I love a lot of underground metal, but I’m a pretty bad underground metal fan. Underground metal, less a scene or even a single genre and more a vast interconnected web of global subcultures, doesn’t exist as a monolitic whole. But the people who are really into it, including our own Michael Nelson, often prize things like majesty and atmosphere and ferocity and technical wizardry. I mostly just like it when it’s dumb and fun. I like Mastodon on Leviathan, building an entire concept around a literary classic but mostly so they can key in on the awesome idea of a giant whale smashing shit. I like seeing the Swedish death metal kings in Disfear, taking time off their legendary bands so that they can crank out an album of super-catchy blitzkrieg D-beat hardcore when the mood strikes them. I like Black Tusk, whipping beards around in stereo and throwing old-school Beastie Boys tag-team vocals into a song with the ridiculous title “Set The Dial To Your Doom.” I like Baroness and Torche and especially Kylesa, plowing their way into choruses that would’ve been total alt-rock radio-bait 15 or 20 years ago. I like Andrew W.K., if he even counts. And that’s what I like about the Norwegian band Kvelertak: They grab onto and embrace every big, dumb thrill that their genre has to offer, and they turn it into something joyous.
Kvelertak’s own metal subgenre is called death n’ roll — as in, classic rock triumphal hookery played with the all-out ferocity of death metal. Sweden’s Entombed are the all-time grandmasters of the style, and their best work is nearing the two-decade mark, but Kvelertak’s take on this particular din still feels fresh and urgent, like a bunch of jokers taking the punishing sludge that dominates the present-day underground metal landscape and turning it into something almost over-the-top in its surging melodic push. Meir, Kvelertak’s second album, comes steeped in American underground metal signifiers, just as the band’s self-titled 2010 debut before it. Like that album, this one has production from Converge guitarist and metalcore studio genius Kurt Ballou, and Baroness frontman John Baizley did the cover art, just as he’s done for half the worthwhile metal albums of the past few years. But if you look closely, even those two guys are using the album as an excuse to let their dumbest, funnest impulses take over. Ballou, for instance, removes almost all the grime from his titanic guitar tones, shining a spotlight on the power-metal thrust of the wheedling guitar solos. And Baizley’s cover illustration turns out to be birds shitting on a naked lady. Kvelertak themselves only sing in their native Norwegian tongue, so I don’t know what they’re singing about, but I’m free to imagine that they’re singing about beer, or Satan, or Satan drinking beer. That’s what it sounds like, anyway.
Kvelertak have their isolated moments where they sound as bloodthirsty as anyone else in the metalsphere; the intro to “Trepan,” for instance, could practically be Watain. Most of the time, though, they sound like drunken apocalyptic bikers trying to impersonate Deep Purple and Morbid Angel at the same damn time. They play at punk-rock speeds, but they still give their riffs room to breathe and to grow into big, juicy monsters. They sing their hooks like one big gang. They scrape the picks down their guitar necks when it’s time to launch into another firebreathing solo. And they keep switching back and forth between extremes so quickly it’ll make your head spin, as on the few seconds where “Bruane Brenn” stops being a running tackle of a song and turns into a Bon Jovi tribute, only to abruptly switch back as soon as the solo ends. That versatility serves them well. They can play seven-minute songs without having them sound like seven-minute songs, largely because the album largely blurs into one delirious blast of a whole. And even when they throw acoustic guitars into the mix, as on “Evig Vandrar,” they aren’t Kirk Hammett classical-interlude acoustic guitars; they’re Bad Company cover band acoustic guitars — and somehow, that’s a good thing.
Michael already mentioned this here, but the band that Meir reminds me most of isn’t any of Kvelertak’s underground metal peers; it’s Fucked Up, in all their bellowing, riffing, chorus-supersizing, life-affirming glory. Meir doesn’t have any of the grand philosophical themes as Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life, as far as I can tell, but that doesn’t much matter; in the moment, I couldn’t really tell what Damian Abraham was singing about, either. And I can’t think of too many bands, beyond Fucked Up, who share Kvelertak’s commitment to hammerhead grandeur and polished, finely-crafted asskickery. Kvelertak might come from a cultural world away from the Toronto DIY hardcore scene that birthed Fucked Up, but they came from radically different directions to arrive at a remarkably similar place. That’s good. More bands could stand to arrive at that place.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Strokes’ surprisingly playful and melodically rich Comedown Machine.
• Lil Wayne’s spotty and cloudy-headed but occasionally fierce I Am Not A Human Being II.
• Wavves’ polished and extremely catchy snot-rocket Afraid Of Heights.
• Depeche Mode’s slick, debauched Delta Machine.
• Wire’s Change Becomes Us, their collection of previously-unrecorded classic-era songs.
• Julian Lynch’s watery and pretty Lines.
• Chvrches’ sprightly and promising Recover EP.