed OMNI Productions. With limited financial resources, Solis and his crew hit the streets with flyers and created a database of high school kids who would distribute them on campus. His crew brought a virtual who’s who of ’80s metal — Megadeth, Metal Church and Celtic Frost, among others — to local clubs.

With radio gone and major labels showing little interest in rock outside of stadium-filling legacy acts, it seems unlikely San Antonio will pack in huge metal audiences the way it once did. When Mastodon, one of the top-drawing metal acts of recent years, last passed through town, it played the 1,500-seat Aztec Theater — a far cry from the old 6,000-seat Municipal.

Of course, critics have lauded a creative renaissance in metal. They point to challenging bands like Yob, who construct layered 20-minute epics inspired by the writings of philosopher Alan Watts, or Myrkur, a one-woman band that mixes black metal with delicate folk instruments.

In many ways, the genre has evolved into a boutique interest like jazz, which draws small but dedicated crowds. In part, that’s because it’s grown more stratified and sonically extreme. Contemporary metal acts toiling in narrow sub-subgenres like “blackened death” or “neo-gothic” doom that bear little resemblance to the meat-and-potatoes riff-rock that spun on KISS and KMAC.

What’s more, San Antonio’s no longer a guaranteed stop on every metal tour. But, observers said, that has to do more with changing economics than a lack of fan enthusiasm. A number of Austin venues require touring bands to sign so-called radius clauses that exclude them from playing in the Alamo City since it’s only a 90-minute drive away. Plus, with little to no label support, many bands simply can’t afford to take a chance on second-tier markets like ours.

“There’s certainly room for a dedicated and well-organized promoter in San Antonio,” said Nathan Carson, whose Portland, Ore.-based Nanotear Booking puts together tours for the aforementioned Yob and others. “But even if you miss out on some of the bigger shows, there are still plenty of up-and-coming bands looking for places to play.”

To Carson’s point, there’s still likely to be a metal bill any given weekend in San Antonio. And the city boasts multiple venues that, if not exclusively booking metal, still book a whole fucking bunch of it. That’s something not all towns can claim. Plus, it’s hard to imagine mega-shows like May’s Judas Priest-Saxon-Blackstar Riders bill or August’s Slayer farewell tour passing us over.