[27 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Whether it was intentional or not, the timing for an extreme metal-themed cartoon could not have been more perfect. Over the past 12 months, the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series Metalocalypse has grown quickly from a potential cult hit into a full-fledged smash. A big reason is the increasingly irrefutable fact that death metal could not be bigger right now. Bands like the Black Dahlia Murder, Job For a Cowboy, Behemoth, and the Red Chord have attracted the attention of young audiences looking for something a bit more aggressive than the increasingly played out metalcore style.
So as the kids have become more preoccupied with blastbeats, guttural death growls, and crushing, churning riffs instead of a fey scenester screaming one second and whining the next, Metalocalypse brilliantly draws in all those death-hungry listeners with its metal-lampooning comedy, ultra-violent animation, and most impressively, original music that happens to be surprisingly good.
Although comedy and metal can often make for some quality laughs (see Brian Posehn, or to go even further back, Blotto’s “Metal Head”), rarely does the combination ever yield a product with actual staying power. Of course, the timeless This is Spinal Tap and its accompanying soundtrack became the stuff of legend. Stormtroopers of Death’s metal/hardcore hybrid Speak English or Die brought vulgar humor and killer tunes to we headbangers two decades ago, and GWAR’s shtick is always good for a larf, but aside from that, few bands have been able to deliver completely on both fronts.
Comedian/musician Brendon Small, however, knows all about music and comedy. A graduate of the Berklee School of Music and creator/writer/voice actor for the animated series Home Movies, not to mention a big metal fan, Small has blended the two mediums with ease on Metalocalypse, and audiences have responded. The series, consisting of eleven-minute episodes featuring the fictional band Dethklok, is a ratings success, and subsequent DVD sales have been through the roof. But the real clincher is the companion CD, which along with being a quality metal album, managed to debut at #21 in America, making it, inexplicably, the highest-charting death metal album in history.
Although Dethklok calls itself the most “brutal” band in the world, in actuality, the music is rather tame compared to such real-life heavyweights as Nile or Behemoth. The music on The Dethalbum is nevertheless solid, midtempo metal that manages to sound both aggressive and accessible. Small handles all guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals, and with the help of influential drummer Gene Hoglan (formerly of Dark Angel and Strapping Young Lad), the music is heavy, catchy, funny, and most importantly, credible. Singing as frontman Nathan Explosion, Small delivers a quality death growl, emitting the guttural sounds as well as anyone in death metal, and even one-upping a number of them, while managing to keep his voice legible throughout.
Considering the cleverness of the lyrics, enunciation is crucial, as we’re treated to ruminations on the conductive qualities of human blood (“Bloodrocuted”), briefcases full of guts (uh, “Briefcase Full of Guts”), an hilarious send-up of metal’s oft-used “evil woman” theme (“Castratikron”), and a birthday tune that’s destined to become a staple among metalheads (“Many years ago today something grew inside of your mother…That thing was YOU! YOU! YOU!”).
The arrangements on The Dethalbum clinch it. “Go Into the Water” exudes the foreboding, bombastic vibe of Manowar’s battle epics. “Better Metal Snake” audaciously swipes the tremolo picking most commonly heard in black metal. “Awaken” combines thrash metal beats with melodic death metal guitar harmonies, while “Fansong” and “Go Forth and Die” boasts a straightforward, insistent groove similar to Viking metal greats Amon Amarth. The overtly orchestral “Detharmonic” lampoons the bombastic excesses of symphonic metal especially well, yet at the same time it’s good enough to hold its own alongside more serious fare. “Hatredcopter” provides the album with its best melodic moments. A straight-up thrasher, Explosion gives way to drummer Pickles (again, voiced by Small), who delivers the Hetfield-esque singing during the extremely catchy, albeit ridiculous chorus. “You will most likely die / From the hands of my arm / When I come and fly and / Take off your face / With the front of my HATREDCOPTER.”
Top marks go to the pair of Viking-themed songs on the albums latter half. “Thunderhorse” is already familiar to many, as its “video” appeared on an early episode and the song was one of the better bonus tracks on Guitar Hero II. Here, it’s been fleshed out and polished even more, with Small unleashing waves of fantastic Scandinavian guitar noodling over Hoglan’s furious double-kicks. Better yet, though, is the uproarious “The Lost Vikings”, which projects an air of nobility over a stately, galloping riff, but as the song goes on, we learn that said Viking warriors are more than metaphorically lost. They can’t find the damn battle site. And instead of accepting the help of passers-by who want to give them directions, they stubbornly roam the countryside, stone-faced, grim, frostbitten, and completely clueless. “Lost…but still we ride.”
While bands like Manowar and Iced Earth have tried desperately to record massive, career-defining concept albums only to fail miserably with bloated, miserable records, they’ve been upstaged completely by a cartoon, of all things. Metal music has always been about grandiosity and theatricality, but it has also always been willing to poke fun at itself. As Brendon Small has proven, it’s possible to make us laugh and create some kick-ass music in the process. It doesn’t happen as successfully very often, but when it does, we relish it.