The Evil Men Undo

See you in hell: Dave Wyndorf (center, seated) and Monster Magnet

Despite the fervent wishes of most self-appointed pop culture watchdogs, hard rock will never die. Attempts at pretending that traffic on the highway to hell has lightened only mask the truth that millions of suburban proletarians continue to remedy the hand-wringing of white angst with fist-pumping, arena-rock catharsis. In the '90s, however, that doesn't always mean the highway follows a straight path. Many of today's postmetal bands have made killings by freely mixing and matching with other genres. From the rap-flavored Korn/Limp Bizkit school of heavy gloom-rock to White Zombie's dance-floor-friendly industrial metal, hybrids currently rule the arena--so much so that many of the scene's biggest sellers deny any affiliation with the cock-rock that spawned them.

Still, even in this enlightened era, dreck will out. Angst-ridden, egregiously distorted, and lugubrious, the above-mentioned bands are as fabulously overwrought as Sabbath at its blackest. Throwing in outside sources merely spices things up: The music's appeal with a newer, younger, hip-hop or industrial audience is merely a nice fringe benefit. And after the curious listener gets past the newfangled ornamentation, it's pretty much the same old tool and die in metal America.

The great exception is Red Bank, N.J.'s Monster Magnet, whose new Powertrip might be the best heavy-rock album since Soundgarden's Superunknown. Like the Garden, Monster Magnet--and, most salient, its mastermind Dave Wyndorf--don't so much play metal as play with it. They're fully aware of its ridiculousness, but they love it to death for its raw, expressive power.

After spending his adolescence playing in punk bands and nurturing his id with a steady diet of comic books, B-movies, and, by his own account, enough intoxicants to make Iggy Pop blanch, Wyndorf conceived Monster Magnet as an outlet for his cartoonish, drug-inspired fantasies. Following several acid-drenched underground releases, Monster Magnet signed to A&M, and recorded the well-received Superjudge (1993) and Dopes to Infinity (1995).

Both albums expanded Monster Magnet's audience, but neither scored big enough in the sticks to suggest crossover. When Wyndorf finished touring behind Dopes, he returned home to find his label bosses badgering him for a radio hit. But instead of working diligently on crafting a single, Wyndorf booked a flight to Las Vegas, locked himself in a fleabag motel, and came up with a song every day for three weeks.

Any group of songs (let alone metal songs) written so quickly is bound to be troubled by a certain sameness, and the record's ponderous "sex, money, power" lyrics give it a decidedly doggerel unity. But Monster Magnet rock so strenuously that any inadequacies are subsumed in their steamroller sound. Rather than overburden you with unnecessary technical diddling or bludgeon you with blunt axes, they keep things simple, melodic, and rhythmically propulsive.

Their riffs are large and lean, relying less on distortion than on full tone and precise attack. On "Tractor," a stop-start I-IV-V chord structure jumps atop heavy drums like bare feet on hot coals. "Bummer" surges and swings through seven-and-a-half minutes of tough boogie that seems like it's over in less than three. And where most hard-rock bands are too quick to pound home their tunes with Thor-like power, Monster Magnet will delay a song's climax for maximum effect (note the characteristically tense "Space Lord"). They're also adept at less restrained heavy-guitar excursions. On "Tractor," the hilariously obsessive chorus, "Got a knife in my back/Got a hole in my arm/And I'm driving the tractor/On the drug farm" crashes into a scabrous, wahed-out guitar meltdown that recalls the Velvet Underground's "I Heard Her Call My Name."

But what takes Powertrip further beyond the ordinary is Wyndorf's neotraditionalist take on heavy metal's recent trend toward stylistic pastiche: Rather than crossbreeding their hard rock with rap or techno-rock, he employs a historically aware vocabulary of garage-rock references.

Monster Magnet have always paid explicit homage to the Detroit-based psychedelia (Stooges, MC5) that fostered heavy rock to begin with. But psych's predecessors--from late-'50s instrumental twang to early-'60s surf music to mid-'60s garage-rock--form a continuum that's been mostly overlooked in hard-rock circles since bands stopped playing Chuck Berry covers decades ago. Although Wyndorf and company aren't the only current band to dive into that particular pool (see the Reverend Horton Heat), theirs isn't an exercise in kitschy retro-chic. And so we get curveballs like the reverb-laden rockabilly licks of "19 Witches," the Farfisa organ of ? and the Mysterians on "See You in Hell," and the spooky album closer "Your Lies Become You," which recalls Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone at his most spare.

These experiments are currently enabling the band to reach a wider (hipper?) audience. Ironically, Wyndorf's valiant disregard for his label's interest in radio-friendly product has resulted in Monster Magnet's most accessible music to date. "Space Lord" is currently in heavy rotation on hard-rock radio, and "See You in Hell" sounds like a would-be pop hit (despite the fact that it culminates in the line "I was talking to Jesus through a hole in the floor/He said, 'Your time is up, we can't stay anymore'").

That level of success would be poetic justice for the massive underground audience that's nurtured the band thus far. And even if popularity doesn't ensure that the dark beast which is heavy metal will lumber on through the ages, it certainly breathes new life into the behemoth.

Monster Magnet opens for Rob Zombie at the St. Paul Civic Center on Saturday, November 7; 989-5151.

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