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Power Trip returns, reshaped by loss

Four years after the death of frontman Riley Gale, Power Trip surprised fans onstage at  Mohawk in Austin, featuring a new vocalist.
Samantha Tellez
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Courtesy of the artist
Four years after the death of frontman Riley Gale, Power Trip surprised fans onstage at Mohawk in Austin, featuring a new vocalist.

The open-air venue Mohawk in Austin, Texas, has an upper deck perch that's perfect for observing the churning cyclone of bodies below. Emotions were high on Dec. 1, 2023: Texas band Fugitive was the headliner, but many in the crowd had a hunch about the promised "special guests." When Power Trip, the crossover thrash metal giants who had been missing in action for four years, finally appeared, there were tears in the pit. Bodies flew from the stage into the torrent of thrashing heads screaming every word of "Executioner's Tax (Swing of the Axe)" in blunt, ecstatic unison. It was a moment of catharsis for a scene that had been in mourning since the shocking 2020 death of the band's lead singer, Riley Gale.

Blake Ibanez, guitarist in both Fugitive and Power Trip, called the decision to bring the band back that night "testing the waters" to see how fans would react. "It was a safe way to do it, because on one hand it's, like, 'Hey, it's just a Fugitive show, and I'm having the guys come up here. We're gonna just celebrate and play the songs,' " he tells NPR on a video call. "I mean, at some point it's gotta happen." This year, Power Trip will play full-length sets at the Pomona, Calif., festival No Values (June 8), in its hometown of Dallas (July 6) and in New York City (Aug. 24).

It's an opportunity for a passionate fan base of hardcore kids and metalheads to celebrate — people who loved the band's boundless energy, how it could wield scream-along pop hooks using the heaviest, scuzziest, most abrasive metal soundscapes. Some at the Mohawk show spoke of it with near-religious reverence. "This is so cliché, but it was the most electric feeling I've felt at a show," said Erica Hotchkiss, a fan from Irving, Texas. She and some friends drove three hours south to Austin to catch the show based on a clue in the flyer: an illustration of an executioner, which is a key piece of iconography from arguably Power Trip's most beloved song. "We didn't know if they were just going to come out and make an announcement. But we knew that we had to be there."

It was fans like this who compelled Power Trip to come back. "They can see we're in it for the right reasons," Ibanez says. "We didn't make any money off Power Trip at that show. We didn't do it for that. We did it for ourselves because we miss playing these songs together, and we did it to celebrate Riley." The full shape of what's next isn't yet defined beyond this handful of shows. Here's what's certain: The band wants to perform the music they put out, across two albums and scattered singles. Gale's family wants them to play. It took years for everyone to get to this point.

The loss of a lyricist and a leader

"It was one of the worst things that happened to me in my life, because Riley was my best friend," says Brandon Gale, Riley's father.

Riley Gale died in his sleep on Aug. 24, 2020, from the toxic effects of fentanyl. He was 34. The band lost its voice and lyricist; the scene lost a leader. Power Trip built its reputation on gleefully chaotic live shows, and those shows wouldn't have been half as powerful without the longhaired figure in a camo hat barking out front about systemic injustice, corporate greed and oppression. Every word was shouted with an authoritative grizzle; he could galvanize a crowd with a single-syllable grunt. "He had very strong messages in there," Brandon Gale emphasizes. "It wasn't just yelling for the sake of yelling on stage. He wanted people to genuinely get engaged in the message."

"Riley, dude, he was just such a force on stage," says Gray Muncy, a photographer from the Dallas-Fort Worth area who estimates he captured over 40 of the band's shows (and somehow never broke a camera in the process). "I've shot so many photos of him, and it was so easy because of his emotion." Whenever Muncy gets a compliment on photos of Power Trip, he credits the chemistry between the band and its audience. "If you go to a really good hardcore show, the crowd is in the band," he said. "There's that symbiotic relationship where they feed off of each other."

Riley Gale, pictured here in 2018 at the Saturn in Birmingham, Ala., could galvanize a crowd with a single-syllable grunt.
David A. Smith / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Riley Gale, pictured here in 2018 at the Saturn in Birmingham, Ala., could galvanize a crowd with a single-syllable grunt.

