Ruben L. Garza, Jr. is the vocalist for Through N Through, a four-person band of Little Village natives who write music about their experiences growing up young and Latinx on the South Side. They are not the first to do so: punk bands like Los Crudos have become synonymous with the local music scene in Little Village and Pilsen by wearing their heritage on their sleeves. But Through N Through is different. Although Garza says he prefers the label “hardcore” for Through N Through’s music, the thick guitar tones, crushing palm-muted riffs, and cutting kick drum all show the band’s heavy metal roots bursting through to the surface, with Garza’s hardcore punk vocals adding a defiant and satisfying finish.
“I’m not gonna lie, there definitely are metal influences,” says Garza. “Don’t get me wrong, we listen to metal and we’ve played with metal bands in this area before.”
This is nothing new: the histories of punk and metal have always been heavily intertwined, borrowing from each other since the late 1970s. While metal has never seemed quite as visible in Pilsen and Little Village as punk and hardcore have, it has been brewing in the grungy underbelly of the punk scene for years, with metalheads forging a space for themselves that overlapped with that of their punk predecessors. Over the years, they have sought to use the instrumentals of metal to express the realness, grit, and camaraderie of the places they grew up.
Before he got into hardcore music, Garza says he listened to rap and hip-hop, the only genres that spoke to the marginalization and mistreatment he says he faced growing up as a Latino kid. He says the themes of metal were always a little out there for him. “The lyrics to me were ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ ” Garza says. “I couldn’t really get into that.” But pretty soon, Garza was playing in punk and metal bands; before Through N Through, he says he performed with a local metalcore act. Garza says playing music was more than a hobby: it was a way of coping with his circumstances.
“Little Village and Pilsen have been considered very gang-infested neighborhoods,” he says, “and a lot of us end up looking for a different out, growing up mad and angry about everything. We kind of decided, either we join a gang or we join a band.”
In this way, metal, alongside the established genres of punk and hardcore, has come to provide an avenue for kids on the Southwest Side to express their alienation through music that goes beyond the classic angst of punk.
“This city’s got a really fucking long history with metal,” says James Lonergan, a South Side native and resident of Pilsen. “The people who drive this scene and who are from this area…those are a rowdy bunch of motherfuckers, dude.” Lonergan is the guitarist in Pilsen metal band Pig Champion, one of the big names in the metal scene. He says that while North Side metal bands often got more publicity, the South Side scene has always inhabited a separate niche.
“I’m not phobic of going to the North Side, I just don’t get the North Side,” Lonergan says. “It doesn’t feel like home to me, it doesn’t have the same atmosphere. I think in some ways that rubs off on the music.”
Whereas the North Side metal scene largely revolves around bands that play grindcore, a blindingly fast and noisy genre, as well as doom metal, its slow and brooding counterpart, the “thrash” metal subgenre reigns here in Pilsen and Little Village. Pioneered by classic metal bands like Metallica, Exodus, and Megadeth in the early to mid 1980s, thrash metal is more mid-tempo, focused on sharp tones, virtuosity, and beefy guitar riffs. It reached the apex of its popularity in the late eighties and early nineties with releases like Metallica’s Black Album and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace. Since then, the style has largely seen its appeal decline, but Lonergan says that he and other veterans of the Pilsen scene believe they are witnessing its reinvigoration.
“When we [Pig Champion] came in, maybe it was just the calm before the storm,” he says.
Lonergan credits Municipal Waste of Richmond, Virginia with resurrecting the genre in various metal scenes across the country in the late 2000s by playing a grittier, punkier, and more irreverent form of the genre, called crossover thrash. “A couple years after they got popular, we started to see a lot of thrash metal come back into style,” he says. “It was the rebirth and rebranding of thrash metal. But now, like in most genres, as the scene progresses the bands get more extreme, the music get heavier, faster.”
Today, the Pilsen thrash metal scene is healthier than ever. Major touring acts are booking Pilsen bands as openers, and as Lonergan boasts, groups young and old are taking South Side thrash to dark, new depths. Yet, the scene remains highly insular, and relatively unknown to those outside it.
Braulio Correa is the guitarist of the band Savagery and a regular at Pilsen metal shows. He grew up on the North Side, though, and wasn’t always so tied to the scene in Pilsen. Correa is part Colombian, and growing up he listened his mother’s Latin dance music, until his tastes began to shift.
“When I started listening to metal, I just wanted to play as fast as they were. I was just really intrigued by all that stuff,” he says. “When we first started playing it was just like me and two other friends from high school, but we never really thought we were going to be playing shows and stuff. We didn’t know anyone, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we must be one of the only metal bands in the city.’”
But back in 2011, Correa and the members of Savagery were invited to play at Clash of the Thrash, a local DIY metal show at a for-sale storefront in Pilsen. After that, he says, everything changed.
“That’s basically how we got introduced to the scene down there,” he says. “It’s just no rules, anything goes.” With a timid grin, Correa describes the kinds of shows the Pilsen scene is made of: “We once played a show at someone’s house who got evicted, and it was a group of friends and like six bands or something like that. We were just in there, like windows were getting broken and stuff. The cops eventually came at the end, but someone was like ‘Yeah, this is my dad’s house,’ and they were just like, ‘…alright.’” Correa says the shows went on after that.
