Every indication was that the Los Angeles stop of cartoon metal band Dethklok’s first “live” tour last fall was going to be a disappointment. Long before the first distorted chord had been played, the noxious odor of corporate branding stunk up UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom: gaudy Virgin-sponsored projection screens flanking the stage, a Guitar Hero III booth off to the side, an obnoxious commercial for the Dethklok CD The Dethalbum running on continuous loop during set breaks. Nobody in the audience was scary looking, a sure sign that this was one metal show not intended for the metalheads. And by the chants of “Don’t quit your day jobs!” and “Dethklok! Dethklok!” that Trail of Dead endured during their insultingly short opening slot, it was apparent that a lot of the college kids in the audience were there just for something to do.
Just as well, though, because this concert didn’t much highlight the music anyway. The four live musicians on stage ripped through choice selections from The Dethalbum, turning the tame recorded versions of “Birthday Dethday,” “Awaken,” and “Briefcase Full of Guts” into convincingly raw metal performances. And yet the live band was shrouded in darkness the entire time, literally overshadowed by the giant projection screen behind them, which broadcast seizure-inducing music videos during every song and animated shorts with the Metalocalypse cast of characters between songs. The show’s creator and frontman, Brendon Small, kept audience interaction to a minimum, saying only the obligatory “What’s up, UCLA?” and admitting at concert’s end, “I’d like to have sex with each and every one of you.”
The majesty of The Dethalbum is that its solid thrash tunes (dubbed “Sweet Blowjobby Metal” by Metalocalypse mascot Facebones in one animated sequence) are solid enough to stand alone from the TV show that birthed them. So it was extra frustrating that the concert producers insisted on funneling all attention on the cartoon itself, especially considering the caliber of the musicians bringing Dethklok’s music to life. Small grunted the tongue-in-cheek lyrics and ripped out stunning guitar leads simultaneously, smooshing together Dethklok vocalist Nathan Explosion and lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigell into a single, slowly balding figure. Drummer Gene Hoglan brought the same faultless death-metal chops that earned him respect with Death and Strapping Young Lad. And guitarist Mike Keneally (who replaced Steve Vai in Frank Zappa’s late-’80s touring band) and bassist Bryan Beller (part of Keneally’s band) had no problems segueing into heavy metal from their normal jazz-rock-fusion activities.
The pieces were in place for this live show to justify the band’s fictional status as the most popular metal band on the planet, but it wasn’t to be. Everything was in service of Metalocalypse as a cartoon rather than Dethklok as a metal band. Of course, the show’s core audience is made of college kids, not metalheads or even music fans, and Small has never attempted to hide that fact. He gave a winking salute to his audience with “Go Forth and Die” (“Move in with your parents/ Back into the dark/ Landed where you started/ Bachelor of Arts”), accompanied during the show by images of skeletons in grad gowns falling into freshly dug graves. Even the decision to distribute free tickets to UCLA students felt like a calculated ploy to appeal to the Metalocalypse college audience and nobody else.
The animated sequences were hilarious, just like the TV show. The songs and musicianship were great, even better than on record. And so the big problem with the live Dethklok experience was one of concept, not execution. The live Dethklok experience had the potential to knock down that fourth wall between fiction and reality, and instead it was a glorified, louder version of a Metalocalypse episode, powered by the Cartoon Network’s clever marketing department. Maybe that was enough for the hundreds of students in the audience. But thank god they didn’t have to pay to get in, because as a live concert, this one felt pretty empty.