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Dead Sara Is Weathering the Storm

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the Billboard Rock Songs chart, which for quite a while now has been the running diary of a genre in crisis. The number of stations specializing in rock of the non-classic variety is shrinking as more and more frequencies turn away from music (à la the former WRXP’s flip to news-and-chatter last year) or toward outright nostalgia-flogging. As a result, the chart has become fragmented and all over the guitar-driven map.

This subgenre pileup is partially derived from the way the chart takes its cues from three different strains of rock stations. The hoary, daddy-issues-laden strain of rock that’s still referred to as nu-metal continues to get substantial play on mainstream and alternative rock outlets. (Think bands that take cues from first-generation grunge, then apply the lessons learned from Alice in Chains’ Facelift and Pearl Jam’s Ten before slathering the whole thing in self-pity—bands like Shinedown and Godsmack come to mind.) But the stranglehold those plodding acts had as recently as two years ago is beginning to lessen, and there’s even some crossover between the rock chart and the upper echelons of Billboard‘s Hot 100. (The third genre is known as “Triple-A”—that stands for Adult Album Alternative, the format embraced by Fordham University’s WFUV, which favors singer-songwriters and other practitioners of the kind of rock heard in tastefully twee commercials—and probably explains a few of the outliers.) Gotye’s inescapable “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the current pop chart’s No. 1, and “We Are Young,” the former Hot 100 No. 1 from the Queen-gone-emo act fun., were on the rock chart. A smattering of bands that specialize in slightly different takes on the spindly Americana that brought Mumford & Sons recognition over here were present, as were other outliers like the French New Wave revivalists M83.

One thing really stuck out: More than one of the chart’s 50 places were occupied by an act with a female singer, even though women have been pretty much exiled from the rock world’s upper echelons since the days when bands like Hole and the Breeders could nab mainstage slots on Lollapalooza. It’s tempting to blame this gender segregation on the early ’00s rise of nu-metal, which operated in nearly diametric opposition to the teenpop that was selling millions at the time and which in its most noxious forms sounded like a hastily built tree house with a “NO GURLS ALLOWED” sign affixed to each rung of the ladder and posters of Dr. Dre on the walls. But even in 1996, the Lolla mainstage was a bros-only zone. (There were a few exceptions that proved this rule in the intervening years, though the fact that, say, the first charting single by the Christian-goth act Evanescence also featured an inept rap by a dude was enough to make one wonder if female-fronted rock acts did indeed have the radio equivalent of cooties for most of the decade.) The omnipresent Adele was there; so was the recently revived synth-goth act Garbage, and so was the first single from Norah Jones’s quite good, Danger Mouse–produced Little Broken Hearts. Then there was a band called Dead Sara, who had a song called “Weatherman” in the chart’s lower reaches.

I cut my musical teeth on hard rock and was a particular fan of those bands that liked to pair their pop-metal hooks with truncheons—the Los Angeles skid row dwellers Love/Hate, Slave to the Grind–era Skid Row, the batter-dipped blues of Every Mother’s Nightmare. When I try to give these bands their due, some people will argue that there’s little difference between the brand of hard rock practiced by those bands years ago and the Godsmack ilk, and that my preference is based in a desire to rearview-mirror my youth as much as it might be for the music itself. But one play of “Weatherman” might change those naysayers’ minds and help make people realize what has been missing from this new strain of rock—not to mention what has been almost claustrophobically omnipresent.

“Weatherman” is a stomping ball-buster dragged along by a pealing guitar riff laid down by guitarist Siouxsie Medley, the sort of twisted-blues hard rock that feels like the product of people really enjoying playing the shit out of their instruments. (A couple of friends of mine compared it to Soundgarden, too, which makes sense; they did, after all, help goad teenaged me into setting my VCR for 120 Minutes in addition to Headbangers Ball.) And perhaps most importantly, it musically feels a lot more open than much of the compressed-to-2014 post-nu-metal that I’ve heard while tooling around the Spotify playlist that, week after week, tracks the songs on Billboard‘s chart. There’s actually space between the instruments, as opposed to the sonic anvils popular rock acts so often throw down on record, and the result is less aurally oppressive and more electrifying.

