Stormtroopers of Death are coming to town!
For many people, that statement means nothing. Is it the title of a Roger Corman movie? The ominous slogan for some millennial militia? Pat Buchanan's campaign platform?
Only a small segment of society understands those words, comprehends the gravity of the situation. Those in the know are easy to spot, because they're probably grunting the chunky riff to "March of the S.O.D." through clenched teeth and thanking their Dark Lord that they didn't kill themselves when they were 16, else they would be missing the greatest thing to happen to heavy metal: the fulfillment of the dream of every Midwestern kid who perched shirtless on the edge of his bed, playing air guitar along with "United Forces" while his parents were at work.
The second coming of Stormtroopers of Death. The return of the once and future kings of metal. Just when heavy metal needs them most, the four original members of S.O.D. have come together like Voltron to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, an avenging scourge that attacks the flaccid modern metal scene and its crybaby bands with equal parts chutzpah and humor.
To the outsider, "heavy metal" is a broad term that encompasses everything from Mötley Crüe to Slayer. Shout at the Devil is the same beast (worship) as Diabolus in Musica, and it is all the same racket: Long hair, leather clothes, distorted power chords and light-speed guitar scales. Towering stacks of Marshall amps and retina-scarring pyrotechnic displays. Alpha-male posturing and unnecessary umlauts. It is a dark, seedy term that conjures up images of acne-plagued high-school pariahs who are into devil worship, suicide pacts and the Internet.
Heavy metal represents everything unwholesome, in the eyes of respectable people. It is synonymous with Crestwood, Maplewood and other suburban dens of iniquity. Any prefab community choked with bored and disillusioned youth who have too much time on their doughy hands is a breeding ground for the evil of heavy metal. (Right now, as you read this, a coven of pimply- and pasty-faced teens are in a tasteful Restoration Hardware-appointed Chesterfield basement, bashing out the chords to "Iron Man" with malicious glee. Idle hands do the devil's work, you know.)
Heavy metal is considered a distasteful phase that afflicts teenage boys, like bed-wetting or chronic masturbation. It is dismissed as lowbrow music made by and for lowbrow people, an unholy tumult that is impenetrable to outsiders, which is precisely why it endures. Heavy metal, by its very nature, excludes everyone unwilling to accept its extremes of violence and volume, so it becomes an exclusive club populated by a select few. Outsiders see only a black-clad mass of sullen, unkempt kids. But on the inside, heavy metal is a kaleidoscope of factions and sects, each struggling for dominance. It is musical Darwinism at its most vicious, as bands rise from parts unknown to challenge the accepted norms of heaviness and are either assimilated into orthodox metal dogma or disappear forever, blotted out by their louder/faster/heavier successors. Today's Guns N' Roses is tomorrow's Slash's Snakepit, and no one gives a dirty kilt about Axl and the boys anymore, do they? Only the strong bands survive for any length of time in the shifting sands of the Metal Empire. S.O.D. have lasted for 15 years, and they have done so on the strength of one studio album (1985's Speak English or Die) and a live version of the same album released seven years later (Live at Budokan).
Their influence reaches throughout music, from obvious fans like Slayer to more incongruous ones, like Dave Grohl. To unlock their mystique, you must step back in time to the mid-'80s, when heavy metal was at a crossroads.
It was 1985. Metal bands were getting airplay on the radio, because confusion among outsiders led them to believe that Judas Priest and Bon Jovi were made of the same ferrous stuff. MTV, aware of a prepubescent Ricky Martin's future star power and desperate to keep themselves afloat until he could be molded into a legitimate "phenom," jumped on the bandwagon and began airing metal videos. As was the case with MTV then and now, "too much is never enough" was the order of the day, and so they clogged the airwaves with footage of any band that called itself metal. Someone (probably a record executive) decided that if Mötley Crüe sold well, then Europe would sell great, and Cinderella was going to be the next big thing (at least until Britney Spears got those implan -- er, "had a growth spurt"). These girly glam-bands wrestled metal into a compromising position, replete with massive John Waters bouffant hairdos and drag-queen makeup.
Soon every Merry Go Round employee who could hold a guitar and croon vapid poetry along the lines of "Every rose has its thorn" was offered a recording contract, and the Metal Empire inched toward Marshmallow Fairyland. The ripples in the industry were strong enough that previously heavy bands Judas Priest and Iron Maiden began wearing neon aerobics outfits and released synthesizer-laden albums. Ozzy Osbourne, once-proud Lord High Minister of All That Was Sinister, released the Billy Joel-esque "So Tired," and a subculture wept. Something had to be done.
