Men of mettle

Another smackdown from Motörhead
By JAMES PARKER  |  October 3, 2006

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LEMMORIES: The older and uglier Lemmy gets, the more perfect the whole thing becomes.

This is number 19 for Motörhead — their 19th studio album, that is — and can we claim anymore to be surprised at the perennial excellence of this unprecedented institution? Yet again, like three trolls in a speedboat, the men of Motörhead have hitched their age-old warty grievance against humanity to a roaring musical accelerant, and yet again they are writing heavy-metal history. Kiss of Death (Sanctuary) provides the missing link(s) between Mastodon and Chuck Berry, between Nile and the New York Dolls, while sounding like nothing but Motörhead. There’s something not entirely natural going on here: Lemmy is 60, for Christ’s sake. He saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club! He roadied for Jimi Hendrix! I wonder whether they bother to double-track his vocals these days — one gasp from that shaggy old larynx sounds like a whole chorus of shattered men.

In terms of longevity and diehard rock-and-roll primitivism, only AC/DC and the Ramones have come close to Motörhead. But AC/DC passed long ago into some kind of comedic super-realm, and the Ramones — trapped, as they were, in their haircuts, feuding for years, all of them herded into the van by the joyless whipcracker Johnny — became a stifling family tragedy and artistic disaster. Because Motörhead is basically Lemmy — his humor and his sound, and the turbid, percussive noise of his pick on the bass strings — there’s never been a problem. Guitarist Phil Campbell has been with him since 1984, drummer Mikkey Dee since 1992, and they both play with what we might describe as a sort of homicidal discretion, ultra-aggressive, whacking it out but devoid of flash, fully in the service of the bluesily basic song structures.

The great agon of Motörhead music is its internal effort to break away from the slaggy magma ball of blues rock at its core: every subsequent speed-metal move, by almost anyone at all, can be seen as a by-product of Lemmy’s attempt in the ’70s to get up enough velocity to burst out of the orbit of his origins. And having done so, having thrashed his way clear, when he then settles back and plays his roots music, the results are doubly alive. Ever hear the Motörhead version of “Hoochie Coochie Man”?

Anyway — you, my sweet Motörhead fan, are wondering what Kiss of Death actually sounds like. I’ll tell you: it’s like the last one, Inferno, but a tiny bit slower. “Christine” is jaunty sex pop à la Motörhead, “God Was Never on Your Side” a torture of a thing with acoustic guitars and solemn thoughts about religion. “Kingdom of the Worm” is a grimly chugging bit of darkside psychedelia, Slayer-meets-Hawkwind. My personal choice is the high-speed curtain raiser “Sucker” (“How we are/Ain’t how we were/Innocence/Is for the birds!”), the hanging half-phrases bracketing the riff like his own mutton-chop sideburns. His great campaign against puerility and illusion, against the trifling, trendy, untragic and unmetal view of life, continues: “And you so precious, lost in smoke/Too busy laughing to see the joke.”

So many of the classic Motörhead songs, from “Dancing on Your Grave” to “Damage Case,” are straight-up anthems to experience, to knowing the score. Which is why the older and uglier Lemmy gets, the more perfect the whole thing becomes. The world turns, the lightweights are smeared beneath it, and his song goes on: those ropy polyp-studded vocal cords flap and clash. “Nobody cares if you’re in or you’re out/We’re gonna give you a smack in the mouth!” Never die, you bastard.

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