They may not be visible to the naked eye, but the scars carried by the members of Absent From the Body criss-cross their bodies and spirits like chains.
Guitarist Steve-O Murphy stares into the darkened corners of the rooms the metal band plays, and in the shadows he sees the grinning faces and thumbs-up signs of support from comrades in arms lost during tours of duty with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thrashing behind the drum kit, Michael Young closes his eyes and sees his frightened 5-year-old self, lying on an operating table as doctors prepare to excise a tumor on his brain, his mother praying feverishly for the 15 percent chance of survival doctors told her he had. Guitarist Richard Tallent cradles his guitar like the premature infant he was, a debilitation that’s subjected him to the loss of sight in one eye and a multitude of childhood surgeries to correct problems with his heart and body.
And then there’s Jason McMahan, the band’s vocalist and bass player, a gentle giant of a man who’s also a veteran of the local metal scene. The man he is today is nothing like the person he was, so consumed was his younger self with serial killings, Satanism and the burning desire to take a life, he told The Daily Times over a recent lunch interview at Alcoa’s Texas Roadhouse.
“I wore a trench coat and walked around with my hair hiding my face; I remember walking into a nursing home one time and everyone recoiling, like they were afraid,” he said. “I fed off of that. I loved giving the feeling of the presence of evil, and I really did have the desire to take a life. I was obsessed with death and killing.”
His bandmates nod in solidarity. They may not have fantasized about murder, but they once walked under similar storm clouds of darkness, and they know all too well the turmoil of the spirit that left them spiritually bankrupt and alone. However, each man found his way back into the light, and today they share a brotherhood based in faith and rock ‘n’ roll. For the four of them, the two are inextricably linked, and at Saturday’s “Jesus Rocks Fest” at Chilhowee View Community Center, they’ll share their stories, their salvation and their jubilation for the renewal they’ve found in one another. And while it may seem like an unconventional one to those who receive the word from robe-clad preachers in a Sunday morning pulpit, it’s a ministry all the same.
“There are more people going to the places we play and listening to this music that need help than there are in a church singing gospel hymns,” Young said.
A 2003 graduate of William Blount High School, Young was diagnosed as blind in his right eye during a kindergarten vision screening. A follow-up visit to the doctor revealed a tumor on his brain, and shortly thereafter, his family found themselves receiving grim news from a pediatric neurosurgeon in North Carolina: Surgery to remove it would take more than 8 hours, and he only had a 15 percent chance of surviving it. And even if he did, Young added, doctors told his mother that he likely wouldn’t live to celebrate his eighth birthday.
Although he defied the odds, it didn’t come without a cost: The tumor killed the optic nerve in his right eye, costing him his vision there; six months of radiation treatment post-surgery destroyed his pituitary gland, forcing him to receive growth hormone shots until he was 20 years old. To this day, he still takes a regular dose of medication and receives injections weekly — but he’s alive, and he’s found his calling as a drummer whose blast beats sound like a .50 caliber machine gun, Murphy added with a grin.
“I was beating on pots and pans with spatulas from the time I was 3,” Young said.
He took lessons, but the urge to rock propelled him beyond his teacher’s capabilities; at 13, he was jamming with instructors to “Wipeout,” and shortly thereafter, his teacher told him, “I’m not going to teach you anymore, because you’re better than I am,” he said.
Through involvement in the local music scene, he became acquainted with McMahan, and Tallent was an on-again, off-again friend from high school. A 2006 gradute of William Blount, Tallent is the impish jokester of the group, a guy who conceals a lifetime of pain behind long hair that he pulls back to reveal the scars on his neck, evidence of the multiple surgeries he’s had to endure after being born almost four months premature. He credits fellow scene veteran and former bandmate Joel Rainwater with introducing him to Christ and leading him to the faith that sustains him, he said.
“God was using Joel to get to me; he invited me to church and got me going down that road,” Tallent said.
