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On Everybody Wants Some!!, Metal’s Genre Problem, & Kvelertak’s Amazing New Album

Stereogum is premiering a new Kvelertak song today, called “Berserkr,” from the band’s upcoming third album, Nattesferd. Listen to it at the bottom of this essay.

Richard Linklater’s wonderful new film, Everybody Wants Some!!, takes place over the course of five days in 1980 — from Thursday, August 28 to Monday, September 1 — and spends that time following the carefree lives of a dozen or so members of a Texas college baseball team. It’s the end of the summer, the last weekend of freedom before school starts, and the boys have arrived early to get acquainted with one another while getting settled into their new shared quarters. The film moves at a languid pace and feels like it has all the gravity of a daydream, but the bright and colorful milieu is just a backdrop for some pretty heavy themes: friendship, youth, ambition, masculinity, sex, growth, change. More than anything else though — almost subconsciously, I think — the film is about music.

I’m not talking about the soundtrack (which is great); I’m saying every damn scene is filled with references to music and the many ways music intertwines with these characters’ lives. The film’s protagonist, freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner), arrives at school with almost no luggage beyond his record collection, around which his whole life seems to revolve. There’s a minor argument over a copy of Neil Young’s Decade and time-killing chatter about Devo and Elvis Costello. The guys’ pinball machine of choice is one of those old Bally KISS joints. Jake’s romantic interest, a theater major named Beverly (Zoey Deutch), decorates her dorm room with Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell posters.

These people are surrounded by music, and music culture, everywhere they go. They boogie to the SOS Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” at a discotheque. They line-dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” at a country bar. They trade verses to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” while crammed inside one of those ’70s sedans that moves more like a parade float than a car. I swear to god it’s so much fun. Watch.

Maybe three-quarters of the way into the film, the ballplayers wind up at a punk show, and two of them — new kid Jake and team leader Finn (Glen Powell) — find themselves toward the back of the room, watching the chaos unfold at the base of the stage. Momentarily removed from the action, Jake starts talking to Finn about concepts like authenticity and identity. Jake isn’t in some sort of crisis mode; he’s just experiencing a moment of post-adolescent existential curiosity, wondering if there isn’t maybe something at least slightly insincere about the way the young men commute from one venue to another, stopping only to make a quick costume change, and then submerge themselves in the sea of bodies, the swirl of sound, as if they’ve always been there?

Who are we? Jake wonders. Do we belong here?

Finn understands Jake’s concerns, but sees the behavior not so much as dilettantish frippery as evolutionary necessity; it’s all part of the mating ritual. It’s Darwinism in action. And it’s fun. “It’s not phony,” says Finn. “It’s adaptive.” And with that, Jake and Finn rush into the circle pit and are once again subsumed.

Not everyone in the film is quite so adaptive. There’s a kid at the punk show wearing a T-shirt that reads “Disco Sucks.” In another scene, a character called Willoughby disparages Van Halen while doing bong hits and waxing philosophical about Pink Floyd. Halen, argues Willoughby, are soulless technicians. When one of his teammates pushes back, claiming to like Van Halen, Willoughby shoots him down: “Of course you like Van Halen, because corporate America is shoving them down our throats!” Floyd, on the other hand, achieve transcendence via nuanced, elegant, timeless composition. “It’s about finding the tangents within the framework,” says Willoughby. “Therein lies the artistry, man.”

In that way, music serves an odd dual role in the film. It is through the experience of music that old cliques are rendered insignificant, but through the communities of music that new cliques emerge. Jake contains multitudes, and there are ample opportunities for him to examine his true self — athlete or student? player or romantic? boy or man? — so it’s telling that when the question ultimately emerges, it is in relation to music. Punk or disco? Pink Floyd or Van Halen?

Who are we? Do we belong here?

