DETH CHURCH RISING: THE METALOCALYPSE SAGA’S ECSTATIC FINALE
Dethklok/Metalocalypse Mastermind Brendon Small discusses the full circle finality of Army of The Doomstar and how ‘Dethalbum IV’ was a test of how truly heavy this project could be.
‘I can stand behind this. Nobody messed with it. Nobody told me not to do it. They had every opportunity. And still it came out.’
Brendon Small is getting what’s owed him. Small is co-creator of Metalocalypse and its stars, Dethklok. They are a band of extraordinary brutality and such immense wealth they constitute one of the largest economies in the world. Now Small has written, directed and stars in the final instalment of their story, Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar. As the principal musician behind the band’s IRL recorded output, he is also releasing their fourth full-length, Dethalbum IV, and is soon to embark on a co-headline tour with Babymetal.
This onslaught of activity has been a long time coming. Dethklok last hit our screens ten years ago, in the 45-minute ‘Klok Opera’, Metalocalypse: The Doomstar Requiem. It’s been a long road to the feature-length Army of the Doomstar. How much have these characters transformed in the intervening period? What has or hasn’t changed about Nathan Explosion (vocals), William Murderface (vocals), Skwisgaar Skwigelf (guitar), Toki Wartooth (guitar) and Pickles (drums)?
‘How do you conclude a show from the beginning to the end?’ asks Small. ‘Because oftentimes, characters need to be in stasis, frozen in their age on TV, especially in animation. What we had were these five myopic celebrity idiots, from the very beginning, who were not necessarily doing anything for others. They’re selfish. They’re rude. And they’re not terribly intelligent.’
I spoke to Small before this year’s strikes in the film and television industry. He created Metalocaplyse alongside Tommy Blacha for Adult Swim and it first aired in August 2006. It arrived amidst a glut of reality TV just before the 2007-8 WGA strike. Small was sick of watching Paris Hilton, the admittedly great Ozzy Osbourne and then the Kardashians, ‘trudging through their day’.
The idea came to him to make a show that denounced this obsession with celebrity. The twist was to make its subject a heavy metal band. Since This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, heavy metal has been ripe for affectionate parody. In the 00s, the genre had moved beyond the nu metal era. Green shoots were showing with the arrival of bands like Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage. Emo was dominant but metal, and its extreme sub-variants, was growing again.
Army of the Doomstar picks up directly after the events of The Doomstar Requiem. The conclusion of that film saw the rescue of Toki and producer Abigail Remeltindrinc from the grasp of nemesis the Metal Masked Assassin (voiced by Corpsegrinder of Cannibal Corpse). The after-effects, evident in the opening of the new movie, are not good. Toki is traumatised, Nathan is despondent, and there’s something up with Murderface.
‘The idea of this last movie, this last incarnation, is the final mutation where they [Dethklok] have to grow beyond where they started,’ says Small. ‘And that’s what I think the real challenge is. How do you put them at their worst and make them go to hell and back, and have them have to grow out of this negative connotation? That’s what they’ve lived in this entire series.’
There are three story and character arcs to the new film. Small defines them as: from selfish to selfless; from corporate to religion; and, from celebrity to servants. When we meet Dethklok in the very first episode of the first season, their staff are preparing them a banquet. At long last, the tables are being turned.
For Small, it has been long-awaited, unfinished business: ‘I’m owed a certain amount of character wrap-ups.’
For a band all about obnoxious brutality, this is a surprisingly spiritual movie. If heavy metal didn’t have religion to rail against, it would have to invent it. But in this case, Dethklok embraces it. The first act is set almost entirely in a place of worship: The Church of the Black Klok. A piece of music called the “Song Of Salvation” is central to the plot. For Small, Nathan Explosion is the movie’s ‘dipshit Messiah’. But then again, Metalocalypse has always been about spreading the word.
‘Here’s a show that, ultimately, is evangelical about heavy metal,’ says Small. ‘So, like these characters or hate them, we’re spreading the word of heavy metal. And we’re getting it into your living room. Because sometimes you don’t have a cool older sibling, or friend down the street to teach you about what this is. So we’re going to kick that door open.’
In Army of the Doomstar, after a lifetime of trying to please, Nathan wants to tap out. He is surly and insular. Through him, the film explores toxic stardom, as much as toxic fandom and toxic masculinity. Dethklok treat each other appallingly. ‘Fuckbags’ is one of the profane neologisms tossed out while the band argues. The fans don’t fare much better.
‘They treat their fans like shit,’ says Small. ‘They hate their fans, they abhor them.’
The fans give it back just as hard. ‘Where’s the new music?!’ they demand. Small sees Army of the Doomstar as a twisted romantic comedy where the band and fans move apart, then come back together for the greater good.