Credit for the Los Angeles–based quartet’s visceral thrills should also be given to lead singer Emily Armstrong, whose scraped-paint vocals veer from evil-incantation quiet to blood-curdling roar, making them stick out in a sea of grimly voiced Layne Staley wannabes in a glorious way. Late last month, I caught Dead Sara’s set opening for the Used at Irving Plaza, and even though they were on early, the room was packed for their 30-minute run through their debut; Armstrong was full of charisma and gratitude, pushing her voice to the limit as her band triumphantly thrashed through its frizzled take on bluesy metal.

“Weatherman” is still bubbling in the lower levels of the Rock Songs chart; right now it exists in a clump of bands that also invoke the grim reaper (the gloomy Los Angeles act Five Finger Death Punch, the Canadian mope-rockers Art of Dying). If there’s any justice, especially in this year when the word “rock” signifies a genre that is in flux enough so as to be anyone’s game, Dead Sara will stake their claim as a new kind of standard-bearer, and finally loosen those ladies-barring signs from their place on the metaphorical tree trunk.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Blue October

Since major labels are all playing it safe, Universal couldn’t be happier to have platinum, guylinered, post-post-post-grunge superstars Blue October, the safest band going. Pray that album track “Jump Rope” doesn’t become a single, as it sets new standards for Hallmark-card insipid: A comically saccharine sentiment (“Life’s like a jump rope! Up! Down! Up! Down!”), sub-Barenaked Ladies quasi-rapping, Godsmack gargle, and an actual fucking kid chorus. The Marley And Me of rock music. With Switchfoot and Ours.

Fri., Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m., 2009

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New Kinds of Monsters

In the beginning, there was Metallica.

OK, not really, but Satan dammit if they don’t feel like they’ve been around since the earth cooled. This is what happens when you alter a genre’s landscape in your own nasty image, then sink your teeth in for the long term. Like you learn at your band’s first basement rehearsal, present poets inform the future and deform the past, even if the poet’s most famous lines are “Ech-ciiiit light/en-teeerr night!”

After all, the lay-down-the-law firm of Hetfield and Ulrich are just as exhausting a public presence when they aren’t playing music as when they are. The perfect paradox of Metallica’s ascendancy from thrashers-most-likely-to to stadium rock godlings to an endless lease on the pop catalog chart (1991’s Metallica, a/k/a the Black Album: 15 million sold and it don’t stop) to copyright protection poster boys is that their rise now seems just as inevitable as it does unlikely.

One look at British metal magazine Terrorizer‘s entertainingly thorough two-part “Thrash Special,” proves Metallica’s place in the pantheon. They may not lock down the No. 1 spot (Reign in Blood, natch) but they’re the only band with three albums in the top 20. And to hear these limeys unpack it, thrash as generic codification was a before-and-after moment as definitive as “Like a Rolling Stone,” a tent pole upon which future (and therefore past) metal was hung. You could speed up (grind, death, metalcore), slow down (doom metal, stoner rock), lower the fidelity (black metal), hang around graveyards (dark metal), or practice your chops (math metal, art metal, prog metal), but some sort of response to what Metallica wrought is always somewhere in your foundation. The notion of the metal underground as we think of it goes back to the model they embodied: rhythmic extremity instead of swing, band loyalty as separatism, rage as melodic fuel. Metallica didn’t just drag speed metal overground—their existence validated the idea of metal subgenres, period. Ever since, say, Ride the Lightning, serious metal fandom means splitting the difference; hence the golden-age diversity of ’90s and ’00s metal. It’s a fascinating time to be a metal fan, and Metallica’s roots uphold the genre’s wildly expansive family tree.