Linklater has admitted that Everybody Wants Some!! has many autobiographical elements — the filmmaker played baseball in college in the early ’80s — and in an Austin Chronicle feature, he talked about his use of music in the movie, and how it echoed the role played by music at that time in his own life:

It’s just the way I felt about 1980 as opposed to ’76. [In] ’76, I’m sheltered: FM radio, one-record-store town…it’s just rock, you know? But this is everything: It’s disco, it’s country, it’s punk…new wave, still metal, Van Halen obviously. Stuff like that. But that’s how it felt. Also the metaphor there was just being in college. High school, you’re trapped. College is like — everything’s on the table. Wide open. It felt that way musically, it felt that way personally, and so that’s what the movie is. You’re just overwhelmed with the absolute freedom of that moment in time.

But “that moment in time” to which Linklater refers is not simply college; it’s 1980 specifically. And the moment was fleeting. Over the course of the Reagan years, music stratified in ways never before seen. After that, the zoning laws got real strict. Jocks at a punk show? Fuck those violent alpha douchebags. Pink Floyd or Van Halen? Your dad’s two favorite bands haaa! Punk kid wearing a “Disco Sucks” shirt? Nah man, how about “You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone“?

It’s still going on today, of course (ever combed through the Full List Of Music Subreddits?), but that’s when the walls were first built, when internecine interests overrode the outside world. In the ’80s, music became identity; you were what you listened to. Subcultures gathered like gangs. Special snowflakes became snowballs, snowmen, snow forts.

Maximumrocknroll launched in 1982, drawing absolute lines between actual punk and the contemptible rest of the world. Gangsta rap was born in 1986, and with it, a demand for hard-edged authenticity that forcibly rejected any form of “fun” that didn’t come with the threat of a prison sentence. That same year, the Smiths released a song called “Panic,” imploring listeners to “hang the DJ” in reaction to hearing a Wham! song on the radio. The term “indie rock” came into common usage during this time, eventually inspiring a sort of effete class-conscious elitism that would have seemed a little heavy-handed if it had been written into Caddyshack.

So many genres and subgenres, codes and bylaws, clans and outcasts. And yet they all look like one big happy fucking family compared to metal.

***

Metal’s obsessive fixation on taxonomy (and by extension, authenticity) isn’t exactly unexplored terrain. I’ve covered it at length here and here and here and in so many other places that I can’t even remember where and when I wrote the damn things, much less collect all the relevant links. It’s not just me, of course. Stereogum’s own Tom Breihan kinda clowned on it in our Album Of The Week review of Cobalt’s new Slow Forever. And he should clown on it, because it’s a behavioral pattern that’s evolved past the point of cliché — past the point of joke even — and is now solidly established as a meme. Literally! Here, I’ve collected some examples for your edification/amusement.

There are hundreds more where those came from, but the total number of metal-genre memes is nothing compared to the total number of metal genres, subgenres, hybrid genres, and microgenres. And it gets more granular that that, even. In fact, there are a handful of metal sub-subcategories consisting of only one band.

Take, for example, the California act Gruesome. Broadly speaking, Gruesome play death metal. More specifically, Gruesome fall into the subgenre called old-school death metal (OSDM), i.e., newer bands playing death metal in the “traditional” style. More specifically still, Gruesome play a variety of OSDM that endeavors to be (in the band’s own words) “an intentional homage to the first-wave death metal scene of Tampa, Florida, specifically [seminal death metal band] Death’s early period.” EVEN MORE specifically still, Gruesome are (again in their own words) “basically a Death tribute band.” But they don’t play Death songs. They write songs attempting to recapture the effect achieved by Death during that band’s “early period.” Can we narrow that down a bit more? Why not! As Gruesome guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey tells it: “I’d say imagine if Death put out an album in between [1988’s LP2] Leprosy and [1990’s LP3] Spiritual Healing, that’s pretty much where our sound sits.”

That sort of near-fetishistic hyperfocus has led many to conclude that all metal artists are insufferably pedantic and dogmatic, scientifically attuned to observing rigid boundaries and codes. And it’s not an unreasonable conclusion, given the evidence!

