The day begins as it always does for Riley Gale, waking at noon in his bunk to the eternal noise of a tour wagon generator as he reaches for a smoke and rolls out the door. The sound is part of him now. If he's ever lost in a new town, that generator rumble always draws him back. "It infiltrates your subconscious," he says, bleary-eyed on the sidewalk outside the Ritz in San Jose, California, where his crossover-thrash band Power Trip is set to play, near the end of about 90 days of nonstop touring.
Onstage, Gale is a leaping, kicking, growling everyman in T-shirt and mustache, a cap folded low over his eyeballs as he rages through anthems that are defiant and politically charged. Weeks before tonight's gig, Power Trip played a festival with Body Count, as singer/rapper/TV cop Ice-T watched approvingly from the wings; afterwards, he complimented Gale, affectionately calling him "Lil Jumpy Mane." Lil Jumpy Mane regularly shares the stage not only with his bandmates, but also with an endless stampede of fans climbing up to stomp and shout and then soar back into the pit below.
Not so at yesterday's San Francisco show, however; Gale is still bummed that the venue insisted on a barricade in front of the stage, separating band and crowd. "That kind of killed the energy of the last few shows we played," he says, stepping into the shade. "I'm hoping tonight makes up for it."
A decade ago, before Power Trip, Gale was just another commando in the pit, stage-diving, moshing, singing along. "It made me feel included," Gale remembers, and he's continued to chase that same feeling from behind the mic, sharing every moment there with the brutal swirl of fans around him. "As much as I would love to be able to flip into the crowd and hang out with everyone like that, I just usually injure myself. But when I see people do that, it gives me that same feeling that I had back then. That's why we do it."
Gale and his bandmates — guitarists Blake Ibanez and Nick Stewart, bassist Chris Whetzel and drummer Chris Ulsh — aren't new to this life, and operated without much notice beyond the ground-level hardcore and metal scenes for several years. The big break came in 2016, eight years after they began, when they were recruited for a tour with Lamb of God and Anthrax. To Gale's surprise, the aboveground metal audience responded to Power Trip's supercharged fusion of extremes. Still, his band has continued to operate on their own terms, even after the breakout success of "Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Axe)," a song off the group's second and latest album, 2017's Nightmare Logic.
The larger metal world may embrace Power Trip, but they've established themselves as a band ready to challenge crowds everywhere, both musically and politically; a band ready to take a stand on the divisive issues of the day regardless of the consequences; a band as comfortable sharing stages with death-metal extremists like Obituary as they are with a power-pop outfit such as Philadelphia's Sheer Mag. Power Trip's rise puts them at the heart of a new wave of heavy music — including forward-thinking groups such as Turnstile and Code Orange — that Gale calls "a generation of bands that are worth their salt." It's a generation not of sound-alike pummelers, but of groups with their own distinct missions and identities.
"Power Trip's approach is uncompromising and driven," says Arthur Rizk, the Philadelphia-based producer of both of the band's albums, who's on the road with them now, working sound and, between gigs, recording their recent single for Adult Swim. The music, he goes on, is "a good balance between stuff that's meant to be digested slowly and then stuff that's just instantly catchy. There's depth to it, and then when you go see them live, people are going fucking nuts."
With a fresh pack of smokes in hand, Gale heads over to a food court blocks away from the Ritz venue, and picks up a cookies-and-cream popsicle, dipped in dark and white chocolate, and sits on the back patio. Playing quietly overhead is a mix of Seventies soul, from Bobby Womack to Curtis Mayfield. "This is my shit," he says, taking in the groove with a grin, dressed in black shorts and hoodie, a Bad Brains cap over his long brown hair. "This is the stuff I listen to before we go onstage."
Showtime is still hours away, and Gale is tired, and looking ahead to a short nap in Power Trip's dressing room later. Tomorrow in Los Angeles, his girlfriend is flying in, and he'll have his first hotel room in weeks and at least one night of comfort. But the darkness is always nearby. Two days ago, the band got news that the beloved dog, named Bear, of roommates Stewart and Whetzel died. And just yesterday, they were informed that a very close friend of the group killed herself the day after her birthday. They had expected to see her in either San Francisco or San Jose.
As in life, Gale finds both hope and pessimism in his lyrics. On Nightmare Logic, he challenges listeners to take control of their world on the track "If Not Us Then Who," colliding a churning thrash riff with a title drawn from words spoken by the civil rights icon and veteran Congressman John Lewis. "Take a look at your life, tell me to what do you aspire?" he growls angrily on the track. "I want to know how far you're willing to go."
