When it comes to modern takes on classic hard rock and traditional heavy metal, bands fall into two categories. Many young acts mimic the music’s sense of fun well enough to make the whole experience passable (Airbourne, for instance), but in the end, the entire exercise can become as trite as all the other bands that fail in their attempt (Jet). It’s as if they’re winking at us while they play. Every once in a while, though, you hear a new band that totally gets it. There’s no irony in traditional metal. You sell your music with a totally straight face and dare your audience to buy into it fully, and when that connection is made, the results can be thrilling.
When looking for good traditional metal, the best bets are usually found in Europe, namely Sweden and Germany. There, the classic metal aesthetic from the 1970s and ‘80s is so ingrained in the culture, it’s practically mainstream, and the scenes are loaded with bands who not only celebrate that great sound and style but perform it with a level of conviction that few young bands in North America are able, let alone willing, to pull off. The latest such band to turn heads is Bullet, a ferocious five-piece from the relatively small Swedish city of Växjö who over the course of a few years has become a sensation in their own country. However, what makes them so unique compared to any other like-minded band is just what specific era they choose to build their sound around.
With a couple of slick guitarists capable of wicked, bluesy riffs and enormous heavy metal hooks and fronted by a singer whose voice is as raspy as his physique is round, it’s clear what Bullet is aiming to replicate: the George Young-produced AC/DC of the late-1970s and the music of German legends Accept, namely the 1980-‘81 era that spawned the albums I’m a Rebel and Breaker. Past Bullet albums, 2006’s Heading For the Top, and 2008’s Bite the Bullet, did a very good job capturing the vibe of those two great influences, but their third album, Highway Pirates, elevates their game on every level.
Mixed by Tobias Lindell, who has worked with the terrific, underrated Swedish band Mustasch, the new record achieves the kind of sonic balance between retro and modern that so many of these bands look for, slickly produced yet at the same time retaining its gritty, live off-the-floor edginess. The energy of Highway Pirates is absolutely palpable as Bullet proceeds to spout cliché after metal cliché so convincingly that the shtick actually sounds fresh compared to the boring music that passes for modern hard rock today. Just look at the titles they come up with: “Stay Wild”, “Blood Run Hot”, “Fire and Dynamite”, “Knuckleduster”, Highway Pirates, for crying out loud. In lesser talented hands, it would be begging for ridicule from jaded music writers, but instead, the band comes through with exuberant, insanely catchy songs that stare the listener right in the face and dare them to drop all inhibitions and prejudices and embrace the cliché totally.
There’s no need to go into great detail about what these songs sound like; if you know “I’m a Rebel” and “Starlight”, you know what Bullet sounds like. However, if there’s one song that so perfectly encapsulates Bullet’s modus operandi that it deserves to be singled out, it’s the brilliant “Heavy Metal Dynamite”. That’s right, this album is so awesome it needs two “dynamite” songs to convey said awesomeness. But what “Heavy Metal Dynamite” does so ingeniously is toss in a sly pop touch, delivering an irresistible groove and a gargantuan hook alongside the band’s already strong sound. That Accept/AC/DC influence is still prominent, but a slight glam element creeps in: the rhythm section evokes the great Hanoi Rocks (those constant handclaps are the clincher); the riffs toss in a little Kix into the mix, and singer Dag Hell Hofer sounds as much like Cinderella’s Tom Keifer and Britny Fox’s “Dizzy” Dean Davidson as Udo Dirkschneider. Like the rest of the album, “Heavy Metal Dynamite” does absolutely nothing new stylistically, but it’s so fun, so full of energy, that to quip about how tacky or cheesy it is would miss the point of the music entirely. If Highway Pirates doesn’t get you going, you might want to check for a pulse.