But I believe it’s flawed — inaccurate, even. In fact, I believe the exact opposite is true. I think metal is so innovative, so expansive, that its boundaries are constantly being destroyed, its codes constantly being rewritten. Metal’s many subgenres aren’t actually subgenres at all. They’re entirely new styles of music. They’re not smaller than the styles from which they’ve evolved; they’re bigger.

Refer back, if you will, to those memes I shared a few paragraphs back. The Comic Book Guy seething about Cattle Decapitation? He’s an asshole, obviously. But he’s not wrong. I mean, he may be wrong about Cattle Decap specifically (I don’t know the band well enough to say one way or the other), but in the broader sense: If you care enough about music to catalog it by genre, then those genres need to have some definitions, some distinctions, or else why even bother? Deathgrind, for example, combines two “classic” styles (death metal + grindcore) into a whole new one…but if a band infuses that new style with alien elements elevating it beyond its clearly defined parameters, then it’s not really deathgrind anymore, is it?

So it needs a new name! Sure, it looks kinda silly when that name is an unwieldy multihyphenate, but that approach to classification serves numerous purposes, primarily: 1) It pays homage to the innovators who paved the way and helped us get to this unanticipated point in our evolution; and 2) it informs you, the listener, of the ingredients in this particular meal, giving you some idea of whether you might enjoy it.

“I don’t understand genres,” retorts Crying Dawson. “Why can’t we call it all metal?”

Dude, you can call it what you want, but if you “call it all metal,” you’re never gonna hear any of it. Metal is the most diverse form of music in the history of the universe. Anybody who listens to this stuff regularly will openly admit to having a very limited perspective of the genre as a whole (or they’re lying). There’s not even any metal-specific publication in the world that would attempt to comprehensively cover the subject. The closest thing you’ll find is the essential resource Metal Archives, which has currently cataloged 108,625 bands (and counting)…but crucially refuses to include countless more on the grounds of being not “metal enough.” (E.g., per their ambiguous rules for eligibility: “There is stoner rock and there is stoner metal. There is sludge metal and there is post-hardcore. They are sometimes similar, but one is acceptable and the other isn’t.”)

You gotta remember, though, those genre tags are there for you, Dawson. See, because you can’t possibly listen to everything, you gotta prioritize. For instance, there’s one subgenre called technical death metal and another called melodic death metal. You with me? Okay, so based only on the names, you might think those two styles of music would sound pretty similar, and maybe to you, those two styles of music do sound pretty similar (hi Mom!) but for me, they couldn’t be more different. Man, melodic death metal has produced some of my favorite music of all time. But I can’t get with tech death at all. I just don’t hear it. (I can go for some melodic tech death, though. I also like old-school melodic tech death, when it’s done right.)

Even Gruesome, in their bizarre way, are evidence of metal’s endless expansion, an example of how big metal can be, at least conceptually — the way it captures imaginations and never lets go. Is there any other style of music in the world that has inspired other bands to form, record, and tour behind music that openly aspires to be nothing more than fan fic? If Death were the original Star Wars trilogy, Gruesome are The Force Awakens. And Gruesome aren’t even the only metal band who fit this description — they’re pre-dated by California’s County Medical Examiners, who “exist for the sole purpose of recreating the sound of early Carcass albums.”

So you have bands who make metal bigger by combining old ingredients in new ways, and bands who make metal bigger by giving new chapters to old stories. In the latter case, the traditional genre tags are worn proudly, claimed as essential components of musical intent. Bands who fall into the former group, though, are provided with multihyphenates by pundits and obsessives — listeners who love this music and need language with which to convey its identity. No band would willingly claim to play “atmospherical post-technical blackened” anything. And yes, admittedly, that does sound pretty damn wack! Problem is, when you allow innovative bands to name their own genres, they come up with shit like “djent,” which…I mean, that’s even worse, right? (FWIW, Metal Archives cast a suspicious eye on djent, saying it “varies from metal to borderline hard rock to jazzy rock to mindless noodling.”)

But what do you call it when you find a band for which no genre exists and yet still somehow defies even multiphyphentation? A band that is truly singular? A band that is post-nothing and pre-nothing but just arrives, fully formed, as a perfect, discrete individual entity? What are you supposed to do with that?

