CONCERT REVIEW: Prog metal Legends WATCHTOWER Energetically Reassemble In Austin (January 5th, 2024)

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Watchtower is a name that, in a just world, would be mentioned alongside Fates Warning and Queensrÿche. Like those two other bands, Watchtower is an American band that formed in 1982 and who were pivotal in the evolution of what we now call progressive metal. But unlike their more well-known brethren, Watchtower progged things up right out the gate, recording several songs that would end up on their debut album, “Energetic Disassembly,” in 1983, though fresher cuts of those songs would actually end up on the album. Those original recordings, which resurfaced on the 2002 release “Demonstrations in Chaos,” predate Queensrÿche‘s first “proper” prog-metal album “The Warning” by a good year, and Fates Warning‘s first experimentations with the style on “The Spectre Within” by two.

It is for this reason that I regard Watchtower as the first progressive metal band, and their hometown of Austin, TX as the birthplace of the genre. (Incidentally, both Fates Warning and Queensrÿche also have deep ties to Texas.)

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Sadly, a long string of medical misfortunes, to say nothing about life itself, halted Watchtower roughly at the same time the Cold War that inspired much of their lyrical content ended. But trust me, you have felt the fallout that this obscure quartet of cowboys have left on metal: no less than Mike Portnoy was an early fan, and Chuck Schuldiner of Death and a diminutive Dane by the name of Lars Ulrich have been photographed wearing Watchtower shirts, with both of the latter crediting the Texans for inspiring their own bands’ forays into progressive death and technical thrash on “Human” and “… And Justice for All.” I probably don’t have to tell you what Portnoy went on to do with his inspiration.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Fortunately for local goons like me, Watchtower started performing the occasional gig in both Austin and guitarist Ron Jarzombek’s hometown of San Antonio in 2000. The first two Bang Your Head fest warm-up concerts showcased a band that was not only flawless in its execution of some absurdly serpentine material but also was entertaining as fuck to watch on stage. Bullet belt-sporting frontman Jason McMaster (also of Dangerous Toys, Broken Teeth, and about a bajillion other bands)played the metal AF ringmaster alongside a hockey cosplaying Jarzombek and an absolutely deranged Doug Keyser, clad in a capped flight suit and stalking the stage like a crazed mantis on stilts, his slobbering hijinks detracting not at all from his Jaco-on-crank playing. Skinsman Rick Colaluca was throned at  a refreshingly small kit, playing the straight man to the zoo in front of him, his own manic facial expressions notwithstanding. I’d seen crazily complex material performed with grace, furor, and a bit of humor before, but the madhouse I witnessed at those Medieval Knights and Backroom shows was some next-level lunacy. I needed more.

I got more a few months later in Dallas, where Watchtower supported some band called Dream Theater during the second US leg of their “Metropolis 2000” tour. The band dutifully took advantage of the larger stage and crowd by upping their ridiculous antics, culminating in Ron and Doug doing the fucking Macarena mid-song while Rick looked on in anguish, Jason apparently unaware of the absurdity going on behind him.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Sadly, no new music came from this brief reunion, but we did get the aforementioned “Demonstrations in Chaos” CD, as well as a string of Ron-related releases. Watchtower did one more local show in May 2004, headlining a small fest at Sam’s Burger Joint near downtown, organized by long-running San Antonio public access show Robb’s Metal Works, where a goddamn ambulance was called because Ron got hurt while doing a pyramid with Doug and Jason. While Ron suffered no serious injuries, this was to be Watchtower‘s final Texas performance for nearly two decades.

Though the band has released an EP and a handful of digital-only singles with on-again/ off-again New Jersey-based singer Alan Tecchio (also of Hades and Non-Fiction), no US live dates were held until McMaster rejoined in 2023, and as luck would have it, the first would be just a few miles from home, at San Antonio’s Fitzgerald‘s. And as luck would also have it, it would take place while I was in Atlanta for ProgPower USA, a festival where the originators of progressive metal are long overdue. So yeah, I did my own inept take on a Happy Dance when a show at Austin’s cool-as-hell Come and Take It Live was announced. After nearly twenty goddamn years, I’d finally see the mighty Watchtower again.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

The night opened with the plenty capable Shadow Ministry, an Austin outfit whose keyboard-heavy take on prog also incorporates some djent-infused metalcore into the mix. Up next were retro kings Night Cobra, whose rock-star bravado and refusal to acknowledge anything after 1988 sated the appetites of the old-schoolers in attendance. And Watchtower themselves came out with all guns blazing, onstage silliness still tightly embraced, though slightly toned down perhaps due to the incident at Sam’s. Ron and Doug left the goofy outfits at home this time around (legend has it Doug had planned to wear a banana suit at Bang Your Head), but watching these mad scientists reveling in the buffoonery that’s defined their performances briefly made my half-drunk ass believe I was 25 again. Not a note was flawed, not a beat was missed, and I absolutely adored that there was none of the cheating in which we see so many bands partake these days. There was zero evidence of backing tracks or auto-tune, and only Rick bothered wearing in-ear monitors where he might have had a click going. This is metal as it was meant to be played – raw, punishing, and 100% live – and it just happened to be some of the most technical stuff you owe it to yourself to hear.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Jason shared a couple of tender moments between songs, grasping his baby brother’s hand from the stage, and sending the audience the regards of both Tecchio and original guitarist Billy White (Don Dokken, Billy White Trio), with both of whom he’d spoken that weekend. He also spoke fondly of the late Evil Chuck, who had attended those reunion shows in 2000 in between bouts of cancer that would soon cut his life short. (He was kind enough to sign my Control Denied CD; I don’t know anyone else who has that fucker signed by him).

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Watchtower stuck to playing material from “Energetic Disassembly” and the 1989 tech-metal tour-de-force “Control and Resistance,” closing the night with a scorching cover of “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” Being that Watchtower has often been compared to a really pissed-off Rush, it’s hard to think of a band that has had a greater impact on a band that has impacted those who impact us today. I personally find it criminal that this uniquely important band is so often overlooked even by self-proclaimed prog-metal diehards. Fortunately, Watchtower has festival dates confirmed for 2024 in Houston and Chicago, and I hear that 70,000 Tons of Metal still has a dozen or two bands to announce for this year’s edition. Here’s hoping that Watchtower gets exposed to new audiences, and that they may bear witness to the band that got this whole prog-metal thing started in the first place.

Correction: Guitarist Ron Jarzombek has confirmed to the author that Watchtower does NOT play to a click, but also noted that Jason McMaster does use in-ear monitors.

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