While Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin remain the alpha and omega of heavy-metal influences, the variety of music they inspire runs from the simpy mainstream pop of a Warrant to the Sturm 'n' drang symphonies of a Metallica to the thrashy Satanism of a Slayer. Metal these days is as diverse as rock 'n' roll itself used to be.
Just as rock has an alternative wing--bands like the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr.--so does metal. Alternative metal is alternative music that rocks. And alternative metal these days can reach 10 times the audience of other alternative rock--check out Metallica.
Jane's Addiction plays an intense brand of '70s-influenced arty metal; so does Soundgarden. Voi Vod's shards of noise are metal; metal fans will tolerate considerably more dissonance than any group outside a Pierre Boulez master class. In fact, the arty meanderings of Sab and the Zep themselves would be considered alternative metal if they were to come out for the first time today. As are the following new releases, rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic):
*** 1/2 MIND OVER FOUR. "The Goddess" (Caroline). Slipping in and out of genres as a model does her clothes, the Orange County-based quartet is at that point where post-punk runs headlong into heavy metal, an art-school Ozzy kind of thing. Like a traditional metal band, Mind Over Four has boogie licks, guitar squeals and minor-key gothic at its disposal, but works them into a larger mosaic--King Crimson wrote songs a little like this in the '70s.
The rhythm section will pull in an awesome riff that would keep Axl Rose happy for a week, then discard it after five seconds, going on to an off-rhythm snatch of dissonance perhaps, or a slithery guitar lead, or something moody straight out of early Roxy Music. Where most hard-rock bands will stretch out three good power chords and let them rock forever, it seems that Mind Over Four changes direction 15 times a song, sectionality taken to an extreme. (Without a lyric sheet in your lap, you won't be able to tell where one song ends and another begins.) "Goddess" isn't something anybody's ever going to bang a head to, but somehow it works.
*** 1/2 WARRIOR SOUL. "Last Decade, Dead Century" (Geffen). If you came across one of these songs on KNAC, you might not think it was alternative at all. Warrior Soul is totally subversive, because it plays by the rules of commercial hard rock and makes them creepy. Guitars oscillate in octaves as in Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic"; songs have choruses and hooks; there's the trademarked slickness you'd expect from the Geffen guitar-rock factory.
But then you notice: Many of the songs have only one or two notes in them--a riff stolen from Jonathan Richman's two-chord classic "Roadrunner," for example--pounding past the five-minute mark. The vocal melodies float into and out of their relationship with the drone. The singer is a former performance artist, the drummer used to play with Killing Joke. It's a sort of David Lynch version of rock 'n' roll normalcy.
The lyrics tend toward war, the environment, the downtrodden, stuff like that--sometimes the singer seems almost a heavy-metal Tracy Chapman--but with a strange edge: "Here's to the losers / To the drug abusers / Here's to the rejects / I think we're beautiful." And they are. A remarkable debut.
** 1/2 FLOTSAM AND JETSAM. "When the Storm Comes Down" (MCA). You might have to be something of a specialist to recognize the alternative quality of this one too--the LP features the kind of piercing vocals that made heavy metal so annoying through the mid-'80s; churning, tuneless guitar; trap-set drumming and wee-wee-wee guitar solos. Fans of speed metal expect these things.
The Phoenix band, previously best known for losing its bass player to Metallica a few years ago, is reasonably inventive within the limits of the sub-genre, basing a couple of songs on horrorshow William Burroughs texts, syncopating a lick or two, even throwing in a modal passage and a new-wave-style melody. Really, they're the Stranglers of the mosh-pit. But compared to such real genre-benders as Faith No More, F & J seems more constrained by their medium than enlivened by it.
*** PRONG. "Beg to Differ" (Epic). An East Village hard-core institution--two-thirds of the band used to work at punk mecca CBGB, the other guy drummed for the Swans--Prong is real good at the hollow thrash-guitar sound, crunchy chunks of white noise played as precisely as a percussion instrument. Their first album was pure New York noise music in the tradition of Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth; this new one pushes some of the same buttons Testament and Metallica do instead. There are clean, punk anthem choruses, but no solos, no melodies, hardly even a guitar lead. Within the confines of thrash, Prong is almost Maoist in its purity.
POP DATE BOOK Tickets are on sale now for the June 30 AIDS benefit concert "That's What Friends Are For" at the Universal Amphitheatre. Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones are among the performers. . . . Tickets go on sale Sunday for the Smithereens' July 12 date at the Hollywood Palladium. . . . Concrete Blonde will be at the Palace on July 1. . . . In addition to their Wiltern Theatre show, Cowboy Junkies will play the Coach House on June 18 and 21.