And then there’s the “inevitable” part. Since they decided to get huge—unlike that other West Coast band that had a really big year in ’91—Metallica have never for one second acted like they were getting anything less than that which they richly deserved. This was the underground taking control of Wal-Mart without shame, fear, or anxiety—mighty appealing for those who like rock’s dreams of power to, you know, deliver once in a while.

But after spending the rest of the ’90s fine-tuning your crossover sound, making a covers album (speaking of deforming the past), hanging out with the San Francisco Philharmonic to prove it’s all Wagner anyway, abusing Napster, and entering rehab, a certain “been there, drank that, sued that guy with the P2P software” might stifle the creative impulse.

So in the spirit of . . . reinvention? desperation? a desire to make up another confusing drum sound? St. Anger is a Metallica album the way the similarly baffling Hulk is a comic-book movie. The name is there, but formerly familiar pieces are put together in such a flagrantly counterintuitive manner that your urge to dismiss the album outright is mitigated by the sensation of something crucial that’s just not clicking.

The band reportedly became therapy junkies after Hetfield’s soul-opening rehab, so it’s aphorism time: “My lifestyle determines my death style,” “I want my anger to be healthy,” and “Who’s in charge of my head today?” a question they’ve been wondering about since “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” Even the songs that work are tainted by self-actualization; the loping riff on “Some Kind of Monster” is nearly derailed by cringe-worthy puns: “Ominous/I’m in us.” Hetfield investigates the rage that ran his life and caused his bassist to leave him, indulges his desire to clean house, and comes out screaming like Stuart Smalley. (The patron saint of anger is either Sigmund Freud or Al Franken.)

The barbed-wire grapevine heard (and prayed) this was a return to Master of Puppets epics, and yes, eight-minute songs are the rule. But where Master mastered the truly unchained melody, Anger is all chunk-style riffs and bang-on-an-oil-can drumming courtesy longtime producer Bob Rock, who plays bass on the album. Not a squiggly solo in sight. Songs like “Frantic,” “Dirty Window,” and even the balladesque “Sweet Amber” stop and start, cut to pieces by groove-robbing edits that replace the guitar harmonies on which Metallica built an industry. (The patron saint of anger is ProTools.)

Or maybe it’s just all about the Benjis. During the Metallica episode of MTVicons, Ulrich mentioned that he considered Korn his “peers.” Let’s add “source material”; St. Anger‘s brick-laying clang and my-childhood-sucks-my-adulthood lyrics feel like an overt response to nu-metal. Kids today don’t hold with no nuance in their heavy (that new Led Zep live album must sound like it’s from Mars). They dig drainingly long albums of drill-press guitar, downtuned bass, and absolutely no rhythmic undertow of any sort: Just hammer, whine, repeat. Metallica innovate to monotony like it’s one of the 12 steps: “This is what you want? This brick-laying stuff? Jesus, we can do that. We’ll even title a song ‘Invisible Kid.’ That’s nu-metal’s overarching theme, right? Can the new bassist get me a latte?” (The patron saint of anger is the market.)

Which is infuriating, because the metal underground Metallica enabled is vibrantly alive, loaded with much more interesting stuff to steal. Instead of the dive-bombing, death-from-above mania that makes metal a wartime favorite, Sunn0))) want to move the earth, plate-tectonic style. The pet project of Southern Lord label chief Greg Anderson, Sunn0)))’s Whiteone is doom metal stripped to the molten core, subdermal guitar rumbling a low end so deep-focus, so distant, as to feel like elemental pure ambient action. The born-again-heavy Julian Cope—whose absurdly entertaining Head Heritage website is devoted to forwarding his Kraut/psych/doom/ancient stone monoliths aesthetic—just adored their 2000 album Void, so he gets to chant over the 25-minute “My Wall” on the new one. But on the amazing “The Gates of Ballard,” St. Julian’s ravings get shown up by former Thor’s Hammer vocalist Rundhild Gammelsæter, and doesn’t that name just tell you she was put on this earth to sing a song of gloom? After her Norse euphony, there are 17 minutes of bass hypnosis. It’s mesmeric, pagan stuff, as removed from Metallica’s clatter as druids from 700 Clubbers.

