Riley Gale: the death of thrash metal’s great idealist is a terrible loss

Fusing the technical prowess of thrash metal with the warp speed blast of hardcore – and a political stance that emphasised compassion and tolerance – Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic (2017) was one of the defining underground metal albums of the past decade. Central to their sound was the full throated vocals and open hearted spirit of Riley Gale, who died this week aged 34.

His searingly intense delivery – alternating between sandpaper roar and mournful bellow, usually swathed in classic 1980s-style reverb – was tempered by a masterful command of rhythm and idiosyncratic phrasing. Just check the way he bounces off the lead riff on the anthemic Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe) only to mimic the swing of the axe itself during the second chorus – it’s glorious stuff. A ball of energy onstage, offstage he was, by all accounts, approachable and affable, with a deep interest in the places he found himself and the people he met.

Formed in Dallas, Texas, in 2008, Power Trip initially took inspiration from the more metallic leaning 1980’s New York hardcore bands as well as classic Bay Area thrash metal. Name checking bands such as Cro Mags, Nuclear Assault, Killing Time and Sick of it All, alongside Exodus, Anthrax and Slayer, Power Trip were the result of a meeting between guitarist Blake Ibanez and Gale through the mid-2000s Dallas hardcore scene.

Signing to Sunn O))) guitarist Greg Anderson’s Southern Lord imprint in 2013, their debut album Manifest Decimation was an exercise in pot-boiling rage, belting along on a tide of tight, palm-muted riffs, frenetic leads and cymbal splashes. Lyrically, Gale ensured the political was never far from view. The idea of history being written, and thus controlled, by the “winners” was described in perfect bluntness on Heretic’s Fork (“Histories trapped in illusion, who sees through who? / For every mindless vision of who owns the truth”) while the idea of society in turbulent descent – always a classic thrash theme – was explored with unflinching directness throughout.

It was in the live arena that Gale shone brightest, however. Power Trip toured in a manner entirely befitting of their sound: frenetically, relentlessly. Imbued with the pitiless work ethic of the hardcore punk bands they adored, they were resolute in bringing their riotous show to as many people as possible. Gang vocals, circle pits, stage diving, a fearsomely tight live mix and, in the midst of the locked down riffs, Gale amping up the chaos energy with feverish intent: prowling, pacing and screaming with palpable glee.

His extracurricular interests roamed as far and wide as his tour schedule. A passionate student of literature and philosophy, he was fascinated by Tolstoy, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and others while taking an equal interest in current affairs, continuing to ruminate on the chaos of modern America in lyrics. Making his enthusiasm for “some kind of socialist/capitalist hybrid” clear to writer Dan Franklin in a Quietus interview in 2017, that year’s Nightmare Logic album laid bare the fears and frustrations of many Americans in the Trump era.

One of the most perfect thrash albums to be released since the 1980s heyday (truly up there with the likes of Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood), Nightmare Logic was a serious step up for the band. This was thrash reduced to the bleached bones essence, a scant half hour of borderline-demented energy, fearsomely tight with a clean, loud production by Arthur Rizk boosting the sense of urgency. The album was a critical success, with many hailing it as an instant classic. The band’s profile rose rapidly in no small part due to the anthemic status of Executioner’s Tax. Much to the chagrin of the band, Fox News anchor Greg Gutfield used the song on his show The Five, leading the band to issue a cease and desist notice to the station.

Indeed, Gale – who had frequently made no bones about his dislike of Trumpian economics – was also keen to designate Power Trip a safe haven for all. As he put it in an 2017 interview: “We’re political in a sort of morally relativistic way where if someone is wearing a Power Trip shirt, you can probably assume that that person isn’t like some weird, racist, meathead piece of shit – hopefully … We try to make it pretty clear that we might all be white males, but this is not a band for white males to enjoy and be dumb rednecks.” For Gale, the power and energy of metal was not for macho posturing, but a means for honest release.