Dave Price knew that, if he ever wanted to be in a band again, he would need to quit smoking once and for all.
In late 2013, just a year beyond his 40th birthday, Price got a call from his high school bandmates. It had been exactly two decades since their death metal outfit, Eldritch Horror, released their final three-song demo and almost as long since they'd played their last shows. In the interim, there had been marriages and divorces, moves across the country and down the coast, a long list of bands for some members and a complete turn away from music for others.
But guitarist Dennis Shaw and bassist Bo King wanted to meet for a cup of coffee and discuss the possibility that, after so long apart, Eldritch Horror might reconvene and re-record the songs they'd made so cheaply and quickly so long ago. Shaw and King understood that, thanks to age, they might soon run out of energy to recreate the exhaustive, loud and complex bedlam of their youth. A band that had once been obsessed with oblivion and apocalypse would soon approach its own expiration.
Price worried he'd already passed that point.
"I was really skeptical, not because I didn't want to do it, but I was skeptical of myself. I had turned into a pack-a-day smoker," Price explains. "There's no way that anyone who wants to sing death metal music properly—or any metal, really—can do that and smoke a pack a day like me."
Wearing a loose gray Voivod T-shirt and faded blue jeans, Price has wavy brown hair; his hairline is slowly creeping up his scalp. Now 43, he lifts a pint glass to his lips and pauses, as if out of embarrassment.
In some way, Eldritch Horror stemmed from cigarettes a quarter-century ago. In 1989, Price, then a senior at Raleigh's Athens Drive High School, would start his morning across the street with what he still calls "the smoker crowd." That's where he met John Placko, a drummer one year younger who eventually became the anchor of Eldritch Horror. Before he met Placko, Price had simply been covering Metallica songs in a bedroom with Shaw.
But Placko made them Eldritch Horror, a death metal band that formed early enough to avoid adopting the rigid riff-and-rhythm codex that later cornered the subgenre into clichés. Their songs took strange chances and followed wild tangents, at least until decisions about choosing careers and starting families led them to split in 1994. Their momentum had begun to build, and labels expressed interest, but Eldritch Horror didn't live long enough to finish a record.
Finally, Price leans across the table in a burger-and-beer joint and continues.
"I was heavily addicted again, and I didn't have any lung capacity," he says. "I just felt like we would get together, and I would just sound terrible. I couldn't do it."
But the inertia proved temporary. Price agreed to play guitar with his old friends, and he stopped smoking a few months later, letting his lungs recover to the point where he could again bellow songs with names like "Breeding Pits" or "The Vomit Hounds."
Placko had been playing in bands all along, and not long after his own 40th birthday, he decided to give it up at last. But for more than six months, the rest of Eldritch Horror kept asking him to come back, with Shaw even meticulously programming a computer program to mimic what Placko had done long ago. They were even pondering other drummers, they said. The bait worked.
"The drummers that we all talked to wanted to do it, but they kept saying, 'You gotta get Placko,'" Shaw remembers. "I said I can't, and they said but you need to."
"And here I was, trying to get out of it. Thanks," says Placko, laughing as he adjusts a black Carolina Panthers hat so worn it's white in spots. "I was hitting that moment: 'I want to start getting out of this.' But I knew if I got back in with you guys, I would say yes. They sent those drum tracks, and I said, 'Well, all right.'"
It is a sweltering Tuesday night in July. The sun has just started to sink outside, but inside, the five members of Eldritch Horror have just started to sweat. In a high-ceilinged, red-walled rehearsal room in an old warehouse just off Glenwood Avenue, the band is poised around amplifiers and with instruments. They're perfecting parts of songs they wrote in the early '90s but have just now released as their full-length debut, the excellent Untouched by the Sun.
Though Eldritch Horror are new to this space, it looks like a time capsule in many regards. The walls are lined, for instance, with Venom and Metallica advertisements and posters devoted to Clint Eastwood and the fantasy realm of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like teenagers, they make inside jokes about silly, sometimes perverse names they have for complicated musical parts or big mistakes. Placko still rules behind "Big Red," the colossal kit he assembled during Eldritch Horror's initial run, and Price no longer plays guitar, a consensus the band reached about halfway through its tenure.
Elsewhere, though, the signs of age and of the times are apparent. The paint on Placko's T.S.O.L. T-shirt is cracking. And the gear—gleaming white speaker cabinets, flashing effects racks, sparkling pedalboards—doesn't belong to a set of upstart teenagers, either.
Barefoot and jovial, second guitarist Graham Farrell is a full decade younger than the rest of the band. A self-described amateur, he worked with Shaw for a year at a software company before he realized he was in a band. When Shaw told him about his plans to re-record songs that were already two decades old, he dismissed the notion as a vain waste of time. Then he listened to Eldritch Horror and understood.
"I heard how awesome they were—technical, with great riffs in general," he explains. "That's what won me over, and I could see why they'd go back and do this album that never saw the light of day."
Tonight, as he and Shaw stare across the rehearsal space to keep track of one another's fast maneuvers across the frets, he often steps back toward his amplifier and smiles. Their age doesn't show when they play. Price's voice has recovered, and it's more powerful and deep than it once was. Placko sounds like a drum militia, and King backs right into his beats.
Their age shows, however, as soon as they stop. They've just finished "Remission of Desperation," a ghoulish start-and-stop number where guitar riffs run across the rhythm section like razor wire, and are about to begin "Unknown Graves," a twisting tune that requires Placko to torment his limbs and his kit alike.
"Oh, Jesus, that's one of the hardest songs we play," Placko exclaims.
"You say that for every one of them," King says, smiling and turning back to the drummer.
Price wipes his brow with a sleeve and shifts the microphone from one hand to another, then turns to check in on Placko. The drummer has one hand on each knee, and he stares down silently at his drum throne, as though stuck in a grimace he's trying to hide.
"You hurting yet, Placko?" Price asks.
"Nah, I'm all good," he replies, briefly looking up.
Price has his doubts: "Remember, she said not to push it. Don't be a practice hero."
The "she" in question is Placko's physical therapist. For the last several months, he's struggled with an ailment similar to runner's knee, where repetitious motion (in his case, drumming, not jogging) causes irritation and pain at the joint. This is Eldritch Horror's first rehearsal with Placko since releasing Untouched by the Sun online in June. Only six weeks remain until their record-release party. They've got work to do in order to master their set, but if they go too hard and too fast, it will be a moot point. They'll return to the sidelines.
They muscle their way through "Unknown Graves," reach the end and debate a part that isn't quite perfect. They decide to save the fix for the next practice. Shaw initially proposes taking a break, but Price takes stock of the entire outfit and suggests more.
"Let's stop," he says. Suddenly, everyone agrees.
And why not? For years, they all regretted ever letting Eldritch Horror go, as though they missed a potential opportunity through mere impatience and a lack of perseverance. Back then, Price admits, waiting for five years for a label to say yes seemed like a lifetime. Now that they've actually lived half a lifetime, they realize how limited and naive their perspective once was.
They smile as they sweat on a Tuesday night, happy just to be rehearsing and sharing jokes—a poker club, it seems, for practicing metalheads. And with Untouched by the Sun finally done, and Price now permanently off cigarettes, they're eager to write the second batch of Eldritch Horror songs, tardy by two decades or not.
"I have no idea what it will be like writing songs now," Price says, laughing and taking the last sip of his beer. "But I'm pretty sure it will be fun."