In the wake of his passing, the Gales set up a 501(c)(3) charity called the Riley Gale Foundation in an effort to honor Riley's strong convictions. Brandon Gale says his son was the small guy in school who would stand up to bullies, and that he volunteered in soup kitchens as a young man. The foundation aims to be a continuation of his passions in life: It puts funds toward helping unhoused LGBTQ+ youth in the Dallas area (Riley was a committed supporter of the queer-focused outreach group Dallas Hope Charities), has named a library in his honor (he was a voracious reader) and also donates to a local dog rescue (loved animals).

Gale's friends affirm that on and off the stage, he led with empathy: He was the guy who let touring bands crash at his place, who made himself available to anyone who needed an ear. "With the fans, he wanted to be someone anybody could reach out to and talk to if they were dealing with something in their lives," says Power Trip guitarist Nick Stewart. "He was just such a comforting person when people didn't know where they stood. He felt like he could try to help everybody."

Before Power Trip began, Ibanez described Riley's previous band Balls Out as "the kings of Dallas hardcore." Gale was without a band when Ibanez, Stewart and bassist Chris Whetzel's band Reality Check was beginning to fizzle in the late 2000s. Mutual friends suggested they talk, and soon enough, Gale and Ibanez — then 21 and 16 — started bonding over hardcore bands like Cro-Mags, Breakdown and Leeway over messages on MySpace.

Power Trip's sound was a meeting point between hardcore punk and thrash metal, and in the process of creating it, the band connected with a wide swath of listeners interested in the greater sphere of heavy music. "We know we play a very subversive style of music, but we also want this to be for everyone," says drummer Chris Ulsh. "We want people to feel comfortable at our shows and have a good time. We're the type of band that can play with anyone regardless of if we're playing with indie bands, death metal bands, punk bands, whatever."

Steadily, a community of passionate fans formed around the band. Hotchkiss, who has an executioner tattoo with the caption "swing of the axe," saw the band around 10 times before attending the surprise show in Austin last year. "I'm married to my husband because we ran into each other at a Power Trip show," she said. Hotchkiss was a fan from the Dallas hardcore scene; her husband Kris was a metalhead. Previously acquaintances, they bonded instantly after she saw him in the pit: "Power Trip was our common ground." The date of that show appears on a decorative pillow in their home.

Who could step into Riley's role?

In the months after Gale passed, Ulsh said the band didn't consider or discuss the prospect of keeping the band going "for a really long time." It was 2020, and playing shows wasn't an option due to COVID-19, anyway. But as live music started to return, the band's members were talking on one of their regular FaceTime calls, and Ulsh broached the subject. "I'd never really mentioned it to anyone else and it kind of seemed like no one else had talked about it, but everyone was just like, yeah, we should," he says. "I like being a band with these guys, and we all seemed to feel the same way."

Some of the band's members had been busy with different projects, Ibanez with Fugitive and Ulsh with Quarantine. Still, the idea of these four starting a different band together didn't feel right — like it wouldn't be honest or respectful to their past together. "We put so much into this band and it just kind of seemed like it would be compounding tragedies: losing a close friend and then losing this thing that we dedicated our adult lives to," Ulsh says.

Power Trip in 2024 now includes vocalist Seth Gilmore (far left). He plans to give it his all "to honor the spirit of Riley's memory."
Adam Cedillo / Courtesy of the artist
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Courtesy of the artist
Power Trip in 2024 now includes vocalist Seth Gilmore (far left). He plans to give it his all "to honor the spirit of Riley's memory."

"If anybody's going to step into this role and sing these songs, it'd be someone from our world who has history with us and gets this whole thing and knew Riley," Ibanez says. "The pool for that? I mean, I think it's [not] overstating it to say it's incredibly small. Beyond that, who's actually willing and is capable of doing it?"