***

I’ve been a fan of the Norwegian band Kvelertak (which translates into English as “Chokehold”) since hearing their self-titled debut album in 2010, and I’ve been covering the band just as long. However, trying to put into words what is it is they do gives me fits. I’ve described them in the past as both “schizophrenic” and “postmodern”: characterizations I intended to read as pithy, but which came across (I feel in retrospect) as reductive or pejorative.

Worse still, they’re inaccurate. “Schizophrenic” implies the band has no clear identity, or at least no clear idea of what it is they’re trying to convey. Kvelertak, though, are never less than firmly in control. They know exactly what they’re doing, they just have an excess of tools with which to do it. “Postmodern,” meanwhile, suggests some degree of insincerity or artifice. Yet Kvelertak couldn’t be more sincere, more genuine. Their music is bold and passionate; it’s music born of (and requiring) absolute commitment.

It’s just really hard to describe because it’s doing so much at once. On their first two albums (the aforementioned Kvelertak and its 2013 followup, Meir), Kvelertak based their songs within a black metal-ish framework, powered them with D-beat/hardcore energy, and then colored them with a universe of borrowed sounds: a Stones-ian piano line; guitar licks that seemed lifted from Jimi Hendrix or Neil Young or Styx; anthemic chord progressions owing to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal or ’80s chart-topping hard rock. There’s no one song that fully encapsulates the range of styles employed by Kvelertak across an entire album, but this one — “Offernat,” from Kvelertak — comes as close as any:

Ultimately, though, what has made Kvelertak so difficult to categorize is the feel of their music. This stuff starts with black metal as its base element, but black metal is somber, bleak, angry. Kvelertak’s songs, meanwhile, are celebratory, raucous, fun. The effect achieved is similar to that of Motörhead or AC/DC, but those bands are the very definition of rudimentary — riff/chorus/solo/g’night — while Kvelertak have the technical precision of prog and the aesthetic wanderlust of, I dunno, Beck or Kanye West or something.

Kvelertak jump from style to style with a confidence, expertise, and ease that renders them impervious to any sort of categorization, especially within the complicated, codified world of heavy metal. That’s a fucking blast to listen to, but very hard to talk about and perhaps even understand, especially when your understanding of music is based on slotting the stuff into boxes.

But as I watched Everybody Wants Some!!, suddenly everything made sense. These kids on screen were the embodiment of Kvelertak’s music — wandering from the dance club to the shitkicker bar to the DIY punk gig; listening to Pink Floyd and Van Halen and Sugarhill Gang and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Devo and Elvis Costello and Blondie and Patti Smith and Dire Straits and Jermaine Jackson and whatever the fuck else sounded good, whatever the fuck else felt good.

Kvelertak represent a version of what music might have sounded like if it had never been walled off into hierarchical subcultures, if music had never become identity.

***

The first single off Kvelertak’s forthcoming third album, Nattesferd, came out early last month, and like the title of Everybody Wants Some!!, the song references Van Halen: It’s called “1985” — a nod to 1984, Van Halen’s biggest-selling album and their last with original vocalist David Lee Roth. The Kvelertak song actually sounds a lot like Van Halen, too. Check it out.

I liked the song enough when I heard it, but I also felt that it might have some of the same issues raised by Willoughby regarding the actual Van Halen: more style than substance; more technique than composition. I wasn’t about to bail on Nattesferd based on one song — Kvelertak’s first two albums were far too good for me to give up on their third before at least hearing the thing in full — but I allowed for myself the possibility that they might have peaked and were now on the downside of their career. Hey, it happens!

That fear was given some additional fuel when I saw the album’s sleeve and credits: Both Kvelertak and Meir were produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou (Nails, Black Breath, High On Fire), and their artwork was created by Baroness frontman John Baizley (Skeletonwitch, Kylesa, Darkest Hour) — but Nattseferd was produced by the band, and its sleeve art (while still pretty damn cool!) was a little more anonymous, recalling the covers of ’70s sci-fi pulp novels. (It was, in fact, painted by Arik Roper, who’s done pretty iconic covers for Sleep and High On Fire, among others.)

