Monday, November 12, 2007

Dethklok: The Dethalbum

I’m a bit late reviewing this record, and I’ll tell you why. The Dethalbum ended up selling much better than Adult Swim anticipated: due to a printing error the Deluxe Edition (which, for a true Dethklok fan, is the only version worth getting) sold out extremely quickly, and it was in fact nearly a month before I could find it on the shelves. The funny part about all of this is that I am not what anyone would call a metal fan; I don’t dislike the genre, I’m even sort of interested in it, but I’ve never embraced it. I am, however, a big fan of Adult Swim’s METALOCALYPSE, a genuinely captivating animated series about the death metal band Dethklok, who control millions of fanatical followers and seek to make the entire world a metal world, while at the same time being intensely stupid. The music on the show, done by showrunner Brendon Small (the creator of the semi-autobiographical HOME MOVIES), is consistently good even when it strays into genre, so I was looking forward to a soundtrack album- I didn’t quite expect them to do a proper metal record, though. And that’s the triumph of the Dethalbum- it’s genuinely good heavy metal music despite also being a lampoon of the genre.

Dethklok, metafictionally, consists of lead guitar Skwisgaar Skwigell (taller than a tree), rhythm guitar Toki Wartooth (not a bumble bee), bass William Murderface (Murderface Murderface), Pickles the Drummer (doodily doo), and frontman Nathan Explosion. In truth, Brendon Small performs all vocals, guitars, and keyboards, while Gene Hoglan drums. All this, of course, is possible through the miracle of modern mixing technology, but honestly you’d never guess it if you didn’t look at the liner notes. I have no idea how Small does it so I’ll just assume he’s some kind of bizarre super-genius.

Anyhow, the music. My theory on why rock-and-roll had been for so long losing pop culture ground to R&B (though there’s been a turnaround recently), is that rock was full of very earnestly intelligent and thoughtful bands who eschewed any pop-like qualities to perform sophisticated and mostly serious material. Even metal itself seems a less lively scene than it used to- backlash to the “hair bands” of the 80s has resulted in groups of intensely nondescript people wearing black T-shirts and well-cropped goatees. You see, rock (and I count metal alongside it, at least for purposes of this argument), has an inherently “willing to be stupid” quality about it- it can be smart, as long as it’s dumb at the same time. It is inherently music that, to quote the “Trashmen Tests” developed over at the late and lamented Quarter Bin, is loud at any volume, dumb, and annoying to parents. It has to be transgressive, and it can’t be transgressive if it can double as easy listening.

Enter the Dethalbum to show us the way. This is an entire album of calculated idiocy backed by genuinely brilliant production. Songs have titles like “Murmaider”, “Bloodrocuted”, and “Briefcase Full of Guts”, and yet have lyrics that are clever and funny in sometimes subtle ways. (The joke on “The Lost Vikings” is so subtle I had to go back and re-read the words.) It’s smart, but not in any guarded or pretentious way. At other times, as with the songs “Hatredcopter” and “Face Fisted”, the point is to deliberately ratchet up the stupidity.

Make no mistake, though, this is not an album that it in any way denigrates The Metal. A parody this good can obviously only be done with a solid grounding in the genre, and it’s also just plain good music- unlike, say, Spinal Tap, which set out to suck just enough to still be listenable, Dethklok sets out to be good just enough to still be funny. The actual music is good, with some great high-speed guitar riffs and, to quote the liner notes, “insane drumming”- in particular the opening of “Go into the Water”, featured prominently in the show’s first season finale, is downright beautiful in its way.

The deluxe edition of the CD features a second disc with some more songs from the show and a final track, the inexplicably funny “Dethklok Gets in Tune”, as well as a video for “Bloodrocuted” and, best of all, the entire first episode of the new season. If I have to complain about the album in any way, it’s to say that some of the funnier and more inventive non-metal songs heard in the show aren’t included- from Toki’s upbeat underwater number (sung as he’s hovering in a tank of liquid oxygen) to a song by Dr. Rockso, the Rock’N’Roll clown and a sharp lampoon of David Lee Roth (or maybe just hair bands in general), there’s a lot of stuff I would have liked to have. But then, that would make this less of a metal album, so maybe those will be released separately or in another album or something. It’s a tiny flaw overall.

I’m not actually going to give the Dethalbum a letter grade, because I don’t know nearly enough about the genre of music it inhabits to compare it to anything similar. I do know that I enjoy it a lot and should find plenty of opportunity to listen to it in the future, whenever I feel my eardrums have had it too easy (I write a lot with just ambient noise in the background. Bastards are lazing about already.) It’s a great reminder that first and foremost this popular music is all about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously, and I think the real message is that you can be smart so long as you’re also stupid. I think that’s valuable advice for all of us.

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