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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dethklok : Live Review

6.6.08 - Wiltern Theatre - Los Angeles, CA
by Taylor Kingsbury

There is a heavy mist of genuine surreality in the air tonight at the Wiltern, as a sold out, sweaty mass of metal fans shake their horns in the air and chant the name of the band we await. Now, each part of this ritual is completely normal behavior for a metal show, but the reason it’s just a little unusual tonight is because the band we’re chanting for, death metal titans Dethklok, doesn’t actually exist.

Dethklok are in fact animated characters from the wickedly brilliant Adult Swim show “Metalocalypse” who, in addition to being one of the world’s premiere metal bands, routinely murder their fans and embezzle money from themselves, but still find time to found charitable organizations like the “Dethklok Home For Wayward Kitties”. Oh, and they write a mean coffee jingle.

Or, at least, that’s what they WERE. Thanks to the clever marketing of creator Brendan Small, Dethklok has managed to snag more mainstream exposure than most “real” metal bands could ever hope for. In addition to their episodic adventures, Dethklok have an actual album (2007’s “The Dethalbum”, naturally) that holds the distinction of being the highest charting Death Metal release of all time (Billboard #21). Also, button-mashing faux-rockers with way too much time on their hands no doubt recognize Dethklok’s hit single “Thunderhorse” as one of the unlockable songs from Guitar Hero II, and have likely strived for the holy grail of mastering the nimble tune on “Expert” mode. To further confuse things, Dethklok’s vocalist, the effortlessly gravel-throated Nathan Explosion, has even turned up on records by other, non-animated bands, most notably the recent release from Zimmer’s Hole, the side-project that features all of the guys from Strapping Young Lad in a band that’s not called Strapping Young Lad.

Considering how much Dethklok have crossed the plane between their cartoon world and our unsuspecting reality, it almost seems entirely possible that five animated dudes are about to walk on stage and completely lay waste to the Wiltern.

It turns out that only four guys walk out, and they’re not cartoons, but they DO, in fact, lay waste to the Wiltern.

Instead of Nathan Explosion, Skwisgaar Skwigelf (guitars), Toki Wartooth (guitars), William “Murderface Murderface” Murderface (bass), and Pickles The Drummer (uh… drums), we are greeted by an ensemble led by Brendan Small, who, along with drum god Gene Hoglan, is responsible for the unrelentingly brutal tunes that pack each episode of “Metalocalypse”, and the “Dethalbum”.

Of course, one of the reasons that Dethklok’s onscreen adventures hit such a perfect chord is that their music, as created by Small and associates, manages to strike a keen balance between lampooning the genre and owning it. If Dethklok WERE a real band (which, tonight, they apparently are… or something), even the most discerning metalhead would be hard-pressed to find a reason why “Briefcase Full Of Guts” doesn’t completely kill.

Though we don’t get the actual Dethklok live experience (which would be, you know, completely impossible, since they don’t really exist), what Small and his band present tonight is no less enjoyable. Our beloved heroes ARE on hand, thanks to a continuous screen feed that presents full-length videos for songs that are only teased in snippets on the show, as well as original content created specifically for the live performance (for any fan of the show, these humorous vignettes are worth the admission alone). But the “live” aspect of the show is handled by Small, who, with flying V in hand, tackles the parts of both Nathan Explosion and Skwisgaar Skwigelf, drummer Gene Hoglan, guitarist Mike Keneally, and bassist Bryan Beller, none of whom seem to have any trouble recreating the intricate and expertly-crafted corners of Dethklok’s catalog.

Special mention needs to be made of Gene Hoglan, the undisputed best metal drummer ever, whose savage beats are key to the success of Dethklok’s genre skewerings. For the uninitiated, Hoglan gained notice for his more nuanced work with legendary death metal pioneers Death and the good-in-drums-only Dark Angel, before showing the world that he can seriously put the hurt on a drum kit as the skinsman for the ludicrously awesome Strapping Young Lad. Since there was always a hint of parody lurking behind SYL’s smirking delivery (in fact, they’re the closest thing to Dethklok a “real” band has ever been), it makes sense that Hoglan would be the one to bring Dethklok’s backbeat to life.

On record, Hoglan’s stunning double-kicks and blindingly quick blast beats sound so perfect, it seems impossible that they’re not machine-created. Live, it’s easy to see that Hoglan IS the machine, and he delivered his parts with the same preciseness and ease. Hoglan makes his work sound incredible, but look effortless, and he hardly seems to break a sweat onstage. This is amazing considering that the band blasted through most of the set without between-song lulls, and also considering that Hoglan is easily over 300 pounds.

The band played in relative darkness, letting the screen behind them provide the visual focal point. But, even though we were supposed to be watching the cartoon versions of the band, it was impossible not to stop to admire the live-action members as they slugged through most of the “Dethalbum” and tackled select bonus material like the immortal “Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle”.

At the end of the show, when Small finally broke character to introduce the “real” band, it didn’t seem like a cheat, nor did it cheapen the experience. The man certainly deserves credit for creating such a rich and enjoyable cross-medium experience, and the crowd broke character with him, cheering not for fictional lead singer Nathan Explosion, but for the man who puts the gurgle in his throat.

Initially, when Small announced the “Dethtour”, he compared the experience to a Gorillaz show, where the animated characters would be the emphasis of the presentation. Though this is what I walked in expecting, it turns out that what Small gave us instead was far more fitting. By taking center stage himself, he allowed the audience to be in on the joke, which is more in line with the sense of community that thrives in the metal scene.

And, after all, Small created Dethklok and wrote their music for the same reason that each person at the Wiltern converged to watch it: a sincere love of a much-maligned and hideously-misunderstood genre called “Metal”. The fact that so many of us gathered to watch a group of stand-ins play songs by a band that doesn’t really exist, and loved every minute of it, is a indication of the genius of Small’s creation. Whether or not Dethklok can be considered a legitimate band, the passion and energy behind them, and that which they solicit, are very real.

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