Heavy metal and humor make for strange bedfellows. When musical theater jumps into the ménage, things can get odd, and the results can be polarizing. California’s Nekrogoblikon attempt to draw on these three wellsprings for Heavy Meta, a tightrope-walking, genre-shifting space opera that is bursting with winks, nods and strangely, cynicism.
Nekrogoblikon are a compositionally ambitious band, crafting metal songs with lots of parts for lots of musicians. There is a lot of detail, including harmonies, intertwining melodies and dynamic shifts. However, progressive metal isn’t quite the right descriptor here. Progressive musicians are a notoriously self-serious bunch, usually interested in delivering their concepts intact and pure. Nekrogoblikon are not shy about breaking the fourth wall and making crude, goofy, self-referential jokes. There are some clean vocals throughout, but the main narrator is a croaking, foul-mouthed goblin with a strong sense of id, as exemplified on “Bring Us More.”
To cut to the chase, Heavy Meta sounds like a collection of would-be show tunes. Musical theater – jazz hands. It’s tempting to believe that metal can fuse with any other genre and be the better for it, but some combinations are just not meant to be. Musical theater is unabashedly demonstrative, campy, inclusive and upbeat. Metal’s essential identity comes from darkness, heaviness, brooding and esoteric isolation. Emissaries from each planet can only venture so far before losing touch with their native sources of energy.
Well, maybe Heavy Meta was meant to be the album that would prove everyone wrong. The problem is that Nekrogoblikon have made this release an open forum for bitterness and cynicism, and the results are unseemly and unappealing. While the idea of mocking the music industry – fans, record companies and the band themselves – goes along with the title of the album, it doesn’t mean it is fun to listen to. For example, “We Need a Gimmick” seems designed to mock people who think Nekrogoblikon is gimmicky. But what does the band expect, when there’s a character named John Goblikon running around in a green goblin suit during their shows?
Sometimes on Heavy Meta, it seems like the lyrical messages undercut the compositions, suggesting that the band are knowingly making compromised music, or that they are simply tired of doing it. This is an extreme taboo in a genre with supposedly few taboos. Heavy metal is where people go to hear music performed seriously, regardless of the subject matter at hand.
That is not to say there isn’t room in the genre for humor or commentary. It’s just usually performed in a subtle way. Bands like Cannabis Corpse and Puig Destroyer achieve lasting hilarity by exploring very un-metal subjects (marijuana and baseball, respectively) in completely metal voices. The humor can easily go undetected – those in the know reap the laughs. Immortal’s music videos are funny because it’s almost impossible to tell exactly how seriously the band are taking themselves. The viewer doesn’t know whether they are laughing with the band, or at them, and the ambiguity of it all is kind of delicate and fascinating.
And that’s the thing about metal humor – it mostly operates by poking sly, understated fun at the inherent seriousness of the genre – both the subject matter, and the extreme speed, heaviness and difficulty of the compositions. By contrast, Nekrogoblikon’s humor is a bit too bald, a bit too ribald and a bit too accessible. On the serious end, there are complaints and judgments a-plenty. There are lines about earthlings “checking their phones,” watching “reality TV,” as well as references to “a million hits” and drinking (and “yakking” up) “the Kool-aid.” Though they are embedded in the goblins-from space narrative, these topical barbs detract from the escapism factor – and they are kind of a confrontational bummer.
This is a shame, because once the band get rolling on the last three songs, fun things start to happen. “Let’s Get Fucked” has clean vocals and sounds rousingly like Muse, until it literally turns into Andrew W.K.’s “Party Hard,” with Wilkes-Krier himself dropping in to reprise his hit. It is a moment that will make you either headbang wholeheadedly, or cringe in awkwardness.
“Mood Swing” and “Nekrogoblikon” capture the sense of weirdness, humor and adventure that make the best parts of the Arcturus and Ziltoid records so indispensable. There is less morbid-self attention here, less bile, less exposition – all of them replaced with melodic joy. If the whole album had sprung from the energy and good humor of these two songs, there is no telling what might have happened. Unfortunately, the awakening comes too late. Heavy Meta is a punny album title that countless metal bands have no doubt considered and avoided. Now, as an album among metal fans, it is deserving of the same fate.