Other songs are more apocalyptic, reflecting Gale's genuine state of mind. "This band was born out of the frustration that I was dealing with going into college in a time where we were involved in two wars. I'm sitting there going, 'I'm going to see some fucked-up shit. I'm going to see something that 9/11 will pale in comparison to.' I don't know if it's World War III. I don't know if it's some kind of food epidemic. I have this sense of impending doom — not that the human race will be wiped out, but it's going to completely shift the status quo. It's gonna make me being in a band completely irrelevant. It may turn it into a fight for survival. Who knows?"
When the album was released, it was sometimes read as an infuriated reaction to the age of Trump, but all the songs were written long before the billionaire TV star was even considered a realistic candidate. Gale's expectations were low regardless of who won the 2016 election, at least after the exit of Senator Bernie Sanders. The singer is bluntly outspoken, confronting fans with a left-leaning perspective raised in the heart of Texas. Gale has tweeted from the band's account: "If you don't like our stances, don't support our band. It doesn't make a single difference to us. We play on and you can't stop us."
"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," Gale says. "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."
When he heard that Fox News had been playing "Executioner's Tax" on the air, Gale tweeted a message from the band: "Is this a joke?" and "CEASE & DESIST." The song's lyrics, he explains, are an allegory for a pampered citizenry blindly ignoring reality right up until the moment the executioner arrives to collect. He learned that Fox host Greg Gutfeld was a heavy-music fan with a history of spotlighting rock malcontents like Johnny Rotten and the Melvins' King Buzzo on the right-wing news network. Gale decided to email him: "Hey, how'd you hear about the band? Do you know what the song's about?"
They ended up talking on the phone for hours, finding more agreement than conflict. "You know, the dude's pretty anti-authoritarian, believes in a lot of police reform, pro-legalization of all drugs," he says, still sounding surprised. Their line of communication continues, as Gale recommends bands to play on Gutfeld's show, though he adds: "It's hard to defend Fox News in any way."
Power Trip formed in Dallas, Texas, when Gale and Ibanez decided to start a band that combined their interests in extreme music. Gale was 22, the guitarist 16. The main inspiration was East Coast hardcore: Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, Killing Time, Breakdown. Soon, their growing obsession with thrash (Slayer, Exodus, Nuclear Assault) infiltrated their sound and disposition.
Gale was working an office job and putting himself through college at the University of North Texas in Denton. During a weekend back home, the new band recorded its first demo of songs, then hit the road to chase their DIY dreams, with no aspiration beyond getting a chance to tour Europe. The singer hadn't seen anything of the world other than a free two-week birthright trip to Israel, after claiming he was Jewish (he isn't) and managing to "accidentally" sneak a lot of fireworks through the airport without getting arrested. (He's got a screenplay in mind for that long story.)
The band found an audience, small at first, but one as intense as their music. "We have fun and we like to fuck with people," Gale says. "We've always had really crazy shows and encouraged a lot of crazy stuff to happen. We've had plugs pulled on us. We've been banned from venues."
The band's early singles and EPs have now been collected for a retrospective album, Opening Fire: 2008-2014. The earliest tunes were written when some members were still teenagers learning how to write songs. Together, they've evolved as songwriters and players.
"They feed off each other a lot," Rizk says of Gale and Ibanez. "Blake is a fucking insanely talented songwriter."
Before the show, Ibanez is relaxing in the wagon, still vibrating from the generator. The guitarist wears a Ramones T-shirt and speaks of his admiration for the songwriting of previous rock generations. He's a dude who was born in the Nineties and grew up hearing the Beatles, and lately has been studying classic rockers like Cheap Trick, the Kinks and the Who. "There's a lot to be learned there," Ibanez says. "I do want to try to stretch and see how far we can reach within our bounds. I think we have the potential to get outside of what we would be expected to do and I'm interested to see if we can figure that out. You don't want to keep doing the same thing, you know?"
Hours later, the Ritz is packed and already fired up from a set by Sheer Mag when Power Trip step onstage to a roar from the crowd. What follows is a 50-minute speedball of noise and action, as the band opens with the oppressive metal riff of "Drown," from Manifest Decimation, and fans immediately invade the stage, bumping and clipping Gale's ankles, knees and back along the way. There is no barricade tonight.
"It's a mystery to me that we're as big as we are," Gale says, catching his breath after the show. "I saw us hitting a ceiling a lot longer ago and now we're having people telling us we could turn this into a career and I don't know if I believe them. I don't even know if I have it in me, but we're going to try."