In the shop classes and smoking lounges of high schools across America, a revolution broke out. Awkward guitar-playing introverts threw off the spandex garters of their oppressors and decided it was time to make metal unacceptable again. They bought fuzz boxes and flange pedals instead of Aqua Net and got down to the business of brutalizing the music. They named their bands Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax or Exodus, and they drew on the hardcore punk of Agnostic Front and Discharge, as well as the biker space-rock of Motörhead. They were heavy as lead, and their songs ran the gamut from grim to bleak. Other disgruntled youth (too young to work for the post office) followed their lead and started thrash-metal bands and speed-core bands and death-metal bands. Heavy was the order of the day again, but at what price? What started as a musical reaction to the business world's takeover of their music became a reactionary movement that existed only to plumb the depths, and you couldn't swing a BC Rich Warlock without hitting a Possessed or Abattoir or Pyroexigis who merely aped the more obvious aspects of heavy metal's gloom and rage.
Enter Stormtroopers of Death. Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian had written a bunch of songs that didn't quite suit his band's style, so he started a new band. This side project with Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante and ex-bassist Dan Lilker combined their love for hardcore, comic books and a new element that heavy metal hadn't seen before: humor. Joined by mutual friend Billy "the Bat" Milano, they cranked out 21 songs that lampooned everything metal. They mocked the glam boys ("Douche Crew"), the thrash boys ("Fist Banging Mania"), the punk kids ("Milano Mosh") and themselves ("What's That Noise"). Loud, abrasive and funny as hell, Speak English or Die was as subtle as a steamroller, offending everyone who couldn't laugh at themselves or the cartoon violence of heavy metal. They played a half-dozen shows and promptly broke up, because their work was done. Heavy metal was thoroughly chastened. Three-quarters of Mötley Crüe turned to hard drugs. Twisted Sister gasped "uncle" and quit. Poison, Warrant, Winger and company are playing at a state fair near you. Jon Bon Jovi became VH-1's Jersey Cowboy. Metallica left the country for a two-year tour, and when they returned, they were not the same Bay Area thrashers. Only Slayer, distant and inscrutable in the depths of hell, remained unaffected, and they continued to release the same album every two years as if nothing had ever changed.
But it had. Metal shattered into myriad subcults and was co-opted by Seattle, with grunge emerging as the new next big thing. The Empire had burned, and the four members of S.O.D. had rocked out while flames scorched the earth.
Back in 1999, grunge is dead of self-inflicted gunshots and metal is on the rise. But once again it's MTV's idea of what heavy metal should be. Limp Bizkit and Korn are riding high on their combination of turntables and Marshall stacks, and it couldn't be more boring. Everyone is sporting the Adidas-tracksuit-and-Gilligan-hat look, throwing around the "yo, homie" whilst "raising the roof" as if he's an extra in the latest Master P joint. (Note to self: Kill next person who "raises" any roof I am under.) Korn's best stab at originality is adding bagpipes to the occasional song, but didn't Nigel Tufnel do that a few years back with Spinal Tap? And Limp Bizkit. Take one ex-member of House of Pain, add some guitars and remove all brain cells, and voilà! "Nookie." Neither band (nor their host of imitators) seems to realize that their hybrid of metal and hip-hop was done way back in 1987, when Anthrax recorded "I'm the Man" as a joke. And neither band nor their patron saint, MTV, seems to be aware of the fact that earlier this summer S.O.D. issued a declaration of war on their commercial-metal syndicate.
Releasing their second effort in 14 years (Bigger Than the Devil), S.O.D. have come back like locusts to raze metal, or what passes for metal in the mainstream, to the ground. Maybe it's because Scott Ian and Charlie Benante feel somewhat responsible for what their hip-hop metal joke has become, and they need to squelch it before Mötley Crüe hooks up with Puff Daddy and mount their 47th comeback attempt. Maybe it's because Billy Milano is a force of nature that cannot be contained on the East Coast, and he must be unleashed periodically so that he doesn't destroy New York. Maybe it's because Brutal Truth broke up and Dan Lilker needs a band to kill basses for. Or maybe they're back because heavy metal needs a good swift kick in the ass and Stormtroopers of Death are the only band whose collective foot is big and heavy enough to do it. They killed metal in the '80s, and they never left the East Coast. Now they're on a world tour. Who or what will turn up dead when S.O.D are through this time?
S.O.D. play the Galaxy on Friday, Nov. 19, accompanied by Skinlab and Crowbar.