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'Metalocalypse' brings brutality to Dethklok concerts

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"Metalocalypse" is not about heavy metal.

True, the animated TV series' main characters are members of a heavy metal band -- Dethklok, a band so unbelievably popular that they rank as the world's seventh-largest economy and maintain their own police force -- and the show's comedy is loaded with tropes and treats aimed at metal fans. But Brendon Small, the show's creative force, reminds us that the parody is about something more.

"It's about a group of celebrities that happen to be a metal band," Small said in an interview from Los Angeles. "It's about celebrities going through their stupid day. It's like what if the Kardashians were a metal band. The jokes are not exclusive to metal. It's comedy about inept billionaires -- would they be able to find their car in a parking lot, they don't understand the value of a dollar, etc."

No Kardashian, however, can shred like Small can.

with All That Remains, and Black Dahlia Murder
• 6:30 p.m. Nov. 16
• Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
• Tickets, $32; (800) 745-3000;

Small's first animated series was "Home Movies" (1999-2004, the first show to air on the Adult Swim programming block on the Cartoon Network), whose main character, named Brendon, was an elementary school kid who fancied himself a great film director.

But Small is a Berklee School of Music grad and a fierce guitar player. His original pitch for "Metalocalypse" -- which premiered in 2006 and features regular animated Dethklok performances, with Small voicing Dethklok's growly singer, Nathan Explosion, among other characters, as well as leading the performance of the actual music -- was basically to create an outlet for writing and playing a lot of cool heavy metal.

"When we sold the show, I said, 'What I'd like to do is write a lot of music,'?" Small said. "If the show goes well, we'll go in and record full-length versions of the songs."

The show, which wrapped its fourth season in July on Adult Swim, has been a success -- often hilarious and featuring regular guest voices from Mark Hamill to Malcolm McDowell -- as have the resulting albums. The new collection, "Metalocalypse: Dethklok Dethalbum III," was released Oct. 26 and debuted on Billboard's album chart that week at No. 10. ("Metalocalypse Season 4" came out Oct. 30 on DVD and Blu-ray.)

But Small's pitch also included another goal: "Then we want to tour them."

Animated performers these days rarely seem content to remain in two dimensions. From Damon Albarn's Gorillaz to Japanese software idol Hatsune Miku, animated singers tend to want to slip away from the studio and peel themselves off the small screen to perform their music in large concert halls with live musicians.

Dethklok first went on tour in 2007. The challenge of making an animated band come alive on stage is formidable.

A Dethklok concert features live, loud metal thrashed out by Small singing and playing guitar, and his band (guitarist Mike Keneally, bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Gene Hoglan). While the players are visible, they're not the main visual attraction. The job of delivering the eye candy falls, like the TV show, to a screen showing Dethklok in animated performances and, also like the TV show, some comedy bits.

"I'd watched that Gorillaz DVD ["Demon Days Live"] where they play behind the scrim and all you see is their shadows, and I lost interest very quickly," Small said. "There was no connection between me and the performer. So I thought, what if I did this? We're not supposed to be the band, but we make the sounds for the records.

"We don't look like a metal band. We look like a bunch of fatsos on stage. The show can't be about us. People would come and go, 'Hey, they're not Dethklok. That's disappointing.' So we wound up doing what Gorillaz eventually did, which was hang the giant screen above us for the animation of the band, but we're still [seen] onstage making a connection with the superfans and hypernerds who know who we are and want to see us play.

"I'm a guitar player. When I see a show, I want to get close. I want to see the fingers, the guy's tricks. Others might want to see the drum?mer when he goes crazy. This way we can satisfy both audiences. But really, our job is to be largely unseen. We're the pit band like in a Broadway show. We're the Metalocalypse Players."

A loose narrative supports each concert with some semblance of structure. In the TV series, Dethklok tends to wreak havoc and destruction (often inadvertently) wherever they go. Concerts attempt to replicate the idea that the audience, just by being in the band's presence, is in grave danger.

"I want the audience to feel like a Universal Studios or Disney ride, but with murder and explosions and [breasts]," Small said. "When I saw the Terminator ride [T2 3-D: Battle Across Time at three Universal Studios amusement parks], they get the audience involved with this 'you are in danger' thing, and I thought that was fun. We do something similar. The villain comes out [on screen] and talks horribly about the audience, and we unfold a plot of how it will hopefully get thwarted. It's like live wrestling."

Small himself, as Nathan, tries to bolster the crowd's confidence midway through the concert.

"I do some research before each city and tell the crowd why their city is the most brutal on Earth," Small said. "Like in Chicago I'll say" -- and he breaks into his gravelly Nathan rumble -- "'Chicago! You're city was burned down by a cow!" Small chuckles, only partly in character. "'You could not stop a cow from burning down your city! That makes Chicago the most brutal city on earth!'?"

A fifth season of "Metalocalypse" is planned, but Small is also thinking about the project that would come next. " 'Home Movies' was great, we got to do what we wanted, and to honor that show, we didn't want to do the same thing next," he said. "Likewise, I think my next project will be something completely different. I think it'll be a tribute to some of my favorite TV and what influenced me growing up."

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on November 13, 2012 5:00 PM.

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