I grew up paying more attention to drums than I did lyrics. This is my best excuse for my extensive collection of Smashing Pumpkins material to the exclusion of Bob Dylan. As a prepubescent, my favorite album was a shameless, though well-executed, Christian imitation of Guns n’ Roses by a band called Bride, who later went on to create shameless, and less well-executed, imitations of subsequent musical trends. I’ve since branched out, as one does, acquiring a taste for the sensitive poet types, the gloomy piano types, the eccentric noise types, the Detroit soul types, but this screaming, fast, gnarled rock thing is ground zero for me, a home that I love as irrationally and unconditionally as anyone loves the places where they grew up.
I am not going to pretend that I know much about heavy metal’s genesis, about its foundational sounds or principles or places. I was not exactly a metalhead. My commitment issues preclude me from really diving into any one subculture. I do know that, like most popular forms of musical expression, metal has gone through several unfortunate turns, each one generating a new cadre of fans who wish it would hasten back to its roots, whatever those may be. And I have heard some modern attempts – Mastodon, The Sword – hailed for doing just that. There is a community out there somewhere that recognizes this, that some sort of ethic has been adhered to or spurned in any case, but what that ethic is eludes me.
I know even less about metal’s local incarnation. My impression is that it has coalesced into something that only happens at the Curtain Club, something like an Elk’s lodge of power-riff aficionados. Given my nesting theory about the music we call home, I probably should have joined them a long time ago. But I am supposed to be older and wiser and that is also supposed to imply some kind of refinement and maybe I entertained too seriously the priggishness that whatever goes on in places like the Curtain Club is less refined. I left the matter unexplored until recently, when I became acquainted with Maleveller.
I made a deliberate effort to see Maleveller play the opening set at the Doublewide on May 5 at the behest of my tattoo artist. Once, as he traced clouds across my arm in ink pen, and the conversation turned to DFW’s best musical acts, he threw out a vote for Maleveller, about whom I had never heard. My tattooist’s preferences range from Motown to math rock, so there is no way of guessing the nature of what he might suggest. In my half a dozen sessions with him, I had come to know him not only as a skillful artist, but also as a fairly reliable ipod DJ – one of the new useless skill sets technology has carved out for us. Given the band’s name, I had good reason to believe they lived on the thrashier side of life, and I was certain that something thrashier was just the sort of nostalgic gratification I craved.
Metal band names have an almost onomatopoeic quality. Maleveller, Slayer, Sabbath, Motörhead, Pantera. Like metal’s vocal bellowing, it is more about how the name sounds, rolls off the tongue, than what it implies. Evocation over connotation, Metal’s appeal is almost entirely visceral. All the varieties of music we give names like “harsh” or “aggressive” or “intense” are buttressed by rhythm. Those who have any affection for this sort of music feel something vital about its corpus and its beating organs. It seems absolutely goofy to attribute such grand palpability to something that is so obnoxious to a lot of people, but it seems just as goofy to think that Bill Haley & His Comets used to cause riots. Powerful affectation can arise from unlikely circumstances, even just a good beat.
Far from the excesses that besmirch some of the metal genre’s gimmicky commercial success, the crowd at the Doublewide that night evoked an almost working-class austerity. Black t-shirts and blue jeans were the norm, beards were worn unironically. One could imagine this hearkening back to a younger Black Sabbath, whose members spent their days in sheet metal factories and slaughterhouses, scrapping for night gigs in pubs. I could easily imagine this is the situation with Maleveller. Though I know nothing about the members’ various day lives, they began and carried out their set with the unyielding seriousness and urgency of a yeoman.
It had been probably too long since I had really had my cranium rattled by a guitar amp or since I had heard a twin guitar solo. Let’s be clear on something: twin guitar solos are a gift from Jesus, a miracle of sound that actual musicians know is easy to replicate, but I think is patent wizardry. The rest of it too filled me with a slaphappy awe, the gravity of sound, every hamfisted swipe at my senses, meant in some economy to be clumsy, but that Maleveller corralled into an unlikely elegance.
Maleveller was not recommended in vain. They employed a practiced attack I recognized and adored. The rumor is they spent their formative days as a band locked in a room somewhere, practicing incessantly until they got it right. Musicians such as these are admirable exactly for the reasons rock and roll’s perversions are scorned. Maleveller did not indulge in cheap bravado or frivolity. They toiled in the true sense, with a duty and care that is a luxury in contemporary behavior. They validated the cagey metal ethic that finds beauty in struggle and strangely vigorous life in pursuit of death.
Afterward, I approached vocalist and guitarist Brian Smith for an EP, whose cover features some saintly, avian creature with a snake tail. Admittedly, there is a quality to metal that reveals one’s inner dork. Brian offers me first an apology and then a boast. “[The EP] is only three songs,” he admits, “but it’s twenty minutes long.” Such marathon tactics have always been one of metal’s endearing traits, a descriptor one could easily apply to the genre as a whole — the earnestness, the work ethic, the stony, serious approach to forging these lengthy mini-opuses of sharp provocation. There’s a bewitching quality to all of it that is refinement in its own right, and, for me, a satisfying familiarity.