July 9, 2008

Animated Metal Group Dethklok Jumps From the Screen to the Stage

One way to gauge anything's prominence in pop culture is if there's been a cartoon made about it.

That means metal is again part of America's cultural weave, at least for males 18-35, thanks to "Metalocalypse," Adult Swim's series about the dysfunctional and ultraviolent exploits of impossibly popular death-metal band Dethklok. Call it tongue-ripped-away-from-cheek humor, with the series currently approaching the end of its second season.

But there's another level of cultural saturation: the transfer from the animated world to reality. It's reminiscent of Disneyland or "'Finding Nemo' on Ice" _ only Dethklok doesn't do frozen ponds or theme parks. It's a band, so it plays concerts.

"I wanted it to feel like a big stupid ride, like a big Universal Studios kind of a ride," said "Metalocalypse" co-creator Brendon Small, who not only writes most of the series' dialogue but pens most of the fictional band's music; he even voices three of its five members. "I wanted it to be somewhat interactive with the audience; just enough story to hang your hat on it, and be a lot of visual fun."

Small reaches for that goal through several methods. The accomplished guitarist (he's a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music) and three other top-flight metal musicians _ including drummer Gene Hoglan (Death, Strapping Young Lad) _ perform in front of a screen that depicts Dethklok. Animated skits between songs keep the audience rapt while the human band hydrates, tunes and gears up for the next onslaught. Two real metal bands from two of metal's many subgenres, post-hard-core act Chimaira and stoner-doom stalwarts Soilent Green, open the show to whip things up.

"If you've never been to a metal show before, whether or not you like metal, go to one," said Small, a self-professed music geek who counts Paul McCartney and the Shins as favorite acts. "There's a tangible energy in the room, and it's kind of a frightening energy, where anything could happen. It really has this cool dangerous feel about it.

"Metal shows seem dangerous, but to me more dangerous shows are, like, a Jimmy Buffett concert, when some drunk looks at his girlfriend wrong and ends up punching her teeth out. ...The second you walk into a metal show, it's kind of like you're in the club. You bought your ticket, you're supporting the bands, and therefore you're all right."

After a short test tour of colleges last fall, the live Dethklok experience has morphed into a cultural and almost familial event this go-round, with consistent sellouts and a notable chunk of nonmetal fans in attendance. Because the cartoon is really about the dynamics of an abnormal and detached family unit _ much like "Family Guy" or "The Simpsons," just more graphic and, well, metal _ it's brought heavy music to people who wouldn't have normally given a whit.

But even so, without metal's recent surge in popularity, there would have been no "Metalocalypse," Small said.

"That's the only reason 'Metalocalypse' exists: because of how inspired I was about what's going on in metal now," he said. "Statistically, metal is the fastest-growing genre of music. It just took a little nap in America for a decade or so.

"Music genres can be fads and go in and out of style, but for the people that do it, it never goes out of style. It's what you do. It's like 'I make pants for a living, but pants aren't cool anymore. Should I make shorts?' No. You're a pants maker!"


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