Myles Heskett can’t stop laughing. It’s as reasonable a response as any to the past few months of his life. Since January, the affable Aussie and his humble trio of heavy-metal revivalists, Wolfmother, have toured the world on the back of their self-titled debut album–a maelstrom of Sabbath-inspired riffing and classic rock grandeur.
Along the way, Heskett, guitarist/vocalist Andrew Stockdale and bassist/organist Chris Ross have been offered an opening slot on tour with Pearl Jam, befriended Sonic Youth, been tapped to play practically every summer festival under the sun, and even soundtracked one of those silly iTunes advertisements with the silhouettes.
“It’s hysterical,” says Heskett, wandering around backstage at a Midwest tour stop.
The 20-something percussionist is talking about the “ballistic” management team his once-tiny band now requires, but he could just as easily be referencing the press attention Wolfmother has been receiving since the tour kicked off some five months ago. Or the non-stop interview his life has become since the glossies started giving a damn.
“It’s probably our own fault,” he says, with another laugh. “We’re pretty naïve. We just thought we’d try this thing out and play old-school rock.”
But, as plenty of post-punk revivalists will tell you, digging into the past for inspiration can bite you in the ass in the present. Along with the high profile festival gigs and four-page Rolling Stone articles, Wolfmother’s coming under fire for sounding a bit too much like 1969.
As expected, Heskett writes his band’s sound off to chemistry (read: musicians’ speak for conscious decision). But the Sabbath-biting isn’t the real issue: The problem with Wolfmother is the shiny crown of authenticity rock critics have perched on its simple lil’ head. The buzz from such a decree has been more deafening than the band itself.
Earlier this year, the apes at Maxim magazine called Wolfmother the next Nirvana, a ludicrous claim, just as the trio headlined hipster-approved Vice magazine’s SXSW afterparty and just a few months after every rag in the world put the boys on their Ten Bands to Watch in 2006 list. All in all, the earsplitting fanfare blew for one of the most derivative bands in recent memory.
The rock critics and music fanatics over at online discussion forum and cyber circle jerk I Love Music–frequented by folks like former Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy and All Music Guide‘s Ned Raggett–have a term for groups like Wolfmother, unthreatening metal acts that receive a bunch of bandwagon attention: “Hard Rock For People Who Don’t Like Hard Rock.”
The naysayer’s problem, it would seem, is that Wolfmother sounds pretty blasé in the face of Southern Lord fare like Sunn0))) or Boris, bands that have had their own surge of late, too, picking up steam with the Pitchfork set and gaining audiences on the strength and import of experimentation. Less accessible and more adventurous, the impossibly low, impossibly slow metal of Sunn0)))’s Greg Anderson and Stephen O’ Malley is the Albert Ayler to Wolfmother’s Charlie Parker. Still reliant on similar principles, both bands use their blueprints in radically different ways. When compared to such brave sonics, sure, Heskett and company sound sort of boring and old-hat. But musicians have been cribbing for ages. What makes this crop so odious to its detractors is its music of choice–the once iron-clad, membership-only world of heavy metal.
A few years ago, such a resurgence might have sounded absurd. Hipsters and haircuts were too busy swaying to Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom to headbang. But this fixation on psychedelic music eventually brought them to acts like Faun Fables and kooks like Pentangle, clearing the way for the darker, low-key acoustics of classic rock bands like Black Sabbath and Hawkwind. It was only a matter of time before stoner rock, a genre whose roots are planted in Tony Iommi’s fretboard, would take hold again.
By now, it’s a full-on phenomenon, Wolfmother becoming the first to peak into the mainstream. There’s Witch, the doomy heavy metal side project of Dino Jr.’s J. Mascis, Oakland’s denim-clad Saviours, and the New York-via-Ohio scuzzsters of Early Man, whose galloping riffs go down more like Metallica outtakes than the indie rock that Matador tag on their CD might suggest. There’s even “Hipster Metal” package tours. America was introduced to a trio of riffheads when Austin’s punishing The Sword went out for a stint with Montreal’s desert-metal zeitgeist Priestess and Early Man.
A mini-movement for sure, but isn’t it pretty shameful grave robbing?
Some rock bands are good because they’re important, from early-’80s no-wavers like Mars or James Chance right down to modern fringemen Orthrelm or Lightning Bolt. These bands are still instrumental in changing the way rock music is understood, vital in thinking the genre forward. But bands like Wolfmother and the retro-metallurgists listed above are good simply because their songs are tight, their riffs are perfect, and they remind us of important bands. Sure, it’s a limp excuse for admiration, but these guys have 1969 on tap.
No, as an album, Wolfmother doesn’t deserve much praise. The triumph is in the individual songs’ approximation of the past. When the back and forth blues of “Dimension” takes over the album’s opening track, a diligent listener can’t help but hear Blue Cheer or Black Sabbath–or, more accurately, the affect they’ve had on musicians.
And that’s all right. Every once in a while music fans need an album (or a movement) whose phrases finish themselves, whose riffs sound recognizable on first listen.
Basically, it’s time to lighten up. Heskett certainly has: “It could be worse. They could be comparing us to George Michael or something.”
Right on! Cue the Wham!! Revival!!!
Wolfmother plays the Cat’s Cradle on Wednesday, June 7 with Brooklyn’s non-metalloids Psychic Ills at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.Buying Guide: What to pick and what to pass in metal’s resurgence PICK ‘EM UP PASS ‘EM ON
Various Artists, Invaders
Like the Yes New York comp (only timely, instead of three years too late), this Kemado Records collection is a fledgling genre-definer. It features tracks by Wolfmother, Witch, Witchcraft, Saviours, High on Fire, The Sword, Danava, and anything laid down in the past few years thats proud of being recorded in a basement and on vintage Orange amplifiers.
Goblin Cock, Bagged and Boarded
Pinback guitarist Rob Crows foray into heavy metal was supposed to be a joke. Seriously, the liner notes are written in Runes, and chunks of the album sound like bad GWAR outtakes. So unless youre looking for a laugh, gobble something else.
Seemingly unaware of (or completely uninterested in) music recorded after the late 60s, this Swedish quartet emerged in 2004 with a murky self-titled debut filled with Sabbath-love. But on the 2005 follow-up, Witchcraft fiddles with the blues rock of classic power trios like Cream and the slow chug of Bobby Lieblings Pentagram in equal strides.
Early Man, Closing In
Save for the syrup riffs and gloomy lyrics on Death is the Answer, the debut album by this New York City-via-Columbus, Ohio duo is far too lean (it was produced by indie boy Matt Sweeney) to stand next to the thrash records it wishes it could be.
The Sword, Age of Winters
GUITARS!!! The pride of Austins metal sceneand one of SXSWs 2006 success storiesThe Sword boast some of the most imposing riffs of the whole retro-metal lot. The kind that swat at talk of authenticity like flies. 1969, 1999, 2009, it doesnt matter: Guitarist J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt absolutely destroy.
3 Inches of Blood, Advance and Vanquish
The name of the game is Maiden worship on the Roadrunner-released sophomore album by this Canadian sextet. And while tracks like Destroy the Orcs and Wykydtron almost save the record from embarrassing itself, the kitsch factor (and unfortunate resemblance to The Darkness) ultimately vanquishes the puerile 3 Inches.