Over the years, Tallent has provided guitar firepower to a number of local metal outfits, often with Rainwater — Burnt Offerings, Against the Opposition, Morior Invictus. After the latter band folded, he was ready to give up music, but McMahan convinced him to take up bass for another band, Awake the Suffering. After two practices, he switched to guitar, and the two have been together through the end of that band and the transformation of Absent From the Body from its previous incarnation, Rendered, a band that included Murphy. Murphy graduated from Maryville High School in 1997 and, raised by his grandmother, spent a great deal of his childhood in church.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have a choice; if it was Sunday, we were going to church! There were no excuses,” he said. “After I graduated (high school), it was like, ‘I don’t have to go if I don’t want to.’”
After a marriage and a divorce, Murphy joined the U.S. Army, serving a year in Korea before joining the fabled 82nd Airborne, which deployed him once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. Back home, the horrors of war came home to roost, he said.
“I felt worthless when I got out, and with the stress of being shot at, if I could drink it or snort it or pop it, I did,” he said.
He credits his new wife and his youngest son with his salvation; when he looked into his boy’s eyes, it was sign to put down the chemicals and pick up his faith once again. A former member of the long-time local Christian metal band Omega Rage, he and McMahan ran in the same circles, and when the two realized they wanted to establish a new project, they began molding Absent From the Body into what it is today — aggressive, pummeling metal that takes its cue from bands that have nothing to do with Christianity but everything to do with channeling the pain and rage and inner turmoil that so many people carry with them daily. McMahan knows that all too well, because for most of his life, it was a constant companion.
A 1996 graduate of William Blount, he was raised by his great-grandparents in an old green shack in rural Blount County. The family was so impoverished that they had to use an outhouse, and because of family-of-origin issues and the belittling he received in school, he grew up feeling rejected and insecure, he said.
“When my mom died, I was angry with God — if there was one — and that’s when I got into Satanism,” he said. “I studied true crimes and people like the Zodiac Killer, and I became obsessed with death and killing.”
McMahan was married at the time, and his wife grew increasingly afraid — for good reason. She didn’t know it at the time, but he planned, during a family trip to Myrtle Beach, to carry out a murder, but decided against it at the last minute. He began researching ways to fly to the West Coast, kill someone and slip back home without being detected.
“Now, when I tell my son and daughter (those stories), they think it’s fiction,” he said.
His journey out of the darkness began in Gatlinburg, when a local youth group helped him out during a financial crisis. They paid for his gas and invited him to a concert by the Christian rock band Disciple, an international touring act that got its start in Blount County. The music impressed him, so much that when the young people with whom he attended the show invited him to church, he accepted. There, the congregation surrounded him and laid their hands upon him, and he felt the darkness within him begin to diminish. One particular hand stayed the longest, and when he turned to see to whom it belonged, he found himself face-to-face with Disciple founder Kevin Young.
“He was crying like I was his best friend, and afterward, we talked about Jesus,” McMahan said. “That really stuck with me — being real and showing love and compassion. I wasn’t judged; I was shown kindness and love.”
And that, from the very beginning, has been McMahan’s ministry through metal. He and his bandmates consider themselves Christian, but their experiences with others who wear that label have left them wary. Many of their songs are about judgmental individuals and houses of worship that share their faith, and they often find that secular metal fans accept and embrace them more readily than their fellow Christians do.
“We fit in well,” McMahan said. “We tell them our faith, and they accept us with open arms. We’ve had festivals and churches look at our artwork or listen to our music and tell us, ‘That’s not very Christian.’ They have this preconceived idea of what Christians are supposed to be, and the songs we write are about that very fact: If that’s how they are toward us as a ministry, how are they toward the drug addicts and the prostitutes?”
For the members of Absent From the Body, who hope to release a full-length album in 2018 and continue to build their ministry, the key is acceptance, and the message is that looks can be deceiving. Because, they add, despite the sound, the core of Absent From the Body is a thing created by love and faith, which has filled the places within them where darkness once dwelled.
“Yes, there is an aggressiveness to what we play,” McMahan said. “We’re talking about warfare, and in war, there are battle cries. There are loud noises. We feel like we’re in the middle of spiritual warfare, because people are hurting, but we want to tell them that there is a better way.”