I assumed this was the result of some cost-cutting on the part of the band or their label — I can’t imagine Ballou or Baizley come especially cheap — but when I finally heard the album, I realized these decisions were crucial to the band’s growth. Ballou is an incredible producer, one of my favorites, but much like another of my favorite producers, the Swedish pop king Max Martin, many of Ballou’s projects feel a bit homogenous: They sound huge and vicious and warm, but they all sound a little bit the same. Similarly, Baizley has a signature style that makes his sleeves jump out — but sometimes, those images overwhelm the music. Make no mistake: Those guys are household names who do great work, and by moving forward without them, Kvelertak are taking a big risk.

As far as I’m concerned, though, it paid off.

Without Baizley’s imagery leading you in, you’re almost looking at a blank slate, an album that arrives without any preconceptions courtesy of its visual presentation. As for the absence of Ballou: Nattesferd sounds crisper and more agile than Kvelertak or Meir, but the stylistic leaps are woven into the music more organically; instead of sounding like “black metal section into classic-rock riff into punk chorus,” these things feel like they’re doing everything at once, and they’re doing more.

Nattesferd is easily Kvelertak’s most consistent album, and from front to back, their best. There are some songs on here — songs you haven’t heard yet, like the album’s title track or “Svartmesse” — that are point-blank better versions of the old Kvelertak sound: catchier, crazier, more thrilling. There are others — e.g., “Ondskapens Galaxe” and “Heksebrann” — that are simply beautiful in ways never before attempted by the band. It’s still celebratory music, but it feels a more serious, more spacious, more ambitious.

And no, none of that is reflected in “1985.” For what it’s worth, “1985” sounds better in the context of the album, but for my money, it’s obviously the worst song on the thing, and in no way representative of the rest. But then again, no single Kvelertak song can capture the full scope of what Kvelertak are doing anyway. It’s too big, too expansive, too inclusive. Kvelertak are the rare band for whom Crying Dawson’s question might be met with a nod of agreement, or at least a shrug of consideration.

Still, though, the answer is no.

“Why can’t we call it all metal?” Because Dawson, this is not all metal. This is all everything, everything at once. This is what Richard Linklater called “wide open,” what he meant by “absolute freedom.” Kvelertak are adaptive. Now let’s get into that pit while the music is still playing.

***

We’ve got Nattseferd’s second single for you to hear today. It’s called “Berserkr,” and it’s…well, it’s built around a thrash riff, but works in some pretty prog guitars, and then shifts into something else altogether — this climactic instrumental section worthy of Smashing Pumpkins doing their Cars-worship kinda stuff, maybe — before getting into this hardcore beatdown conclusion. But that’s still a little simplistic, I think. You should just listen.

Nattesferd is out 5/13 via Roadrunner Records. Pre-order it here. Kvelertak are going out on a North American tour tour with Torche and Wild Throne starting tomorrow night. Here are the dates.

04/12 Portland, ME @ Port City Music Hall
04/13 New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
04/14 Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
04/15 Pittsburgh, PA @ Altar Bar
04/16 Washington, DC @ DC Brau
04/17 Cambridge, MA @ Middle East – Downstairs
04/19 Montreal, QC @ l’Astral
04/20 Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
04/21 Columbus, OH @ A&R Music Bar *
04/22 Pontiac, MI @ Crofoot Ballroom *
04/23 Chicago, IL @ Bottom Lounge
04/24 Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
04/25 St. Louis, MO @ The Ready Room
04/26 Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theatre
04/28 Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
04/29 Salt Lake City, UT @ In The Venue
04/30 Boise, ID @ Neurolox
05/01 Seattle, WA @ El Corazon
05/02 Vancouver, BC @ Rickshaw Theatre
05/03 Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theatre **
05/05 San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
05/06 Los Angeles, CA @ Henry Fonda Theater

*= w/Mutoid Man instead of Torche
** = no Torche

Tags: Kvelertak