Dethklok, Mastodon, High On Fire, and Converge at the Val Air Ballroom
Des Moines, Iowa, October 14, 2009
In anticipation for what looked to be a thoroughly brutal heavy metal show, my curiosity got the best of me as I considered just exactly what a Dethklok concert would look like. I got on You Tube and watched a short video of one of their performances a week prior to my show date and mused at how old the second guitarist looked. I received a reply on my blog, gently reminding me that image doesn’t trump substance and accurately pointing out that rock music isn’t necessarily a young man’s (or woman’s) game.
But for Dethklok, the fictional band featured on Cartoon Network’s animate series Metalocalypse, image is entirely the point. Regardless of Metalocalypse creator Brendon Small’s musical lineage and impressive credentials (he is a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston), the band is entirely housed in an imaginary realm that only comes to life through means of animation. To disregard the image of Dethklok is to destroy it in many ways, and believe me, to witness a Dethklok show in person is a bit like Toto drawing back the curtain to reveal the all-powerful Wizard.
To see this before hand brought an immediate sense of disappointment, but there would be no regrets to this package event. After all, the promoters had me at “High On Fire” and “Mastodon.”
And it surely did not dissuade those in attendance, a large blend of true metal supporters as well as novices who probably wouldn’t have much experience with the genre if it weren’t for the cartoon series. To a person like me who truly appreciates the genre as a legitimate art form (without the animation, of course) and who very much appreciates the efforts of the opening bands, there’s a bit of resentment when I see the crowd numbers sore after Mastodon had put on an impressive set. Here was a chance for some of those noobies to witness a pair of metal’s best contemporary bands performing for real. Unlike Smalls, they are not part time performers, and they don’t have the luxury of financial backing of Ted Turner.
Yes, there was some blatant commercialism afoot as the video screen before Dethklok’s set encouraged audience members to visit the merch table and buy shit. There’s nothing new to this, but none of the openers had seasons of their TV shows to promote either, and none of them hawked their goods in a way that sounded so critical of themselves for trying to make a buck. It’s this notion that youngsters are so attuned to marketing nowadays that they won’t respond to such blatant marketing attempts. I suppose that’s true when, again, your main source of income is a major cable company, but I would hope that some of those youngsters understand that the stuff on the merch table is gas money, food, etc. for any true touring band.
Hell, even Jack Black was in on the game with setting up four gaming centers across from the t-shirts and Metalocalypse DVD sets, attempting to plug his new video game, Brutal Legend. To be fair, both Mastodon and Dethklok have music featured on that game.
The show itself was tied into an animated story arc. It had to be; do you think that a bunch of Metalocalypse fans would tolerate having to watch a bunch of middle age dudes playing Dethklok? The real life musicians typically played in sync with the video images, occasionally leaving the stage while a video vignette played during the brief intermission. In one interlude, Facebones (the band’s animated logo) explains to newer fans the art of moshing. In another, we see the reason for the band leaving the stage: to allow William Murderface a chance to pee. The rest of the band quickly pursues him to lecture on how unprofessional it is for the bassist to leave during a performance.
The irony is that these stopping points felt similarly wrong during the actual show. The crowd, clearly euphoric over the band’s material and performance, suddenly had the brakes applied at the exact moment things were about to get out of hand. I’m not sure if it was intentional or if they were created to give the band a break, but these stoppages were very unsettling and carried on for way too long.
When the (actual) band did get things going, they were unrelentless. The pudgy, balding man that accompanied Small on guitar was Mike Keneally, a protégée of Frank Zappa, competent enough to master a variety of genres including Dethklok’s hyperkinetic blend of melodic death metal.
Bassist Bryan Beller is another Zappa alumni—the Dweezil and Ahment variety—and he is best known for keeping the low end on Steve Vai‘s solo material during the ’90s and working with Keneally on his solo projects.
Propelling all of this is Gene Hoglan, a veteran speed metal drummer who may possess the fastest bass drum feet alive. The dude’s nickname is “The Atomic Clock” and there were moments where he was playing so fast that I could have sworn it was pre-recorded drum parts if I hadn’t seen it for myself.
And then there’s Brendon Small, who’s obviously enlisted three of the most technically precise musicians to help perpetuate the myth of a cartoon metal band. What separates Dethklok from The Archies is the member’s mastery of their instruments. Before long, my eyes stopped looking at the endless dismemberment and face melting animation going on above the players. I began to focus on the performers themselves, watching them shoot through their breakneck songs with relative ease and little expression (from what I could tell as most of the members were poorly illuminated, again promoting the idea of Dethklok as a visual medium than a performing band).
The audience didn’t seem to mind, as they chanted along with every Duncan Hills coffee jingle, murdering murmaids, and Viking reference. While the comedic material garnished the most laughs, it was the newer material that pointed to the idea that Small would like to take the band to darker places where the jokes are harder to find.
But can you really find legitimacy when your foundation is based on parody, fantasy, and an undeniable amount of image? Probably not, but if you’re able to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, you can get pretty close.
Burn the Earth
Black Fire Upon Us
Birthday Dethday (MP3)
Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle (MP3)
Go Into The Water