Eric Stevenson, RIP: Boston metal legend, all-around awesome guy

Yesterday was truly a sad day for Massachusetts metal with the passing of ERIC STEVENSON. Guitarist, drummer, songwriter and all-around beloved figure, Stevenson is most renowned for Only Living Witness, the legendary Bay State metal crew that he formed with vocalist Jonah Jenkins in 1989. The outpouring of emotion, whether on Facebook or on metal blogs worldwide speaks to the warm spot OLW and Stevenson have held in the hearts of metal fans everywhere-- partly due to the way that OLW’s music managed the tricky feat of being supremely heavy while remaining literate, yearning and soulful, but also because of the fact that OLW were all notoriously awesome dudes in a genre where being nice, playing fair, and treating people with respect is not necessarily the fastest route to fame.

Stevenson cut his teeth in the 80s Massachusetts thrash scene with his Tewksbury outfit Formicide, who along with such local luminaries as Wargasm and Meliah Rage showcased a choppy style that forefronted crunching riffs and tricky changes made to sound not-so-tricky. Stevenson’s commanding and inventive drumstool mastery is evident even in the tunes of this formative crew-- but it wasn’t until he formed OLW that he really began showcasing new ways to mix forceful swing with bludgeoning might. Stevenson was a huge John Bonham fan, and it shows in his OLW chops, as his tom-heavy swing, like Bonham, often sounded like the work of more than one person.

The final track on their 1993 debut Prone Mortal Form, “December”, shows this combination of focused precision and tribal abandon in full effect-- its classic descending riff (which Stevenson himself wrote on guitar) and overpowering crescendo made the song a local metal anthem, and helped solidify a loyal fanbase. The song is über-heavy, but with a purposeful directiveness that sees Jenkins’s soaring vocals navigating the tune’s rough waters of pure riffola. “December” and Prone Mortal Form set the standard for Massachusetts metal, and set it high: by fusing the fury of hardcore and the crunch and flash of classic metal, OLW found a way to unite warring factions within the pit of what came to be known as “crossover”. It was an important musical melding, one that was clearly evident as an influence on the next decade or two of Massachusetts bands, especially the stratospheric successes of Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage.

OLW were only with us for a brief period, and disbanded arguably at their height, prior to the release of their second and final album, 1996’s Innocents. Stevenson wasn’t idle after the band’s dissolution, though, pulling a stylistic 180 with Hank Crane, his country-tinged late-90s project which saw him singing songs in a style that, at first glance, might seem miles away from the bludgeon of OLW. But the two projects were closer than they might appear at first, considering the sonic eclecticism of OLW (particularly the country-ish acoustics of PMF’s “Darkly” and the Morricone-esque vista of Innocents’ “Hank Crane”, where the project got its name) and the grimness and metal breakdown moments in the Hank Crane discography.

All of which means that the sadness of Eric’s passing (at 46, after a five-month battle with melanoma) is about more than mourning the loss of a great drummer: besides being an all-around great guy beloved by many, Stevenson was a consummate songwriter and arranger whose work and influence have affected the feel of heavy music and will continue to for decades to come. It’s important to remember that when OLW was happening, their musical alchemy was not the predominant sound: tossing metal and hardcore breakdowns together with acoustic guitars, string and violin arrangements, and clarion-call clear vocals was simply not done before, but they figured out a way to make it work and sound as natural as any of metal’s greats before or since.

Since the band’s demise, fans have only gotten one tiny glimpse of the band in action when they reunited for three shows in 2008. The Middle East Downstairs performances in June 2008 were, for those in attendance, some of the most joyous and fulfilling moments in local metal history, as a palpable sense of “I can’t believe this is happening!” could be easily read on the faces of both fans and band members alike. There are few gigs in this life where one can say “You just had to be there” and be correct: these were clearly two of them. After three Massachusetts gigs and a final gig in The Netherlands that August, it was all over-- perhaps giving closure to the story of OLW that, in a very small way, buffers the sadness of yesterday’s new, or at least allows those that knew Eric to focus on the personal aspect of the passing of such a universally-loved member of the global metal community.

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