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I admit I have an issue with mainstream heavy metal. Some of the musicians possess undeniably impressive technical prowess, but they appear determined to adhere to strict marketing regulations or to develop a meathead attitude, further perpetuating the stereotype known as "jock metal."
A first glance at the bill for the second annual Desert Uprising could leave fans convinced the majority of the main stage bands fall into that category. But this year, there's one other thing those acts share: They're not all about indulging in the industry standard of excessive testosterone. Their sound is more concentrated on the historical influences behind the music, as well as its inherent vulnerability. Which is good: Some of the best music is created while emotions are running high.
The headlining acts — Avenged Sevenfold, HIM, and Volbeat — have released new records this year that are influenced by sounds going back 50, 75, even 200 years. Plus, for each of the bands, the lyrical content was inspired by that one little thing you're not supposed to talk about in metal: love.
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These three bands put out music embodying simpler times. It's in Avenged Sevenfold's admiration for their late drummer, Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan, and their reverence for the classical music they spent months poring over. It's HIM writing riffs that vocalist Ville Valo calls "love songs for his favorite musicians." And it's Volbeat's past and current catalogs' focus on the one and only thing everyone on this planet searches for — love, of course.
Avenged Sevenfold's most recent album, Hail to the King, was released this past August, and it's a straight-up assault on the senses. It's the first record completely written and recorded without The Rev, whose death from an overdose left the band and its fans reeling.
"It's celebratory," says guitarist Synyster Gates. "It's the light to the dark for rock music."
Avenged Sevenfold's new musical style is full of slower tempos and simpler drums; it's much less progressive than the band's previous music. In concert, the band will speak more with space than with density, resulting in more power — much like the musical predecessors that they gathered so much influence from to make the album.
For Gates, it's Duran Duran. He wasn't allowed to listen to the band for an entire year after his mom walked in on him re-enacting the music video for "Wild Boys" when he was 6. Guitarist Zakky Vengeance admires Lady Gaga, and new drummer Arin Ilejay is a fan of Mumford & Sons. And bassist Johnny Christ?
"Aqua. I love listening to Aqua."
The music is also influenced by classical composers like Gustav Holst, Mozart, Bach, and Maurice Ravel — as well as tons of Iron Maiden, Scorpions, and the occasional taste of Elvis Presley. Fellow main stage vocalist Michael Poulsen could certainly relate to that.
His Danish band, Volbeat, has been headlining huge shows in Europe for nearly a decade and is known for a fusion of classic rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, metal, and the radio hits of the '50s.
"You can now hear that there are two guitar players. Rob is without a doubt the best technical guitar player that we have performed with," says Poulsen. "He has his own sound. And I think it's important to have your own sound, so he's not just becoming a part of our sound inferno."
Volbeat's fifth album, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, released in April, is packed with Old West imagery, emotional melodies, and some of the heaviest songs the band's ever recorded. The sound was crafted from a range of influences spanning Black Sabbath to Sex Pistols to Fats Domino.
"My favorite decade of music would have to be the '50s," says Poulsen. "I have worked with so many time periods. But those records from the '50s are still records I constantly get inspired by."
Which could explain why many Volbeat songs are love songs. Poulsen's explanation is more cosmic: "To everybody, the biggest mission of why we are on this Earth is to find a loved one."
HIM's Valo agrees with this concept, but the band's newest album is all about paying tribute to specific artists, not necessarily those that influenced them. Since 1991, the five-piece has released eight studio albums, gaining popularity in the United States rapidly once Jackass star/skateboarding phenom Bam Margera began promoting the band on his show as one of his favorite groups.
Marked with a giant tattoo of Edgar Allan Poe's eyes across his back (inked by none other than Kat Von D), Valo knows that a lot of people dislike the band's self-described brand of "love metal" — even though it garnered the "Most Dedicated Fans" award at the 2013 Golden Gods Awards and became the first Finnish band to reach gold album status in the United States.
"It's one of those things that you can't buy with money," says Valo. "That's for people to decide, and you never start out with thinking that way anyways. People can be very faithful."
In April, the band released Tears on Tape, an homage to such artists as Elvis Presley, King Diamond, The Ronettes, Roy Orbison, and Black Sabbath. Valo mined inspiration from the doo-wop, imagery, and harmonies of the '50s and '60s, examining huge moments of emotional revelation as simply as possible.
"Love is my world. Tears on Tape is literally the tears my favorite artists shed on tape. It's a love song for music."
HIM even utilized some of the equipment those older acts might have used.
"We use Helios amps, which are remakes of the stuff The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and Black Sabbath [used]," says Valo. "They have this soft, dull, Rolling Stones-y, kinda fucked-up late '60s vibe. The gear makes you perform in a certain way, in the mindset of those legendary musicians, because it's a certain version of you in your ears. You play into the gear and the gear plays you back."
HIM's signature symbol, the heartagram, readily represents the name of the game for this lineup: a cross between love and heavy metal.
"It's a modern yin yang," Valo says. "The light and dark of society."
"With this lineup, I think the whole aesthetic is exciting," says Valo. "It's all kinds of heavier music, and it will be interesting to see if people absorb it all and get it."