With Mastodon, Converge, and High on Fire, live at the House of Blues, October 28, 2009
Heavy metal’s primary contradiction: given a fanbase that is often concerned with detecting what is and isn't "real" metal, so much of what constitutes "real" "metal" is made up of 100-percent pure fantasy. Sometimes this results in a certain cultural conservatism. But mostly it just means that the true-est metal fan is the one who is (at least mentally) young enough to even care about both ends of this contradiction. Meaning that metal's longevity – the way it has evaded becoming just another musical fad – depends largely on its ability to attract a continuously new fanbase, one that springs to life and puts its fork and knife on the (kiddie) table of metal consumerism.
By my measure, the most significant reinvention of metal in the last decade or so has been a complete fabrication: specifically, Adult Swim's Metalocalypse cartoon. Its fictional death-metal anti-heroes, Dethklok, have set a new bar for consistently high-quality brutality that somehow manages to transcend the fact that the band isn't "real." With the metal underground currently undergoing a crisis of faith that has allowed similarly fake bands to rise to supremacy whilst eschewing things like songs, vocals, beats, riffs, and substance (substitute instead: a smoke and mirror show centered on naked amplifier worship, dry ice, capes, and hieroglyphic mumbo-jumbo), it’s rewarding to see a fake band that actually gives the kids what they want. The greatest death-metal band of all time could never exist in real life, so it had to be invented.
Dethklok is the creation of Brendon Small, and although he's a cartoonist by trade, he is also an absolutely bitching guitarist. He has an almost superhuman ability to play dementedly complex riffage whilst simultaneously bellowing precision death-metal lyrics. His touring band, composed of former Zappa sideslinger Mike Keneally and a big dude on drums who was in Exodus or Testament or one of those metal bands whose logo was made to look like it was bolted together from shiny metal sheets, were absolutely shredadelic. They played in perfect syncopation with a gigantic screen depicting the cartoon band running through the song. In the live show, as in the Adult Swim television series, the editing favors an ever escalating series of quick cuts juxtaposing images of grotesquery – which effectively doubles as a strobe light matching time with the drummer's blast beats. The effect is one of complete and utterly disorienting nausea. Each song built inevitably to a double-time conclusion of seizure-inducing visual overload coupled with the band's own race toward speed-metal insanity, complete with wah-assisted lead guitar doodledy-doo. It was powerful, it was funny, it was fatiguing, it was beautiful.
Often during the set, I tried to pry my eyes away from the cartoon to focus on the human players. This proved to be a futile endeavor, since a) the visuals on the screen were always far more interesting, and b) watching the band was kind of like watching a pit orchestra during an opera. The band was there front and center to remind you that they were physically capable of playing their inhuman music in the flesh and matching it up perfectly with the video on the screen – and they pulled it off with a precision that was laudable but oddly mechanical. If there is one chink in the Dethklok armor, it’s that in sticking so close to a pre-determined script, they short-circuit the unpredictability that "true" metal has always promised.
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