If you were as well-known as Dave Grohl, wouldn’t you do the same thing? One good thing about being an incredibly famous rock musician is the ability to do whatever the hell you want, just because you can. Vanity projects often yield disastrous results, and are usually little more than a chance for shallow musicians to indulge themselves while under the misapprehension that they’re some kind of auteur, but quite surprisingly, Probot isn’t one of them. One of the coolest ideas for an album in a long time, Grohl has put together a record that not only serves as a sincere tribute to the metal and hardcore bands of his youth, but features all his favorite vocalists as well. It’s a real life heavy metal fantasy camp, and Grohl is living out the teenage dreams of countless other 30-something headbangers.
Fans of the Foo Fighters and old-time metalheads alike have been craving this album since the project was announced in 2001, and who couldn’t be excited with a roster like the one on this album? Singers from such influential bands as Venom, Mercyful Fate, Trouble, Napalm Death, DRI, Voivod, Celtic Frost, and others have chipped in with their own unique vocal styles, with Grohl playing nearly all the instruments himself, and writing songs that would best suit each lead singer’s voice. Grohl’s earnestness is contagious, as he gets great performances out of everybody (even some outstanding cover artwork by Voivod drummer Michel “Away” Langevin). However, the resulting album, despite being very likeable, isn’t perfect by any stretch. Grohl is one of the greatest rock drummers of the past 20 years, but his songwriting skills have always been somewhat lacking, his more memorable songs with Foo Fighters middling at best, and sadly, the songs on Probot do little to convince the listener otherwise. His drumming is brilliant, as always, but the melodies leave the singers little to work with, and his guitar riffs sound weak and sludgy, often mired in tuned-down, nu-metal muck.
That said, Grohl is at his best writing songs influenced by hardcore punk and thrash metal, something you immediately hear on the fast, pummeling opening track, “Centuries of Sin”. Former Venom howler Cronos gives his best vocal performance in two decades, obviously relishing the chance to work on this project, as he growls, “Survivooorrrrr / Warrior prince!” in the opening verse. “Shake Your Blood”, with the great Lemmy from Motorhead at the helm, is a terrific Motorhead clone, boasting some phenomenal drumming from Mr. Grohl, while the mosh-inducing “Silent Spring” harkens back to the heyday of skatepunk, as DRI vocalist Kurt Brecht offers some political commentary: “Chalk it all up to human greed / As. Seen. On. Your. TV!” Meanwhile, “Access Babylon” is all of 84 frenetic seconds, as Mike Dean (Corrosion of Conformity) revisits his own band’s hardcore past. Max Cavalera (Sepultura, Soulfly) handles the vocal duties on the thunderous “Red War”, a fine tribute to Chaos A.D.-era Sepultura.
Probot stumbles slightly on the songs that comprise the album’s second half, which feature singers from more adventurous metal bands. “Ice Cold Man”, featuring Lee Dorian (Napalm Death, Cathedral), is a lugubrious, lumbering song that plods along interminably, thanks to Grohl’s painfully dull Black Sabbath-lite guitar harmonies, and if it weren’t for a tempo change midway through that injects some much-needed energy, the song would be a total wash. Things improve a bit on “The Emerald Law”, a straight Queens of the Stone Age carbon copy, with impassioned vocals from Wino (ex-Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, and countless others), and on the wicked stoner rock of “Big Sky”, featuring the unmistakable sneer of Celtic Frost leader Tom G. Warrior. However, “Dictatorsaurus”, with Snake from Canadian legends Voivod, is a clunky attempt at progressive metal that winds up sounding like a Foo Fighters song, and “My Tortured Soul”, with Eric Wagner (Trouble) is a turgid grunge retread.
The biggest problem on the album is Grohl’s complete lack of inventiveness as a guitar player. He can hide it well on the simpler songs, but when he tries to get adventurous, the music suffers. Classic European metal has clean, melodic, tightly executed guitar riffs, but Grohl’s too much of a one-trick pony to pull it off convincingly, and his guest singers are left to try to save the songs. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Sweet Dreams”; with an ordinary singer, it would be nothing more than a boring, by-the-numbers goth ballad, but thanks to the great King Diamond, who turns in a virtuoso performance, it’s transformed into a mesmerizing, gothic, macabre piece of rock theater. Diamond growls, shrieks, wails, leaping octaves in the way that only he can do, while former Soundgarden whiz Kim Thayil (who we need to hear more often) shreds some great solos.
Had Dave Grohl used more guest musicians instead of trying to do everything himself, Probot would have been much better (I’d rather hear him be the best drummer in rock instead of a mere second-rate guitarist). Still, despite some awkward bumps, Grohl and his friends are obviously having so much fun that it’s impossible not to like this album, mistakes and all. It’s great watching the dude live the dream for the rest of us.