Disturbed is ever ready for battle

Special to The Times

The master of war stands glaring into the lens. His head is shaved, and the concrete floor around him is buried under thick mounds of dirt. The setting is meant to approximate a battlefield and the content of death and duty heard on "Indestructible," a song performed with the usual rhythmic intensity by the band Disturbed and its brooding bald singer, David Draiman.

His face is barely 18 inches from the camera on a massive soundstage in Downey, and dangling from beneath his lower lip is a pair of stainless-steel labret piercings that curve like small tusks to the contours of his chin. He's here with the band to mime through a thundering playback of the song for a music-video crew, but Draiman is really singing, really working up a sweat as he shouts along to his recorded voice in full metal attack mode: "Annihilation will be unavoidable . . . Take a last look around while you're alive / I'm an indestructible master of war!"

It's the title song from Disturbed's new album, the band's third consecutive release to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. "Indestructible" already has sold more than 500,000 copies since its release five weeks ago, a rare example of spectacular success in an era of free downloads and lowered expectations in the record industry.

The song was written and recorded to be an inspirational anthem for U.S. troops fighting overseas after the band -- who will perform Sunday at the Glen Helen Pavilion in Devore, with masked metallers Slipknot and others as part of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival -- heard stories of soldiers cranking up Disturbed songs in battle, blaring from helicopter gunships like a scene from "Apocalypse Now."

The finished music video is expected to resemble the high-concept battle scenes of the film "300," with shots of the band intercut with images of warriors from throughout history (Zulu, samurai, soldiers from World War I and the current Iraq war, etc.) as the musicians slash away on their instruments, the dreadlocks of bassist John Moyer flailing around his head.

"It's a fight song," Draiman says gravely between takes. "It's for anybody who needs that. Our statement about war has always been very, very clear: We're against war at every level, unless absolutely necessary. I personally don't think the reasons given justify the current conflict in Iraq."

But the band's affection for U.S. soldiers is real. In March, the metal quartet performed for troops in Kuwait, where thousands of soldiers and Marines erupted into a military mosh pit and fans crowd-surfed with their rifles. When it was over, guitarist Dan Donegan tossed his electric guitar into the swirl, where it was immediately broken into pieces.

"It was definitely very freaky to fly over Baghdad going in there," says Draiman, 35. "It was very surreal, and it definitely put things into perspective: This is happening, this is for real, people are dying."

The band has been at Downey Studios since 7 a.m., taking their turns for close-ups during endless replays of the raging "Indestructible" track. After one of the day's full-band shots is finished, video director Noble Jones offers a round of applause, and Warner Bros. Records A&R; executive Jeff Aldrich walks over to congratulate Draiman. "Nice job, David."

The singer looks back at the mock battlefield and says, "It's a beautiful thing."

His interest in war, politics and the Middle East is not new. Draiman has a political science degree from Chicago's Loyola University and has traveled often to Israel, where his father was born. The country is now home to a brother and other family members.

"I'm a news junkie," he says. "I can't tear myself away from it. It's definitely a facet of what I write about, because it's important to me."

He was an 18-year-old rabbinical student in Israel when Draiman began to doubt his traditional path after years of study at Jewish schools across the U.S., including the Valley Torah High School in North Hollywood. Hard rock was his new calling.

After returning home to Chicago, he answered a newspaper ad from a heavy metal band looking for a singer. He immediately hit it off with Donegan, drummer Mike Wengren and then-bassist Steve "Fuzz" Kmak, together melding intense, melodic vocals with driving metal riffs and beats.

The sound "was original and different," says Donegan, sitting now in a director's chair, silently noodling his black electric guitar, the same one he usually keeps backstage on the road. "[Draiman] had the ability to be very rhythmic -- syncopated on one end and very melodic on the other end."

The release of Disturbed's debut album, "Sickness," in 2000 arrived after the first wave of so-called "nu metal" bands (Korn, Deftones, etc.) and quickly scored a rock radio hit with "Down With the Sickness." Every album since has gone platinum, and the early numbers suggest "Indestructible" will do the same.

"Until the middle of the first week, I was still skeptical," Draiman admits. "Considering the 30% reduction in overall sales for the entire industry since the last record we put out, to beat the number and buck the trend is really remarkable."

Critics have not always been impressed. Rolling Stone called the new album "the same old angst-mongering that has fueled a zillion rock-radio hits in the past 10 years." And some extreme metalheads dismiss Disturbed as neither hard nor fast enough to be considered "true" metal. Donegan doesn't mind.

"We were never part of a trend or part of a clique or part of anything than anybody ever welcomed us in," says the guitarist. "We're used to the naysayers and the haters, and that's good. I kind of like it. It keeps us driven."

Making this music is not painless. The first single released from the new album was "Inside the Fire," still in heavy rotation on rock radio. It was inspired by the heroin overdose death of Draiman's girlfriend when he was just 15, a life-changing experience. The song adopts the voice of fatal addiction: "As she begins to turn cold for the final time / You will shiver, till you deliver / You will remember it all."

In one of the band's final scenes of the day's video shoot, Disturbed stands on the battlefield set once more, awaiting the sudden appearance of an ancient warrior. Off-camera, an actor is dressed in loincloth and sandals, his upper torso covered in brown war paint. In a moment, he will sprint across the battlefield, armed with a scythe made of wood and bone, violence on his horizon.

"The world has become a darker place," says Draiman. "It would be irresponsible for us not to reflect that, especially considering what our music is and what it continues to evolve into. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the role we have been given, to be at peace as a band that talks about things that aren't necessarily comfortable."

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Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival with Disturbed and Slipknot

Where: Glen Helen Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $6.66 to $50

Contact: (909) 880-6500

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