As for Nathan, self-loathing is part of his character. In the episode ‘Dethfam’ from the first season, he is so repulsed by his parents he comes out with one his funniest and most withering lines: ‘The fact that my parents had sex in order to create me makes me want to be buried alive.’
‘I remember in the nineties reading an article about Cher cancelling a tour because of exhaustion,’ says Small. ‘And I thought: Exhaustion, what is that? What is exhaustion? And then I started to look deeper and go, oh, this is an overwhelming feeling of “How the hell am I supposed to keep up this crazy charade, day in and day out?!”’
If Nathan is an unwilling Messiah, Murderface is his Judas. In the movie he harbours a secret; one that Small describes as an ‘articulation of his own selfishness’. His arm is infected with something, possessed and deformed like Tetsuo’s from the classic anime Akira.
‘Until Murderface is fixed we don’t get salvation,’ warns Small.
Redemption is at the heart of the story. Nathan knows the band has to write the “Song Of Salvation”, an epic in the vein of Dethklok classics “Go Into The Water” and “Black Fire Upon Us”. He must shrug off earthly concerns and become a musical god. But he chooses the fist instead of the hand. Dethklok’s first attempt (and the first single from Dethalbum IV), “Aortic Desecration”, is ‘a tantrum’, according to Small. To help them achieve their goal, they re-enlist the help of producer Dick Knubbler, who has evolved himself: from a thinly veiled Phil Spector to more a therapist-guru in the vein of Rick Rubin.
‘I knew what the [actual] “Song Of Salvation” was,’ says Small. ‘So I knew that it didn’t have to be the most gorgeous song. I knew that it had to be something that was expansive-sounding. What does that mean? I’m not sure I know. It means that I have to build a song that says: “Come with me. We may die together.”’
The movie keeps the fine tonal balance of Dethklok intact. It is cynical, sincere and heartfelt all at once. These characters are a family, and as horrible as they are, you want them to succeed.
For Small, the longer gestation period of this final instalment led him to ask the bigger creative questions of himself.
‘I think I have to grow up too,’ he says. ‘I have to look and say: What is important? What am I doing this for? Why am I attracted to music? What is music to me? I want to put a button on this thing that isn’t destructive, because I’ve had so much destruction in the show. And I think I’ve earned a light at the end of the tunnel throughout this whole thing because it is a dark force.’
When it came to writing the music for the film and the new album, Small returned to his first instincts. The cult around Metalocalypse has grown considerably over the years. But its DNA has always mutated based on the climate of heavy music at the time, and the personal circumstances of Small.
Small was robbed before he began writing and recording Dethalbum IV. His house was under construction and the burglars took advantage of the situation to steal custom guitars gifted to him by Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
‘I can’t even allow myself to think about it. Because I’m afraid I’ll start crying,’ Small says as we try to laugh it off.
With his amps also in storage because of the building work, Small was hemmed into a corner by his equipment limitations. But he came out fighting. And heavier. He still had a signature series Epiphone Explorer guitar, complete with whammy bar, and a Joe Satriani signature series Ibanez which he’d bought himself. With his Neural DSP Quad Cortex digital floor amplifier and effects modeller, he set to work. He tuned lower and Dethklok’s sound seemed to expand.
‘I really thought with this final moment of Dethklok with Dethalbum IV, it’s my opportunity to go from pretty and melodic metal to heavier,’ says Small. ‘Because I think that should be the last statement: How heavy can you go with this project?’
On the album, there are the customary vicious, singalong laughs in “Gardener Of Vengeance” and “Poisoned By Food”. Then there’s the triumphant Viking burial of closer “Murmaider III”. But there’s also the ‘mystical’ (Small’s adjective) revelation of album standout “DEADFACE”.
The song was born out of a narrative need in the movie: How could Small communicate the name of a band member on the guitar? The root notes of the chords of the song spell out the name itself: D.E.A.D.F.A.C.E. In the film, Skwisgaar plays the motif at a crucial moment when he can’t communicate any other way.
The song was written for the guitar players in the audience, and is also a fascinating example of Small’s story writing the music for him. It instils the album and the film with a transcendent quality. Dethklok is funny and hip, oblique and profound. How seriously does Small take all of this? He wants to keep his audience on its toes.
For recording the music, Small turned to longtime collaborators. One is the ‘legendary, masterful’ Gene Hoglan on drums. Together, they thrive off a ‘fun rapport’ of creative experimentation. They looked at the compositions from different angles as they went along. Hoglan would learn a section of music, then ask Small to try to alter it by dropping a bar. Hoglan brings a wild technical excellence to Dethklok as he has other projects such as Death, Dark Angel and Strapping Young Lad.