Seth Gilmore was the guy, a friend embedded in the Texas hardcore scene for as long as Power Trip existed. As the frontman of Fugitive, he had established chemistry with Ibanez. Initially, he was hesitant. "A year or so after Riley passed, before we even started Fugitive, I may have thrown it his way: 'Hey, would you want to mess around with some of these songs I've been working on, that were actually songs for the Power Trip album that never happened?' " Ibanez recalls. The implication that he'd be standing in for Gale gave him pause, so he dropped it until well after Fugitive had earned the respect of fans. "By the time I brought it up to him again in the past year, at that point he didn't really think twice about it." Gilmore confirmed Ibanez's assessment in a statement, saying he plans to give it his all "to honor the spirit of Riley's memory."

So it was Gilmore barking "Manifest Decimation" and "Hornet's Nest" to the crowd at Mohawk. Gale could never be replaced, but for fans who had just watched a Fugitive set, the consensus was that it was an organic fit. "I personally don't think there's any other person better to fit the bill than Seth," Hotchkiss said. Of course, fans had a hunch he would be the guy. "Even before everybody knew Power Trip was playing that night in Austin, I said, 'Seth, your life's about to change,' and he just smiled," Muncy says.

There was some fallout from that night, too. Brandon Gale issued a statement saying the family was not told in advance about the show and was caught by surprise. He later issued an apology, saying that while he wishes he'd gotten a heads-up from the band, he still regrets the statement. "While it came as a surprise, it was a very visceral reaction and I would certainly undo it," he says.

That one show wasn't the extent of the issues between the band and Brandon Gale, as the statements brought to light a civil lawsuit he'd filed on behalf of Riley's estate on Feb. 10, 2021, against the members of Power Trip. The suit alleged breach of fiduciary duty and claimed the band owed the Gale estate money from merchandise sales, tour revenue and royalties. On Dec. 8, one week after the surprise set in Austin, the case was settled.

"There was an unfortunate need for the litigation," Brandon Gale says. "It was critically important that the foundation received all of the money that Riley was entitled to because that's the primary source, with contributions, of how we build and grow the foundation. It's settled, and what I want to do is focus on the good stuff going forward."

"We probably don't want to comment on that," Ulsh says of the lawsuit. "That was a very difficult and s****y thing that happened that we had to go through. It's behind us now, and we just want to leave it behind us." Ibanez adds: "When something really tragic happens like that, there's a lot of emotions involved. It happens this way with a lot of similar situations, when you have the family of someone who wasn't really involved and is trying to figure everything out and get things together. Yeah, it's behind us. And as everything stands, everything's all right."

Asked about the future of the band, Brandon Gale offered his blessing: "If Power Trip goes out and they start touring again, people are going to buy their music and Riley's going to get his royalties and the foundation's going to grow. So how could we not be in favor of that?"

'We're just taking it one step at a time'

Power Trip is currently resuming rehearsals in Dallas. Ulsh says he's excited to get back to playing for wild crowds instead of repeating the same songs over and over to each other in a practice space. Ibanez is excited to feel the rush again, too: "We were gone from it for so long, and then you get up there and it's like, wow, I forgot we're part of something really special."

Though Ibanez let it slip that Power Trip had been working on a new album before Gale's death, he refused to engage further on the possibility of new music in the future. "The main focus is to play the catalog — that's what people want to hear. I don't think we're really particularly interested in moving on from where we were," Ibanez says. "We really want to honor Riley and want to honor what we've done before just moving forward. That's the main thing, to treat the whole situation with as much respect as possible. ... We're just taking it one step at a time."

While Ulsh, Ibanez and Whetzel all stayed busy in recent years with other bands, Nick Stewart hadn't been back on a stage since Power Trip's last show with Gale. "I'm a civilian — I just book shows and don't have a side project right now. So it's even more reason why I'm excited to do this," Stewart says. "It's been our lives since I graduated high school, so to be able to do it again is really special. I love performing, man; I love getting up there and giving everything I got." As he spoke, his dog began barking in the background. "Sorry, my dog's going crazy. But yeah, excited as my dog right now to get up there and play some shows."

That December night in Austin, Muncy looked around in the pit and saw how many people around him were crying. "When I first thought about them playing, I was, like, 'My friends need this; Texas needs this show, our scene needs this,' " he says. "But then once it happened, I was like, 'You know what? My friends in the band needed that show more than anybody.' Those four dudes, they sacrificed a lot to get where they are. They can't just quit."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Evan Minsker