Jump on the Grenade

Boy, Those Hard Rock Kiddies Can't Play Guitar

Like me, you may have been puzzled by the industry-wide enthusiasm for AFI. "Jump on the Grenade" phenomenon, pure and simple—privates enthusiastically covering the bomb; selfless sacrifice for the greater good of the corporate entertainment publishing unit. (All of this applies pretty much equally to Atreyu and Good Charlotte, too.)

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead bring a lot of progressive and arty guitar subtlety to The Secret of Elena's Tomb (Interscope). The band's semi-tunes get slower and slower as the recording proceeds; it's the way the act clues fans in to the importance of them. And judging from the evidence, the perfect Trail of Dead number would be one in which the guitarists slowly drift off into the arms of Morpheus as the end of the song nears, the dying drone of the instrument slowly overtaken by the soft snores of bandmembers. You think they could manage it for the next one? And that bassist is just like the fellow in AFI, superb with a two-note intro, coming to the rescue on "Crowning of a Heart" when no else has any idea what to play.

But if it's humor you desire with your guitar music, it's impossible to surpass the tyrannical metalzine-spurt of the sales sticker for Devin Townsend's Strapping Young Lad. "Like sticking your head in the jet nozzle of a Stealth bomber . . . like a Muhammed Ali punch to the stomach . . . the sound of a riot . . . language comes cheap with SYL . . . the Tartoor should be beaten with a shoe . . . " OK, so I made the last one up, but realistically, it fits.

AFI, proud defenders of mediocrity
photo: courtesy Dreamworks Records
AFI, proud defenders of mediocrity

SYL (Century Media) is a three-card monte, higgledly-piggledy technical admixture of loud abrasives and screaming, used to cover up the inability of the head guy to write one goddamn riff on guitar that you won't forget after five seconds. It's best to think of Strapping Young Lad records as corrupt tea taxes applied to the world of indie-metal, a cost that must be borne to produce other acts cheaply. One endures the records and subsequent charity tour slots knowing they come with one blessing in disguise—they're separated by years of absence.

Admittedly, this doesn't leave much to actually like. That's when one goes for idiosyncratic pleasures.

Joe Stump knew his Guitar Dominance (Leviathan) was toast 10 years ago, the moment he released it from his "Room Nine From Outer Space." Seattle had obsoleted him, but now he can laugh at his picture—frilly shirt and froufrou waistcoat, proudly displaying his Yngwie J. Malmsteen signature guitar—and figure it's worth resurrecting, if only as a text for a guitar-school course. You can sell it to the students.

Second only to the Great Kat in isolating speed, Stump plows through one metal instro after another, cramming more Bill & Ted's Wild Stallyns riff-and-noodle into single numbers than the D4 or the Datsuns manage in toto. His "Breakneck Boogie" makes him the Bugs Henderson of music perfessors; it's every bit as intimidating to me (I mean it! I'm not winking!) as "Texas Ballbreaker Boogie" and "Cripple-Gnat Bounce."

Gallery of Mites employ an opposing strategy. Instead of one guitarist who sounds like four, they use five to do the chores of one. It's a technique that really allows the tambourine in "Exploded View" and "Headless Body, Topless Bar" to come into its own. Bugs on the Bluefish (Meteor City) is crafted for the "Iron Rainbows Over the International Dateline" crowd: those in pilgrimage to the shrine for Lester Bangs, Hawkwind revivals, or surplus reels of the Funhouse sessions.

AFI play Roseland, May 8.

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