The well-deserved success of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse animated series is both validation and a cause for concern for the extreme-metal community. On one hand, here is a TV show on a major network that embraces the values of metal’s underground contingent. On the other hand, the five bumbling, virtual protagonists of Metalocalypse are not very representative candidates for death metal ambassadorship, so there’s a problem if their fictional quintet, Dethklok, is hogging the genre’s fifteen minutes of fame.
So the debut of Dethklok’s The Dethalbum at number twenty-one on the Billboard charts — the highest position ever reached by a death-metal album — is a victory more for the Cartoon Network than for the extreme-metal community. Flesh-and-blood metal acts like Carcass, Cannibal Corpse and Dimmu Borgir (members of which have all supplied vocal cameos on Metalocalypse) have never enjoyed the promotional ballast lumped on their animated Dethklok counterparts Nathan Explosion, Skwisgaar Skwigell, Toki Wartooth, William Murderface and Pickles. And even if they did, non-cartoon death-metal bands would lack the overt absurdity that makes the Dethklok concept so appealing to the mainstream.
Still, kudos are due to creator Brendon Small for writing music badass enough to please the metalheads and accessible enough to please everyone else. Small’s got the ideal satire formula down, magnifying the conventions of metal culture to (ahem) cartoonish proportions and giving ’em a big bear hug at the same time. Metal’s violent masculinity and/or obsession with fantastical themes smear pretty much every song on The Dethalbum. “Murmaider” opens the album with a recipe for killing mermaids; elsewhere Finnish cave trolls and giant mechanical snakes are summoned to unleash destruction on ancient foes, people with birthdays (“Birthday Dethday”), and the government (“Dethharmonic”). Hatred is even meted out to loyal Dethklok supporters on “Fansong.” When filtered through each song’s laughably over-the-top lyrical conceit, the band’s all-encompassing hatred comes across as almost lovable.
The tireless parody might get a little old if it weren’t for the solid metal behind it. Small stays true to the black-metal tradition of the lone auteur, performing everything but drums himself. The riff style lacks the brutality of authentic death metal — setting aside Small’s death-whisper vocals, The Dethalbum sounds more like the classically influenced melodic thrash of mid-period Metallica, mixed with a bit of Amon Amarth’s lusty Viking-metal swing. But revered drummer Gene Hoglan (ex-Death/Strapping Young Lad) keeps the double-kicking death-metal connection intact, and in the Metalocalypse universe, Small’s whizbang guitar solos and the imperial riffs of “Go into the Water” and “Briefcase Full of Guts” might be enough to propel Dethklok to its virtual status as the twelfth largest economy on earth.
Sad as it is to admit that the popularity of Metalocalypse may have little connection to the popularity of extreme metal, the fact that The Dethalbum isn’t an embarrassment is a pleasant surprise; that it functions as a respectable metal album and transcends its own silliness is kinda freaky. It’s a trick that meta-metal pranksters like Gwar consistently fail to pull off, and frankly, there are plenty of po-faced extreme-metal bands out there whose output isn’t half as enjoyable as Dethklok’s. Cartoons or no, these guys are certainly worth signing a pain waiver to hear.