Once again, Small tapped Ulrich Wild for recording and production expertise. ‘I’d love this to sound like a cross between Cannibal Corpse and Def Leppard’s Hysteria,’ Small would say to Wild. ‘And there are a couple of moments I think I achieved that.’
‘Because my job throughout this whole project is to arrive with an idea,’ continues Small. ‘And to take all the people around me – from compositors, to animators, to storyboard artists, to Gene Hoglan – and say, “Can you please beat this with something cooler?”’
Soon, Small will complete the 2023 Dethklok triptych and take the show on the road again on a co-headline tour with Babymetal. He describes himself as a musical director surrounded by capable musicians (‘It’s like being on a trapeze. But there’s this gorgeous soft net below you’).
Small plays guitar and vocalises the songs live. But he shies away from saying he personifies the band. They reside on metal’s Mount Olympus somewhere. Instead, Small dubs the onstage musicians ‘the Metalocalypse players’. They function as a type of pit orchestra, while the audience admires the ‘ballet dancers’ on the huge screen above them. Animated performance clips and scenes from the series are spliced with interludes from characters accosting the audience, such as band logo-turned-animated jester, Facebones.
‘It’s a celebration of the show,’ says Small. ‘It’s a celebration of the music, and being evangelical about heavy metal. This is a lot of people’s first heavy metal show.’
Live, Small is an apostle in the dark spaces between the stage lights. He is both feverishly participates in, and coolly observes, the phenomenon of his making. As well as the ‘smiles and mosh pits’ breaking out in front of the stage.
‘It’s really me trying to figure out the perfect job for me, because I don’t want to be in the spotlight,’ he says. ‘But I want to be there making the sounds. I’m at my happiest when you can see a silhouette of me.’
In Dethklok’s world, light and dark intertwine. Their creator prefers the shadows – to better grapple with the contradictions at the heart of his subjects. Dethklok preaches the darkness of the gospel of heavy metal. As unlikeable as they are, they’ve given us a lot of joy. Just don’t tell them that.
Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar, the motion picture arrives August 22nd via Warner Bros. The companion soundtrack lands August 25th. Order the release – HERE
Dethalbum IV from Dethklok also arrives August 22nd. Order the album – HERE
Dethklok join Babymetal for the BabyKlok Tour set to kick off at the end of this month. A complete list of dates and cities can be found below.
Get tickets – HERE
DETHKLOK / BABYMETAL: 2023 TOUR
Wed-Aug-30-23 Houston, TX 713 Music Hall
Thu-Aug-31-23 Dallas, TX South Side Ballroom
Sat-Sep-02-23 Orlando, FL Orlando Amphitheater
Sun-Sep-03-23 Atlanta, GA Coca-Cola Roxy
Tue-Sep-05-23 Nashville, TN Nashville Municipal Auditorium
Wed-Sep-06-23 Cleveland, OH Agora Theatre
Fri-Sep-08-23 Pittsburgh, PA UPMC Events Center
Sat-Sep-09-23 Wallingford, CT Toyota Oakdale Theatre
Sun-Sep-10-23 Alton, VA Blue Ridge Rock Festival
Tue-Sep-12-23 Philadelphia, PA The Mann Center
Thu-Sep-14-23 Boston, MA MGM Music Hall at Fenway
Fri-Sep-15-23 New York, NY Hammerstein Ballroom
Sun-Sep-17-23 Sterling Heights, MI Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre
Mon-Sep-18-23 Toronto, ONT RBC Echo Beach
Wed-Sep-20-23 Grand Rapids, MI GLC Live at 20 Monroe
Thu-Sep-21-23 Chicago, IL Byline Bank Aragon Ballroom
Sat-Sep-23-23 Louisville, KY Louder Than Life Festival
Sun-Sep-24-23 Milwaukee, MN The Rave/Eagles Club
Mon-Sep-25-23 Minneapolis, MN The Fillmore
Wed-Sep-27-23 St. Louis, MO Saint Louis Music Park
Thu-Sep-28-23 Omaha, NE Steelhouse Omaha
Sat-Sep-30-23 Denver, CO Fillmore Auditorium
Sun-Oct-01-23 Salt Lake City, UT The Complex
Tue-Oct-03-23 Vancouver, BC PNE Forum
Wed-Oct-04-23 Seattle, WA WaMu Theater
Sat-Oct-07-23 Sacramento, CA Aftershock Festival
Sun-Oct-08-23 Las Vegas, NV Pearl Theater at Palms Casino Resort
Tue-Oct-10-23 Phoenix, AZ Arizona Financial Theater
Wed-Oct-11-23 Los Angeles, CA YouTube Theater