A spell of supremacy

Times Staff Writer

THE new face of heavy metal belongs to an erstwhile Southern rapper with demonically sparkling eyes and black tattoos all over his dark brown arms. That's the message Cee-Lo sent whenever he extended forefinger and pinkie, "throwing horns" -- the immortal sign of arena rock supremacy -- Sunday at the Avalon. "I put a spell on you!" he shouted, waving those fingers like hypnotizing jellyfish, drawing a classic line between the soul shouting of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the werewolf-style howls of Ozzy Osbourne and the mad rapping of Kool Keith and Busta Rhymes.

Gnarls Barkley, the group that melds Cee-Lo's hard-rock soul shouting with producer-composer Danger Mouse's discursive sample mastery, had arrived to conquer Los Angeles in the wake of its massive attack on Coachella in April and its pop ascent via "Crazy," the radio-burning single of the year so far. DM's sample-savvy crossbreeding is an ideal expression of pop's current categorical meltdown, and Cee-Lo's wail, an uncanny union of gospel catharsis and heavy metal ego trip, is capturing this paranoid summer's most welcome nightmares. The pair was perhaps a little too big for its britches as it led a full band and strings through a short, hot set at the Avalon but found its power in exactly that audaciousness.

An attitudinal mix of flippancy, pathos and sex feeds Gnarls Barkley's bid to be the new Heaviest Band Around. In concert as on record, Cee-Lo (born Thomas Calloway) took on the psycho affectations that have always signified divine right among rockers, and Danger Mouse bled the soundscape with strokes as bright as Japanese anime. The group's approach is all about pushing whatever vintage style it evokes -- making the most demented psychedelic rock, the most priapic funk, the most neurotic post-punk. Live, the excess sometimes lessened individual songs' effect, but as a victory march, the set worked fine.

Sunday the band emerged in full medical garb, with Cee-Lo wielding a stethoscope and Danger Mouse flashing one of those mirrors medics affix to their foreheads. The string section didn't just sit; it shook and swayed with the music's every turn. The backup singers (including L.A. favorite Holly Palmer) made operatic gestures. Cee-Lo's between-song patter veered toward free association, while Danger Mouse played mad scientist at his elevated keyboard array. His gimmick was to skew the sound with some vintage video game effects; at night's end, he kept one blaring, the hip-hop equivalent of an electric guitar left leaning against an amp, feeding back.

Below the sweet chaos of its surfaces, the music gelled pretty well. Former Nine Inch Nails drummer Chris Vrenna kept the pace muscular; the band's romp through the Violent Femmes' white boy blues "Gone Daddy Gone," for example, beat the recorded version with a stick. Daring a cover of the Doors obscurity "Who Scared You" after only learning the song at sound check, the band faltered, but it regained its footing to lurch through. (Lurching is appropriate when invoking the Doors.) The singles "Smiley Faces" and "Crazy" hit the right party notes, while the finale, "Storm Coming," built with proper force.

As the band left the stage, it remained completely unclear whether this would be the apex of pop stardom for two of music's most interesting freaks, or if their collaboration would yield more fruit. Neither seemed to care -- the sweaty moment was enough, and the magic conjured by those fingers raised.

Opening the show, metal fusion veteran Mike Patton led his new band, Peeping Tom, through a set of robust if sometimes overly incessant frontal attacks. Patton, a tireless experimenter since his days with San Francisco's Faith No More, is trying for the charts again and could succeed with this blend of hard-core rock and rap. He certainly looked hip in a hairnet, sparring with fellow vocalist Imani Coppola and human beat-box Rahzel, of Roots fame. But Patton's sharper-than-cheddar voice is an acquired taste, and he isn't quite the sellout enough to make his music truly pop.

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