The doom-psych thing has such legs that it’s even found purchase climbing Mt. Indie. Matador recently released Shivering King and Others, the latest album by Dead Meadow. This trio of D.C. kids have slowed down emo-core SGs to Iommi speed, figured out how wah can signify heft, and buried the vocals until nasal whines sound higher than the sun. Shivering Kings wanders along with acoustic detours (the minute-long “Wayfarers All,” the six-minute title track) breaking up the shuddering shuffles, which get mighty uniform after a while. Dead Meadow sound like they can barely tie the shoes below their bell-bottoms, but this isn’t really stoner rock-the-genre, even if the guitars sway back and forth wondering when the pizza is gonna get here. There’s no boogie in the tokes, just the weight of a modern mastodon in search of prehistoric ’68, when metal was just a theory in the humid air.

But if speed is your demon, metalcore’s promise of barely controlled punk chaos cut with Robert Fripp’s style of exactitude has kept thrash vibrant long after Metallica faded to black and orthodox hardcore turned into a bald cul-de-sac.

In spite of a truly horrific band name, Lickgoldensky on The Beautiful Sounds Of execute flailing tension spectacularly well, throwing precision riffs in the tightest possible spirals, only to yank them out of the air and stomp on them. Every second is a mosh-worthy breakdown; 22 minutes fly by in a screaming fit of incomprehensible vocals, car-crash drumming, and swarming guitar. Yet the hooks encoded in the velocity feel like grooves at that speed, even when the parts keep running into each other and detonating in place.

Look, of course there’s no reason to expect Metallica Inc. to dig underground for new tricks; if game recognize game, it’s only natural they would look to Korn and Durst and Godsmack to get back in touch with the disaffected masses. But metal is bio(hazard)-diverse like at no other time in its history, and if anyone embodies the genre’s ability to innovate from the bottom up, it’s Metallica. Like Hetfield says on “Frantic,” you live it or lie it. Unless of course, you invented the formula. Then you feel obligated to turn it into New Coke once in a while.

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Just Between Friends

At their second New York appearance together since the Go-Betweens’ breakup, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster played to a packed Merc June 8 with no backup, little patter, and the bemused geniality of former allies in a lost cause.

In the postpunk ’80s, the Go-Betweens were like farmers battling cowboys over homesteads in Nebraska. They wanted to stay in one place and make things grow. They were wrestling with feminism and funny about it, always losing arguments with women who wanted to take other lovers (though satisfied with them). Spiking grubby credibility with irrational elation and plainstyle poetics with a radiant sound McLennan once dubbed the “striped sunlight effect” (as through Venetian blinds), their struggles were so sharply delineated fans could believe the songs were about themselves.

The Merc fans gave back keen attention, effortless sing-along, knowing nods at fine phrases, a communally drawn breath as McLennan uttered his plaintive rallying cry, “Faithful‘s not a bad word.” But the mood was hardly slavish; nor was that what either performer seemed to want. When McLennan asked the crowd, “How did that sound?” after the song was over, it was a pleasantly businesslike question.

“Bachelor Kisses” was certainly a high point, though the hour-and-a-half, three-encore set was consistently strong. It made room for solo material, songs they’d just written, and lots of titles from the new (but never cited) best-of Bellavista Terrace. My own favorite was Forster’s “Danger in the Past,” where, moved by the crowd response to his rhyme of “curse” with “Perth,” he fell into a spasm of comic miming. While McLennan, now a cute, graying middle-aged man, was dressed more stolidly than anyone else in the room, Forster was foppish in cream suit and lipstick. In the old days, while his bandmates wore street clothes or Sunday best, his hair color changed and leotards made you wonder what tensions that caused, or expressed— though it was tensions with the pair’s musical and romantic partners, Amanda Brown and Lindy Morrison, that proved terminal. Yet a peculiarly kindred spirit remains at the band’s old core. As to full-scale reunion, was there anything they could do? Probably not, but on this scale there might be something. — Carola Dibbell


