15 August 2006

These horns, they do not wink, my son

So a couple weeks ago I saw 3 Inches of Blood at the Knit with Early Man and Bad Wizard.1 Bad Wizard won hands down, and they went on first. Go figure.

Bad Wizard occupy some beer-stained grey area between late-90s stoner rock and early-2000s garage rock, mostly the former. The rhythm section swings hard and fast; the riffs are all uniformly simple and repetitive in that bloozy kinda way; and the lyrics seem almost exclusively concerned with sex and weed. None of those statements are criticisms, by the way. The frontman was terrific, not too showy, just a guy who seemed completely at ease on stage, like if you met him elsewhere he'd seem like the kind of guy who ought to be on a stage somewhere; not at all in an off-putting way, just very comfortable. He'd shout out semi-intelligible intros between each number like, "'S one's called 'Natch'l High' y'all know'm talk'n'bout" and the band would launch into some variation on the previous song. Awesome.

Then came Early Man. Problematic.

Heavy metal is the only genre I can think of that simply has no place for irony. I used to dig acts like Beck and Pavement, who would wander from genre to genre without ever pulling their tongues from their cheeks, finding goofy thrills in whatever sounds they stumbled upon. Styles like hiphop, hardcore, country, etc, could withstand these jokers because it's possible to rap funny lyrics badly and still pull off a killer tune if the beat's funky enough.

Metal's a pretty delicate house of cards; you have to play it like you mean it, or it doesn't work. If you try to put it in quotes, it just sounds lame. Part of the underlying appeal of metal is that no matter how extreme it gets, those playing it sound like they believe in it 100%. The best metal bands thrash like their lives depend on it, like they'd go to war for the right to bang their heads. As a listener, I need this in order to buy into it.

Metal is fantasy; adolescent, masculine fantasy, whether it's about battling evil sorcerers or chopping up bodies. It's powerful, ultimately kind of silly, a lot of fun and a terrrific release. But if the performers acknowledge the absurdity of it, the illusion fails.2 So when Early Man got up there and started playing a bunch of riffs that essentially said "Hey, we're a 'heavy metal' band, get it?" it let all the air out of their admittedly tight-as-shit playing3 from the first number. Yeah dude, we all know metal's kinda dorky, you don't need to play the cool card for us. Afraid to look foolish by letting yourself get too into it? Play math rock. Metal's ridiculous enough on its own; it doesn't need your help.

Vancouver's 3 Inches of Blood4 tread dangerously close to just-kidding territory, but play with just enough conviction to pull it off. They're one of those bands whose lyrics are actually about heavy metal, so they come off as kind of a minor league Man-O-War. What's interesting about them is that they have two singers: one guy for the high-pitched screams and falsetto wails, another guy doing mid-frequency Cookie Monster shrieks that sound more like static from faulty equipment than a human voice.5 The audience was into them, there was a lot of synchronised fist-pumping, and soon I was swept away with the crowd. Kick ass.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Best shirts (and you know metal shows are all about the shirts): blue ribbon goes to the Early Man shirt with the skull-faced unicorn; runner-up goes to the Bad Wizard one that just lifted the Oakland Raiders logo wholesale with "BAD WIZARD" written across the top (can't find a picture, I'm afraid; bonus points for not even being from the Bay Area; everybody knows the Raiders are the discerning headbanger's sports team of choice; I mean, their fans dress like KISS auditioning for a Mad Max sequel). [Return]
  2. Exhibit A: the Fucking Champs, a band noteable almost exclusively for their song titles. Come to think of it, Don Caballero, another band whose chops far exceed their listenability, also have some pretty terrific titles and rarely live up to them. Same goes for Anal Cunt. And some of these newer dress-up punk bands like Panic At the Disco are starting to gravitate towards more and more elaborate titles as well. Theory: humour of song titles is inversely proportional to quality of music. Discuss. Actually Anal Cunt's not bad. But not as good as their titles, either.[Return]
  3. Early Man, by the way, have no bass player. Not only is this detrimental to their sound, but the resultant two-guitarists-and-a-drummer lineup serves to remind one of the John Spencer Blues Explosion, a more than apt comparison. They're also on Matador Records; coincidence? [Return]
  4. Man, they're just beggin' for it with that name, aren't they? [Return]
  5. This guy aroused my suspicions upon initial entrance due to his short hair (a serious red flag for irony-metal), but those doubts were cast aside when I heard him speak between songs and detected a European, possibly even Scandinavian, accent. When it comes to metal, Europeans do not fuck around. [Return]

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