Troy Medlin is a nomad.
When he's not touring as the leader of the pugnacious metal band Sourvein, Medlin—known better to fans of the coastal institution as "T.Roy"—tours the country for other work. When North Carolina's film industry boomed, he found regular gigs as an extra. But these days he does trim carpentry on Bald Head and Figure Eight islands. When hurricanes hit, he does restoration work from Florida to Cape Hatteras, a trade he learned in New Orleans. Right now he's in California, helping to rebuild a friend's house.
But this nomad always returns home, to Cape Fear. For the Carolina Beach native, going even a couple of hours inland can throw off the rhythm that's long been at his doorstep.
"Living on the island," he explains, "there's a certain rhythm with the ground moving and the tides."
On Aquatic Occult, only the fourth studio LP by a cult favorite whose career spans almost a quarter-century, T.Roy at last fully embraces the inspiration of the North Carolina coastline. A maritime fantasy built on high drama and low doom metal, it's Sourvein's best, most involved work to date.
"The ocean's a heavy place," T.Roy says. "It's a mysterious place. There's so many little creatures that are like two inches big, but they could kill you. There are storms and currents. It's heavier than any satanic cult would ever be. One minute it can be nice and tranquil; the next minute it's rough and dangerous."
Aquatic Occult is an obvious step in Sourvein's twenty-three-year career, one that pays necessary homage to home. But it's also an overdue shot at broader recognition. The album bears the imprint of the storied Metal Blade Records, a label whose catalog includes iconic works by Slayer, D.R.I., and Corrosion of Conformity. When T.Roy was a kid going to DIY shows in Wilmington and listening to those seminal thrash records, he dreamed of being in a Metal Blade band.
"Twenty years later, to get signed to that label, when it's the label that's been on the top of your list since you were seventeen, is really cool, man," he says. "It's a good feeling."
Making Aquatic Occult didn't prove quite so pleasant. The idea for the album dates back more than five years. But just as T.Roy started writing, his mother died. His material shifted dramatically, turning away from the ocean and finding the scathing songs of 2011's Black Fangs instead.
"I was just not in the positive frame of mind," T.Roy says. "I started drinking again because I was so bummed out. My thoughts just weren't on fantasy and pulling at this inspiration and abstract writing. When you're down and out, it's harder to put those energies together."
So T.Roy shelved the Aquatic Occult conceit until he could pull his life together and find a head space conducive to fantastical imagery, more playful and abstract songs. In the interim, he cut Black Fangs—which he describes as "gnarly and full-on angry." Sourvein also released a pair of split EPs, with Japan's Coffins and Oregon's Graves At Sea.
For the latter, T.Roy and the band drove three hours inland to record in Raleigh with Mike Dean, bassist for Corrosion of Conformity.
"[T.Roy] liked the vibe, keeping close to home in North Carolina," Dean says. "When he got the hookup from Metal Blade Records [to record Aquatic Occult], we decided to do it again and to do it on two-inch analog tape."
But the version of Sourvein that worked with Dean in 2014 didn't stick together long enough to make Aquatic Occult—par for the course for Sourvein. The band has long been a revolving door, at times including such metal luminaries as Electric Wizard's Liz Buckingham and Weedeater's "Dixie" Dave Collins.
"The part of me that craves order and repeatability and efficiency was craving a steady lineup of musicians that had rehearsed a whole lot," Dean says of the sessions that yielded Aquatic Occult. "That wasn't necessarily the case."
Instead, the album came together through an ensemble cast of hard-rock heavy hitters. COC's Dean and Reed Mullin, Weedeater's Keith "Keko" Kirkum, Randy Blythe of Lamb of God, and Amebix's Stig Miller all contributed. So, too, did one of T.Roy's early heroes: Dave Capps of Wilmington's All Tore Up.
"Capps is one of my favorites and one of the first guys I saw play locally that made me be like, 'Oh, you can do it here,'" he remembers. "You can just play someone's house."
Like the misfit band that made it, Aquatic Occult was pieced together from old and new ideas. T.Roy would revise some lyrics moments before stepping behind the microphone; he had scribbled others twenty years before. Riffs evolved in real time, in the studio. The band incorporated recordings of the surf at Kure Beach, sonar, and bountiful reverb to evoke an oceanic atmosphere. Somehow, T.Roy improvised his way into a remarkably cohesive record.
"A lot of songs turned into interludes and a lot of interludes turned into songs," Dean says. "It was definitely keeping me on my toes. I like not being stuck in a form."
That free-form approach yielded a dynamic record. From the sludge, melodies that could be described as elegant emerge. Thick distortion reveals huge organ swells beneath. "Cape Fearian," a haunting acoustic guitar-and-spoken word interlude, describes an environment of mysterious swamps where "Spanish moss rides the live oaks." "Capsized" churns a doom whirlpool, while "Coral Bones" suggests the brawny complexity of Mastodon at their mightiest. For T.Roy, the album was an opportunity to move away from the more direct, anger-fueled stuff of his past to develop nuance and metaphor.
"With this, I'm talking about finding an island with the Fountain of Youth in it," he offers with a chuckle. "It made it more positive and loose and fun—kinda happy, upbeat, more pep in the step. This is where I wanted to be."
Alongside the move to Metal Blade, Aquatic Occult brought T.Roy, now forty-three, back to the mind-set of a young and ambitious musician in another way. In the band's early days, he would come to Raleigh for Sourvein shows, sit at Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street, and scribble lyrics into notebooks. He dreamed about putting them to tape, which he finally did here.
"To come back twenty years later and be doing a record down the street with the guys from Corrosion of Conformity, coming in every day for coffee," he says, "it was touching in a way. I was able to go back and find one of those old notebooks and pull some lyrics from actually sitting in Cup A Joe years ago."
For all these full-circle moments, though, Aquatic Occult is neither a Hail Mary nor a retrospective. It's just one more step in a long journey. Sourvein already has plans to tour Europe and the West Coast this year. After that, there's another record to make by building upon leftover bits that emerged from the recording process for Aquatic Occult.
"I just want to see what's next," T.Roy says. "This is what I do. This is what I've always done. I just wasn't going to stop, and I won't stop until I can't do it. I just want to be on tour. Then come back to Carolina Beach, have a little break, and go on tour again."
Reliable as the tides, Sourvein goes out into the world and winds up back at Cape Fear.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In With the Tide"