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Dave Grohl has never been shy about trading on his celebrity status—not if it means making music with his heroes. And, really, who can blame him? In the past year alone, the ex-Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman has gotten to pound the skins for postpunk institution Killing Joke and jam on the Grammys with electric-jazz pioneer Chick Corea.
To his credit, Grohl has never worried about working with influences who might not appeal to his core audience. Even when said heroes are—Hades, help us—of the cult-metal variety. Initially conceived as an antidote to the lite rock of Foo Fighters’ third record, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, Grohl’s Probot project is like a hard-rock analog to The Neptunes Present…Clones or Santana’s Supernatural: an album written and recorded for “a lot of different vocalists.” Indeed, the resulting lineup of singers scans like a Who’s Who of underground metal circa Grohl’s ’80s youth: King Diamond, Venom frontman Cronos, and local legend Scott “Wino” Weinrich are but a few who represent. Yet despite the considerable talent on display, Probot, a majority of which Grohl wrote in three days, ain’t exactly a hesher’s dream.
By his own admission, Grohl is more “red-blooded hardcore kid” than heavy-metal hellion—no matter what he may have picked up doing a little crossover listening in his bedroom back home. (Or, for that matter, touring and recording with Queens of the Stone Age.) And it shows: If it weren’t for the gruff, theatrical vocals of Celtic Frost’s Tom G. Warrior and Voivod’s Snake, “Big Sky” and “Dictatosaurus,” respectively, would sound about as metalliferous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” On both songs, Grohl, who hogs most of Probot’s instrumental duties, defaults to radio-ready, alt-rock choruses, eschewing contemporary metal’s most genre-specific trademarks. No priest-shredding blast beats, no goat-piercing guitar solos.
Given his celebratory liner notes, Grohl can be safely assumed to have intended Probot as an homage rather than a Garage Days Revisited–style statement of re-imaginative purpose. But even as such, Probot is a little low-rent. After a couple of songs it’s clear: Grohl doesn’t do metal qua metal so much as he uses his guests’ vocals as a stylistic signifier. Where there’s no metal vocalizing, there’s just no metal. “Access Babylon,” which features Corrosion of Conformity’s Mike Dean, is straight-up punk rock, the singer barking a monotone impression of Bad Brains’ HR over Grohl’s dog-paddle drumming and nervous-twitch chording. And the “Big Yellow Taxi” rewrite “Silent Spring” is more Black Flag than Black Sabbath, with D.R.I.’s Kurt Brecht belching Rollinslike to Grohl’s three-chord skate rock.
Sonics aside, most of Probot’s singers couldn’t even be bothered to turn in a half-decent lyric. “Shake Your Blood,” for example, is a great pastiche of Motörhead’s meth-head rumble, but Lemmy’s dud of a refrain ain’t exactly up to his sleazy standards: “Rock out, make it quick/My, my, my, let it rip.” (You half expect him to follow it up with a blood-curdling “Huzzah!”) Cathedral frontman Lee Dorrian’s “Ice Cold Man” lyrics are similarly dire: “Ice Cold man watches earth die,” he sings over Grohl’s crawling-the-tundra riff. “Beneath a veil of black ice/He sees now hell once paradise.” Soulfly mouthpiece Max Cavalera, by contrast, attempts a critique of American imperialism with his “Red War,” but manages only de la Rocha–level insight: “Babylon is full of hypocrisy/You feel the hate is for real/…WatchYaBackWatchYaBackWatchYaBack.”
But anything other than the 99th percentile of metal lyric-writing is too easy a target, so let’s get to the point: Though technically not a compilation, Probot suffers as if it were one. After all, musicians seldom give up their best stuff for someone else’s record. And nobody gave up his best for Probot—not even Grohl. Not once does he offer a vocalist an unexpected or challenging musical setting; each track is designed merely to show what its guest star used to do. Or maybe still can do.
Stuck inside one man’s version of the past, Probot harks back to punk’s first forays into things metallic. Most of the singers—a majority of whom are genre purebreds—probably signed on for some celebrity frisson, some coverage in magazines that don’t feature the words “metal” or “terror” in their titles. And I hope they get it—because they also got had.
The End, on the other hand, makes heavy metal that is relentlessly present-tense. Like so many clean-cut, khaki-wearing headbangers nowadays, these kids from southern Ontario burn, burn, burn through change after technical change, sometimes slowing down for dramatic effect, but more often going as fast as hands and feet will allow. Who knows whether the End and its peers are too young to fear the stigma of metal and prog or are just too snotty to care. Either way, from Dillinger Escape Plan to Coheed and Cambria, the underground is now chock-full of groups like this—groups that sound exactly like long-hairs but go about their business like punks.
Zeitgeist be damned, though—there’s something kind of special about the End. For starters, the band’s first full-length, Within Dividia, eschews the most knuckle-dragging aspects of metalcore. Steve Watson and Andrew Hercules’ wildly distorted, radio-static guitars always sound brittle rather than brutal, as if they might snap at any moment. Most of the time, these guys are chasing Frippertronic patterns up their fret boards, but they also know how to drone like Thurston & Lee (“The Sense of Reverence”) and create moments of horrific psychedelia like Amon Düül II (“Fetesque”). And even when Watson and Hercules chunk away on some drop-tuned mosh riffs (“Organelle (In She We Lust)”), their noisy, eggheady guitars suggest Albert Ayler, not Anthrax.
Plus, every track on Dividia is lyrically connected: The whole thing revolves around “the Dividia estate, the bloodline Dividia, and the events that befall these people.” And, yes, it probably is a concept album—even though Hercules claims it’s just, like, “conceptual.” But more than most metal acts, the End takes a literary—even Faulkneresque—approach to the unified work. And for once, someone has given extreme metal vocals a context that’s believable. Aaron Wolff’s nervous-breakdown singing actually makes sense coming from a character who has just screwed a relative. “To love your own/Is the path of righteousness,” he screams on “The Scent of Elegance.” “Can you smell it?/The scene is ripe with the scent/The scent of incest.”
Before it’s all over, there’s a murder (“Dear Martyr”) and a burning corpse (“Of Fist and Flame”), lest the groundlings think the band is too arty or anything. (That sepia-tinted cover does look a lot like one of those Vintage paperbacks.) Still, as concept albums go, Dividia is less ridiculous than, say, the one about that deaf, dumb, and blind pinball-playing kid. Besides, metal fans are used to ignoring far worse concepts just to get at music that’s not even half as over-the-top as the End’s. If that reads like faint praise, it’s not meant to: In the faster-weirder-smarter scramble, Within Dividia is ahead of just about everything. CP