[3 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The popularity of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse is remarkable, but that’s nothing compared to just how massive the musical side of the fictional death metal band has become among young American metal fans. From out of nowhere, 2007’s tie-in CD The Dethalbum went on to greatly exceed expectations, debuting at number 21 (an unfathomable placing for a) a debut extreme metal album, and b) a soundtrack for a cartoon) and eventually selling in excess of 300,000 units. Efforts to take Dethklok on the road were cautious at first, the show’s creator and composer Brendon Small dipping his toes in the water by taking a patchwork band to play free shows at colleges, but the kids had caught on to Dethklok the Cartoon Band so quickly, that it wasn’t long before Dethklok the Real Life Band was so in demand that they were quickly doing headlining tours across the country.
Whether the “real” version of Dethklok works as a live experience is debatable, but on record it’s another story entirely. Small, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, is a remarkable guitar player, not to mention a very savvy metal fan, and for all the jokes and wry takes on extreme metal clichés that Metalocalypse and The Dethalbum were loaded with, the songs were actually good. Sure, it was watered down enough to render the music a rather lightweight take on what devotees would define “true” death metal, but the record had a sense of song craft that tiresome, serious young bands like Suicide Silence and Winds of Plague could never hope to achieve. It was credible, it was catchy, and it was fun.
At the end of Metalocalypse‘s second season, the series had started to truly come into its own, its finale a pitch-perfect blend of comedy and action (let’s see Michael Bay top anything as cool as the climax of “Black Fire Upon Us”), and similarly, the long-awaited Dethalbum II sees Small show enormous improvements on all fronts, from the songwriting, to the instrumentation, to even his lead vocals. In fact, what’s especially interesting about this record is just how darn serious it is. Gone are the joke songs like “Birthday Dethday” and “Castratikron”. Instead, the line between parody and over-the-top headbanger cliché becomes rather hazy; you know it’s supposed to be the imposing animated character Nathan Explosion spewing these lines, but in all honesty it’s not that far removed from, say, a Dimmu Borgir album. That said, before you assume that Dethalbum II is a disappointment due to its lack of satire, the arrangements are done so well, so superbly at times, that we can’t help but be hugely impressed that Dethklok now sounds anything but a novelty act.
Boasting the kind of crisp, loud production and mix that popular metal demands these days, this album is positively thunderous, thanks in large part to Small’s ace card, veteran drummer Gene Hoglan. The former Dark Angel, Death, and Strapping Young Lad member immediately makes his presence known on the throttling opener “Bloodlines”, his taut fills, double-kicks, and blastbeats underscoring Small’s percussive yet highly melodic guitar work perfectly. The rest of the album turns out to be remarkably consistent in tone, a combination of the post-thrash groove of Lamb of God, the symphonic bombast of the aforementioned Dimmu Borgir, and the synth-laden speed of Children of Bodom. Cascading synths adorn the epic scope of “The Gears”, Hoglan’s punishing beats propel the contagious “Laser Cannon Deth Sentence” (“D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D DIE!”), “Dethsupport” is an impressive death metal workout, “The Gears” launches into a gargantuan stomp bound to be a mosh pit fave, while “Murmaider II: The Water God” is a much more imposing, theatrical extension of the original “Murmaider” from the first record.
Not all the songs on Dethalbum II work, the most glaring one being the garish, DragonForce-esque power metal of “I Tamper With the Evidence at the Murder Site of Odin”, but for the most part this is a very consistent second album by a band that continues to surprise. What might have looked like a fad three and a half years ago is now an undeniable multimedia force.