HIGH ON FIRE: “I mean, yeah, I’m talking about my real life, but there’s dwarves involved!”
Pike likewise confesses to using metal’s fantastical bent to obscure the personal content of his songwriting. “We always inject realism into our songs, but they have, you know, a Dungeons & Dragons thing going on as well. Because all of these songs are fucking metaphors, you know? I mean, yeah, I’m talking about my real life, but there’s dwarves involved!” Amen to that: High on Fire, especially on the seminal releases Surrounded by Thieves (2002) and Blessed Black Wings (2005), created the audio analogue of, say, scenes from Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord of the Rings: advancing armies of orcs, dark creatures spreading enormous wings and unsheathing unwieldy scimitars. And though the use of this imagery was hardly new in metal (thanks to fantasy-rock pioneers like Black Sabbath, Dio, Judas Priest, Motörhead, and, most especially, Derek Riggs’s iconic Iron Maiden mascot, Eddie), it had been driven far underground in the early ’90s as metalers of all stripes traded in their patchy denim for flannel and threadbare sweaters.
At this point, it’s clear that metal — unapologetic metal, brutal metal, metal full of fantasy and allegory and non-stop bludgeoning heavy-qua-heaviness — is back. The reason could have something to do with the rejection of ’90s post-hair-metal austerity. Or with the burial of the still-fragrant remains of nü-metal. Brendon Small, co-creator of Metalocalypse and guitarist and chief songwriter for Dethklok, started his project when he saw the scrawling on the wall. “For me, when I was noticing metal coming back, I was excited, because I grew up with it. When I was a student at Berklee, they didn’t teach metal, so I was happy to see people being technical and proficient while also doing all of this stuff that hadn’t been done before, advancing in heaviness and what not.”
Dethklok, as the fictional protagonists of Metalocalypse, could have been portrayed with brain-dead music to match the witlessness of the individual band members’ fictional personas, but one listen to either of the subsequent real-world Dethklok albums — 2007’s The Dethalbum and this fall’s Dethalbum II (Williams Street) — reveals not only the attention to detail but also a deep love for metal’s harmonious nature. “Honestly, doing this show is hard work, and every day of my life is about loud guitars and metal — so, obviously, I have to like metal a lot! I guess someone could have done this show with music that was really uninspired, but I really, for some reason, needed it to sound good to my ears.”
Small’s recipe for Dethklok’s mind-throttling chasm-fording riff salad is deceptively simple. “When I started coming up with Dethklok’s sound, I tuned my guitar really low, and then I started just, you know, throwing in Queen harmonies, ripping Brian May off. And then I threw in double kicks and guttural vocals, just trying to make everything melodic but also heavy and scary.”
Although the songs are in service to a comedy show, your average Dethklok tune will pass the Pepsi challenge with the crème de la crème of modern death metal; it might even transcend the genre. If there’s one sonic unifier of the bands on this tour, it’s a tendency toward hugeness. Time turns inward, movements speed and whip into a frenzy, and the lead guitar takes off on a soaring flight of fancy into a concentric void from which, it seems, there will be no return. That sort of thing.