Few genres of music are as plagued and blessed with passionate fans as metal. Rhetorical debates about what constitutes "real" metal just come with the territory, as do arguments about which era of an iconic act is best. When Iron Maiden revealed their set list last week for their summer tour (which hits our own White River Amphitheater on Tuesday, June 22), the comments section of the blabbermouth.net blog lit up with furious debate about the abundance of newer selections and the conspicuous absence of classic anthems like "The Trooper" and "2 Minutes to Midnight."
The passion and seriousness a metal fan brings to the table is equaled by the musicians onstage, including some members of the black- and death-metal subgenres who feel the need to prove how earnestly evil their music is. A quick perusal of album art is all it takes to remind oneself how important such an image is to many artists.
However, Seattle is seeing a refreshing infusion of technically dazzling acts who understand that while forging metal might require a sharper skill set and a bigger rehearsal commitment than your average punk or pop band, it doesn't have to be mired in doom and dread all the time. Bands like Evangelist (who claim both Frank Zappa and Carissa's Wierd as influences, and brandish song titles such as "Fondled by a Wood Chipper"), Super Happy Story Time Land (who pen shred-happy songs about unicorns and fishing trips with Dad), and the Botch-influenced, brilliantly named Smooth Sailing are cranking out impressively executed progressive metal that eschews the grim image other acts seem to view as mandatory.
"With metal, people take things very seriously," says Smooth Sailing guitarist and vocalist Chris Elizaga. "And we're all very happy, giggly people. We didn't want anything to be serious about the band except for the music." Indeed, Elizaga and his five bandmates might occasionally go by goofball monikers like Brando Suave or Paddy Cake and show up to gigs in identical suit-and-tie combos, but the firestorm they unleash is anything but slapstick. At a recent matinee set at the Sunset, they left everyone in the room looking stunned and happy with their bionic hybrid of watertight hardcore and gorgeously complex interludes, a combination that was not arrived at on a whim. Despite the seizure-provoking light show that accompanied their performance, joke rock this is not.
"When we originally started out, we were all playing entirely different types of music," explains Elizaga, who points to the band's jazz- and alt-country-oriented drummer Brandon Elizaga as just one bizarre seed of their origins. "We wanted it to be as crazy as it could be without being metal. But at the same time, we were all really into soundscape-type stuff like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It took a whole lot of experimentation 'til we found something that sounded like 'us.'"
Smooth Sailing have a four-song EP under their stylish belts; their full-length debut is slated to be recorded this summer at Houdini Street Studios with engineer Dave Green. Their next show is part of the Metal Summer Slam! at Studio Seven on Sat., June 19, along with Super Happy Story Time Land and seven other local bands (the show starts at 4:30 p.m).
Bellingham's Dog Shredder is another band quickly on the rise that maintains a healthy sense of humor, but with a clear commitment to unleashing some of the most intricate and uncompromising hardcore-influenced metal they can muster. "I would say that making good music is by far our first priority," says vocalist/guitarist Josh Holland. "Not taking ourselves too seriously is a very close second. Metal music is an extremely powerful medium, and I have never thought that there was anything 'evil' about it, to be honest with you. It's always been more about positivity and community for me. And for fuck's sake, look at Disturbed. Who wants to be them? Lighten up, guys."
Dog Shredder recently wrapped recording at the Toadhouse in Portland with noted producer Adam Pike (Red Fang, Black Elk, Icarus Line). The two tracks they've shared thus far are brutal beauties, both epic in length and scope and bristling with whiplash-inducing time signatures, harrowing vocals, and a blur of technical finesse that in the studio must have been like trying to pin down a swarm of cracked-out fireflies. They have two nicely stacked gigs lined up at the Comet this month: this Wed., June 16, with Akimbo, Lords, and Rad Touch, and less than two weeks later, on Fri., June 25, with Helms Alee, Giant Squid, and Lozen.
Fans of Dog Shredder and Smooth Sailing's sound and bemused outlook should also toss Grenades into the ones-to-watch file. Formed by ex–Schoolyard Heroes drummer Brian Turner and several former members of Kane Hodder, they also exhibit the ubiquitous influence of Botch, but with a good dose of dirty swagger and swing that sweetens things ever so slightly. Laughter is also a key component of the mix. "To us, a sense of humor is important because that's just who we are," affirms guitarist Eric Christianson. "At times our [press] interviews have turned into David Cross comedy bits. Our music, on the other hand, is directly related to what we have on our turntables. I feel bands that take their 'evil' point of view too seriously can come off as pretentious...We're more interested in the personable." Fittingly enough, Grenades play with Dog Shredder next month in Bellingham, at the Cabin Tavern on Sat., July 24.