Most thrash shows in Pilsen happen in the kinds of spaces Correa talks about—backyards, garages, basements, and elsewhere. But the crown jewel of the Pilsen scene is the Fallout, a DIY venue that is little more than a shack behind a Mexican restaurant. “It looks relatively nice now, but before it had like dirt floors and the stage was just like wood,” says Correa. “I remember so many times playing on that stage my foot would just go through the stage and it would get stuck. I loved it.”
For many Fallout regulars, the venue’s lo-fi aesthetic is what makes it so appealing. One of the most prominent bands in the Pilsen scene, and one that possibly most wholly embodies the Fallout’s ethos, is Texas Toast Chainsaw Massacre, a five-piece crossover thrash band that occasionally puts on a festival at the venue called Toastamania.
“There’s this spot called the Fallout that’s basically our home,” says vocalist Josh Kandich. “The people who show up to Fallout shows are people I’ve known forever. Like it’s a fucking family.” Kandich is able to recall countless crazy stories from shows there at a moment’s notice.
“Those aren’t even shows, they’re just parties where people play music, and it’s crazy,” he says. “We had Pig Champion play, and someone brought in [a shopping cart], and they just beat the shit out of each other with it until they broke the shopping cart, like a steel shopping cart. It was all over the floor of the Fallout.”
Aggressive moshing aside, Texas Toast shows often feel more like alcohol-fueled neighborhood get-togethers than metal shows. Guitarist Jordan Miller says that this is because, with album titles like ‘Til Death Do Us Party, the band’s approach to music is more tongue-in-cheek than that of many others in the scene. “It’s fun to bring the party aspect, the comedy aspect to it,” he says. “Serious metal, funny metal, everyone’s having a good time.”
But Texas Toast’s carefree attitude operates in the same spaces (and with the same passion) as that of Through N Through and Pig Champion, where the bands’ music is inextricable from their ideological stances.
“For me, politics is linked to my music,” Lonergan says. “We weren’t always political, but we were also speaking off of the labor rights movement, anti-statist, anti-capitalist ideas.” Lonergan grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Mount Greenwood, where he was exposed early on to the politics of class, race, and labor. “Generally growing up, especially in this city, there are so many bad examples of political behavior that you see every fucking day,” he says.
“[Mt. Greenwood] is full of non-racist skinheads. That was like the camp that I kind of came from. It just made sense to put those messages out there, and that was the most true to fucking life thing I could think about writing about at that time. There’s just enormous structures of unfortunate shit that inspire a lot of anger in a lot of people,” he says.
It is this shared sense of struggle with people across the South Side that Lonergan says inspires much of his band’s music. “[Pig Champion] was like therapy for a long fucking time,” he says. “We were a lot of angry dudes. It’s like, what pisses you off the most? Seeing your brothers and sisters in pain. So might as well say something about it.”
Ruben L. Garza, Jr. shares Lonergan’s sentiment. “We’re trying to spread a positive message about how reality can be changed as long as you’re willing to change it and you’re willing to find solutions,” he says, noting that much of his own anger has gradually been replaced by pride in who he is. “That pride you have, that Latino pride, I’m brown and I can do a lot of things people think brown people can’t do.”
Of course, even though the political bent of Pig Champion and Through N Through’s music is completely absent from Texas Toast Chainsaw Massacre’s party attitude, Garza says there is a place for both approaches in the scene. “I do think it’s rooted in the same kind of energy,” he admits. “We’re all young and angry and if we can take that aggression out we’re going to do it.”
For many metalheads, simply the act of playing or moshing to metal with loved ones is a way to let off steam. “It’s just stress release,” says Josh Kandich of Texas Toast. “If I have a shitty day at work, and I have to go play a show, it’s going be awesome because I’ll just be pissed off. I’m just yelling, so I can just yell for thirty minutes. I can’t do that anywhere else.”
“It’s kind of like getting drunk, but you’re getting drunk off of people,” says Texas Toast bassist Julian Galvin. He says performing in the Pilsen scene for him is a deeply personal experience. “Time just compresses. I’m like a very anxious person, but when I get up on there it’s just like, let’s go.”
Julian’s band mate Jordan Miller says he’s not alone. “In the scene there are a lot of people who feel like outsiders, like they’re not a part of the main thing, and then they find this whole group of outsiders in Pilsen with the thrash metal scene,” he says. “They can go just hang out with their friends, and have a good time, and feel like they’re part of something.”
It makes the Pilsen thrash scene a uniquely vibrant and multifaceted one—a place where people from all walks of life, be they Latinx people angry with their social circumstances, alienated working-class punks, or just disillusioned white kids looking for something to do, can come together to vibe off of their friends and mosh to each others’ bands. Garza, thinking over the scene in Pilsen and Little Village, recounts a place where barriers do not, and cannot exist. After all, he says, “We’re all metalheads, we’re all hardcore kids, we’re all punk rockers. We all go through the same struggles, and music is just an outlet no matter which side of the genre it’s on.”