Magmanimous

Explaining Magma to nonbelievers is likely to prompt much eye-rolling. OK, there’s this prog band, they’re French, and they invented their own language. (Kobaian, the better to express an endearingly anachronistic futurism centering around the outer-space Eden of Kobaia.) But any doubters at Wetlands last Tuesday got their asses whupped. At their first NYC appearance in 26 years, Magma put on a dazzling display— ridiculously ambitious, utterly in control, rocking as hell. Lengthy pieces— they played four songs in about 90 minutes— ended in enormous, ecstatic crescendos. Drummer, founder, and guiding
spirit Christian Vander— whose portly frame,
ruddy face, odd hair, and facial contortions made him resemble a monk gone to seed— seemed tentative as they opened with “Köhntarközs.” But the piece combusted after about 20 minutes, or roughly the halfway point. Later the seven piece— drums, keys, guitar, bass, and three vocalists— had fans singing along. In Kobaian. Less obsessive onlookers marveled at an emotional and spiritual expressionism rarely associated with prog.

Perhaps even more than other ’70s Euro art rockers, Magma make for difficult description. Not jazz, though Vander’s a Coltrane freak; not rock, though the guitar and bass are miles more wrenching than fusion; certainly not classical, despite the pomp and the “operatic” vocals. The singers wrung arresting choral effects from hisses, whispers, frantic chanting, and baroque wails. When their melodic lines doubled the keys or guitars, it maximized the high-end impact— a good thing, given Vander’s attack and the brawny bass lines slammed out by Philippe Bussonnet. One beauty of Kobaian is that since the language is inaccessible, all attention is focused on the
overall sonic richness. “It is not music for short attention spans,” went Giorgio Gomelsky’s introduction. “Anyone with a short attention span should go to the Knitting Factory.” At the merch booth, $30 brass belt buckles depicting Magma’s bat-wing­esque logo sold out. Sun Ra, wherever you are, eat your heart out. — Jon Fine


Off the Scale

“The harder you hit, the more shit I’m gonna give you. It’s that fuckin’ easy,” drawls the carny hawking his Test Your Strength meter at Ozzfest’s Never Never Land. His pitch goes unnoticed: today, hell’s just too fuckin’ hot. But wait, who’s that picking up the mallet, aiming for the metal mark?

It’s the Swedish chicks from Drain S.T.H.! With a hard thwack of the hammer the meter
rises while the boys in the crowd cheer. Up, up, up, the meter registers Brute! (“Not only do they rock, but they harmonize!”) System of a Down step up to the plate and surprise the masses with their Muscle Man reading. (“They yell ‘Kosovo! NATO! Do you know why?’ They question authority!”) Godsmack don’t fare as well, recording a Nice Try. (“But keep up the droning morning affirmation of ‘I’m doing the best I can!’ over and over and over.”) Next, Primus two-step their way to the mark. With a twang and a thudump, the gauge soars. It’s a Manwich! (“Primus suck! The mystery man disguised in a KFC bucket, swinging a neon nunchaku, is a hollerin’ hoot!”) Slayer don’t disappoint either, scoring Brute on the thrash-o-meter. (“The crowd pumps devil-horned fists! Slayer throw out signature drumsticks!”) Godsmack smile when the Deftones fall short of the Nice Try mark. Their incessant stating of the obvious— “This is the hottest show yet”— earn them Weakling. (“No shit it’s hot! We’re all gonna burn in hell!”) Then Rob Zombie stomps through in a blaze of pyrotechnics and proceeds to use his head as the hammer. It’s a He-Man Richter rating! (“Not only does he know how to make an impression but he’s a feminist too: ‘You are the Sabbath girls!’ ‘You are not the nice girls!’ “) With the sun safely set, Ozzy Osbourne cometh forth. His audience bows in deference. The Test Your Strength meter reads an unprecedented Iron Man before crumbling into a pile of dust. — Carla Spartos