Is Hipster-Metal the Enemy?

earlyman.jpgHow could I possibly stay mad?

Early Man + Priestess + Rye Coalition Bowery Ballroom December 3, 2005

You don't need a Slayer patch on the back of your jacket to be suspicious of Early Man. Retro-metal bands usually don't do shit like sign to Matador, hire Matt Sweeney to produce their albums, or commission press-releases that make note of how hot they are. Now that everyone is getting bored with freak-folk, metal seems to be a pretty great bet, especially after indie-dorks like me began discovering the greatness of demon-stomp shit like Mastodon and High on Fire. Ironic devil-horn-throwing has been an indie-rock tradition for nearly as long as ironic "Freebird"-shouting (people still do that shit), so it was only going to be a matter of time before someone decided to put quotation marks around piles of skulls and drop some schticky over-the-top blastbeats on the Vicemag set. Closing In, Early Man's debut album, is a limp little big-gesture pastiche, Mike Conte singing just like Bruce Dickinson when he isn't singing just like Ozzy or James Hetfield, galloping guitars mixed way too low and inexcusably muffled. But that's the album. Early Man live is a whole other thing.

Things weren't looking good before the band's set started on Saturday night, the unfurled band-banner and flying-Vs propped onstage looking like empty signifiers. But it got better when the band actually walked onstage. Other than the drummer, these are not pretty men, and you know you're in good hands when the frontman is rocking Air Jordan sweatbands. And surprise, surprise: the band's trebly megaton riffage sounds huge and bulletproof when Matt Sweeney isn't smothering the fuck out of it. Conte still sang like Dickinson and Hetfield and Osbourne, but the pastiche is infinitely more endearing when these guys are actually shaking their hair right and pointing their guitars like tommy guns right in front of you. When Conte soloed for a minute straight before launching into a song or threw a skateboard into the audience, it became pretty apparent that this wasn't mock-theatre Spinal-Tap shit but earnest thrash revivalism, not revolutionary but truly satisfying. None of it hit quite as hard as the Maiden sample on Lil Wayne's "Best Rapper Alive," but not a whole lot does.

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Priestess hit late-80s memory notes just as hard, driving home the reality that metal is not the music of awakened war-gods (that'd be 50 Cent); it's for introverted kids with no control over their environment and a serious need for some black-magic escapism. If the guys in Early Man are not pretty, the guys in Priestess are especially not pretty, and so they came by their rock-beast poses through force of will. The band started out pedestrian, playing thrash as sped-up bar-rock. But a few songs in, they slowed down and got a real 7-11 parking-lot roll-on, busting out dual-guitar solos and soaring adenoidal vocal hooks and goofily bug-eyed facial expressions. The drum solo was the crowd-pleaser, but it was because it was great, not because it was funny.

So the only false note of the night came from openers Rye Coalition. I hadn't checked for this band in years, and I was only dimly aware that they still existed, but they're still the same, still embarrassing, still trying to find a middle ground between Albini-skree and arena-metal and coming up with a bad impression of the Hives more often than not. They're not going to blow anyone's mind yelling "Hey! Hey! Supernova!" in 2005. Sorry for cussing.

Voice review: George Smith on Early Man's Closing In

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