Out of Step
Metal is metal and punk is punk, and never the twain shall meet. Or at least that's been the story for the last 20 years since the two movements' brief convergence in the mid-'80s. Back in 1985 and '86, releases by metal bands such as Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax forged the new underground sound of speed metal and thrash, blurring the dividing line with hardcore punk just as hardcore bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Corrosion of Conformity and D.R.I. (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) were making the crossover in the other direction.
The affair was brief -- as fortuitous as a Reese's commercial with some indignant punk rocker exclaiming, "You've got metal in my punk" -- and it ended in each genre going its own way. But recently the differences between them have begun to break down again.
Back in 1983, D.R.I.'s self-titled debut tore through 22 songs on one little seven-inch record, with only a handful of tracks even crossing the minute-long mark. It was a hard-driving record, like the Ramones on amphetamines, with a healthy dose of political rhetoric in songs such as "Money Stinks," "I Don't Need Society" and "Human Waste." Its raw, lo-fi fury would make it an underground classic, attracting the attention of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll editor Tim Yohannon and giving the band members their first inkling that they might be on to something.
"[Yohannon] had gotten ahold of our album, and he thought it was really good," says D.R.I. singer Kurt Brecht from a tour stop in Nashville. "At that time, MRR was our bible that we would read every month, so that was important for us. We realized, `This guy likes us -- we must have something going on for us.' . . . There was nobody telling us, `You guys suck. Break up.' [But] for us, it seemed like it: We were playing Houston every week, and there'd be five people there to see us."
D.R.I. moved steadily toward more of a metal sound, influenced by bands like Slayer. Its songs stretched out, punctuated by chunky bits of metal rather than the no-frills, straightahead playing that characterized its first album (whose drum sound notably approximated the thunderous pounding of metal more than punk's machine-gun rat-tat-tat). D.R.I.'s transition culminated on its third release, 1987's Crossover, and many punks felt betrayed by this attempt to bridge the genres (which had, until then, developed from differing trajectories: the Sex Pistols and Black Flag versus Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath).
"The punk kids were angry," says Brecht. "Some of them that weren't into the change, they had their own deal -- they didn't want metal to be part of the punk rock scene. It was pretty volatile at first, the fighting between the skinheads and people with long hair. All of a sudden someone with long hair would be out there thrashing in the pit, and the skinheads would be punching him and stuff. It was violent for a while."
Soon the fans settled into separate camps. While shunned by some in the punk community, D.R.I. found a home among metal fans and the skate-punk contingent. Since then, the band has remained a group of dedicated road warriors with a steady draw, even without releasing a new album in the past decade.
Meanwhile, hardcore and metal went their separate ways, settling into narrow niches and increasingly stagnating formulas such as straight-edge, death metal and grindcore. Ironically, the success of punk-pop during the last five years, which has lifted the fortunes of all punk bands, and the stamina of similar-minded old-school bands such as Suicidal Tendencies and 7 Seconds, have dovetailed with an increasingly eclectic alternative metal scene, bringing the phenomenon full circle.
One of the bands leading this change is New Jersey's Dillinger Escape Plan, a volatile metal-driven act formed in 1997 whose eclectic use of odd time signatures, jazz-tinged guitar leads, and spates of white-noise fury hark back to the pioneering no-rules ethos of hardcore punk. Once again, a genre-blurring band is drawing the metal and punk scenes into closer alignment.
"When we first started, we were metal kids, and when I first saw a heavy metal band play, I was like, `Wow, this is intense. This is exciting,'" says DEP guitarist Ben Weinman. "But the more I listened to it, all the bands started to sound the same. And I got desensitized to it. It really didn't have any passion behind it -- it was just as formulaic as the more marketable popular music. So then when I got into hardcore and punk rock, I was like, `This isn't technical, this isn't extremely original, but there's definitely some passion behind it' -- the excitement and energy that isn't behind some of these metal guys, you know? So all of that was extremely influential to us."
Like seminal punk rockers Minor Threat or Black Flag, DEP derives its energy from a sense of alienation and a "fuck all" attitude, not how well or fast it can play its instruments.
"When we first started, we were reacting to the music out there that we thought was horrible. We really had no intentions of making it. We didn't even have the intention of anyone liking it. We just gave up on music," says Weinman. "That's kind of what spawned this band -- the fact we weren't part of a scene and no one liked us."
Like D.R.I., Dillinger Escape Plan's iconoclastic approach to music puzzled fans.
"I remember playing with hardcore bands and kids being extremely confused [about] whether they should like us or not. The metal kids would come out and be like, `These guys don't have long hair -- what the fuck,' and the hardcore kids would be like, `They look a little bit like us, but they play kind of metal.' And you could see a separation," says Weinman.
People eventually caught on, and despite the fact that DEP has only released one album and an EP (with Mike Patton singing), the band's now on the radar of critics and fans alike.
"All of a sudden we're a cool band. It's like now we don't have anything to be pissed about," Weinman says with a chuckle.
Not that they let it bog them down. Their new album, Miss Machine, picks up where 1999's Calculating Infinity left off, improving on their chaotic sound and pushing it in new -- even melodic -- directions.
"We're a band that's going to do what they want, whenever they want," Weinman says, "if it means making something off-time and really odd or technical, or if it means simplifying it. Whatever that is, let's just make the best song possible. Sometimes it calls for melody, sometimes for screaming. . . . I think the result was much more of a dynamic record, as opposed to just very dynamic songs."
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