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I Love Bombastic Rock Bands — Who’s With Me?

on January 10, 2013, 1:00am

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You know, if someone wrote an essay insisting Thin Lizzy provided the backbone for his teen experience in the mid 1970s, every rock critic in America would nod their head in agreement. A serious discussion on the metaphorical significance of Jailbreak would be totally acceptable. I just happen to think the same dialogue can be had about Slippery When Wet.

-Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City

In the summer of 2002, Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork published his now famous (or famously flawed) review of Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet. He gave the album a laughable 0.6, and wrote, “This here is about as empty as rock music gets.” Finally, the ultimate voice in taste and opinion on modern music had echoed my thoughts, and validated my opinion. My favorite part of the review was his closing paragraph:

It’s fun’ is about the only legitimate excuse a guy could come up with [to support Andrew W.K.]– and that’s the one thing I’ll give it to warrant the .6 in the rating– but this world of music which history has graced us with is loaded with fun music…So then, what is the excuse for a typically elitist music nerd to bow to Andrew W.K.’s blistering tard-rock? That’s right, folks: there isn’t one.

At the time, my fellow Andrew W.K.-hating friends and I loved the part where he says he only gave it a rating at all because it was “fun”. Fun doesn’t mean shit in rock music! Fun is a byproduct of smart, heart-wrenching lyrics and odd musical modes and tonalities; it is not the main ingredient.

A few years after that, my stance on Andrew W.K., and rock in general, started to shift. Maybe it was from me growing increasingly tired of the growing pretension of people who always said “fun” with air quotes and a wink (like Schreiber does above). Maybe it was from playing in a cover band in college that specialized in “party songs” that helped me appreciate giving an audience a good time. Or maybe it was this video my friends from Webster University made one winter.

Whatever it was, I realized that navel gazing and poetic tropes no longer fueled me. I wanted optimism in rock ‘n’ roll. I couldn’t hear more songs about losing a girl, or being psychologically despondent. I wanted fun again. Adrien Begrand from Pop Matters wrote in his I Get Wet review: “The problem these days is that with the unending stream of rock bands who are either overly morose, overly angry, overly political, or overly pretentious, one other fundamental element has been missing from mainstream rock: dumb old fun.”

I couldn’t agree more. What happened to the fun? Begrand later says, “At its best, W.K.’s music is a refreshing blast of skanky air on the current stale music scene…” Yes! Absolutely…but…the problem is he finishes the sentence with, “…at its worst, it’s disappointingly monotonous, unoriginal, and very, very dumb.”

I became interested in writing about music when I was 17, but I didn’t officially start until later (sometime after this change in mindset). Could I reconcile this newfound love of bombastic rock with the dour sheen of the music critics that I looked up to? Do those things have to be mutually exclusive? Would I have to file away this love into the dreaded and weak-spirited folder of “guilty pleasures”?

Answers: Yes. No. Absolutely not.

Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City also explains why critics laud Eric Clapton over Eddie Van Halen. He writes:

Listening to Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past 10 years; listening to Van Halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freeze. This is why rock historians and intellectuals feel comfortable lionizing Eric Clapton, even though every credible guy in the world will play Van Halen tapes when his wife isn’t around.

It’s hard to find a mainstream critic these days who unabashedly celebrates big rock albums and/or rock stage shows. More often than not, the critics who do praise rock acts like The Darkness, Andrew W.K., or Foxy Shazam, tend to do so with a sense of irony, or a wink and a nudge. Begrand says in his review of The Darkness’ Permission to Land: “They look ridiculous and they sound ridiculous, yet they know they’re ridiculous, and they shamelessly revel in their ridiculousness.” He says they are here as a savior to those looking to keep reveling in ’80s bombast, but yet they’re ridiculous.

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Eric Nally of Foxy Shazam

The Onion’s AV Club said in the first line of their I Get Wet review: “If I Get Wet makes Andrew Wilkes-Krier a star (and it should), it could mark one of the greatest seismic shifts in popular music since Nirvana’s Nevermind hosed rivers of hairspray and makeup off the pop-cultural landscape in 1991 and ’92,” but the publication failed to put the album on any of its Best Of lists that year. Begrand, and many others, treat these bands like inside jokes, as if it’s the only way they can fully appreciate these bands (especially The Darkness and/or Foxy Shazam). If they can’t sit back and laugh at/with bands like this, then said act must be completely full of shit, and they’ll move on (a la Andrew W.K.).

So what is the disconnect between reviews and full-out appreciation? If these bands are so awe-inspiring on record and in concert, then why do critics date and move in with Arcade Fire, but fuck The Darkness and Foxy Shazam on the side? Also, tangentially, why are things like Daft Punk’s live concert pyramid and Katy Perry’s lights and costumes celebrated, but theatrics and costumes of Foxy Shazam and  The Darkness Justin Hawkins deemed kitschy and campy?

It’s all about having fun, and enjoying life. “Don’t Stop Livin’ in the Red” has the same message as fun.’s “We Are Young”, but Andrew W.K. doesn’t have boyish good looks and sweats a lot, so you can’t put that on the Grammy’s or on a commercial. “I Like It” by Foxy Shazam is a lot like “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, but Katy Perry doesn’t eat lit cigarettes whole on stage, and I’d bet most of the younger generation would rather think about Perry kissing a girl than Nally doing a double-take on a black booty.

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Justin Hawkins of The Darkness

It comes down to demographics. Bombastic rock is the pop music of the “forgotten music fan.”  It’s for the ‘80s rockers, or the late 20s to mid-40 year old male crowd who were raised on it, and are looking for pyro and guitars. They want a new Van Halen or Mötley Crüe, but without excess. They’re optimistic, realistic headbangers who still want to piss off squares, but will help you clean up after the party. This breed of bands fit that need, but they aren’t pretty bands so Katy Perry’s fans can’t be targeted with an Esquire lay-out, the bands aren’t moody, so Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters aren’t coming around. They don’t play music that goes especially great with a million-dollar light show and ecstasy, so the EDM kids aren’t camping out. Those kids would have a meltdown at an Andrew W.K. show.

Ty Christian, lead singer of the Madison, WI metal band Lords of the Trident, who follows closer to The Darkness or European metal band Lordi in live show standards, also feels the disconnect. He told me, “The show aspect [of rock] got lost somewhere along the way in the last 20 years because somehow that meant [the bands] weren’t serious about the music.”

A Lords of the Trident show is a challenging feat of performance. The band usually comes on stage to a loud announcement over the speakers proclaiming them as “the most metal band on Earth!”. They then make a triumphant entrance becloaked in leather armor and costumes befitting of each member’s character. Throughout the show, Christian (or Fang von Wrathenstein as he’s called) jumps into the audience to fight them with swords, sets a modified Guitar Hero guitar on fire which he plays during solos, and shoots off an air cannon shaped like a trident into the crowd. There’s a reason why they’ve been voted the Best Live Act in Madison three years running. It’s full-scale entertainment.

There are some people who would argue, “Oh, so they do a bunch of stage garbage to cover up their crappy music, huh?” And that’s where those people would be wrong. Everyone in the band is an expert at their instruments, and can stand up with some of the best metal musicians in the game and hold their own, if not surpass them. Listen to the dueling guitars and Christian’s metal voice on tracks like “Chains of Fire” or “Skyforce”, and see why they aren’t just a sideshow.

So why aren’t they more popular, or well-known outside of metal circles and Madison? I asked Christian what the reaction is and how they deal with the kitsch factor that gets laid on them:

Some people get it and like it. Some people get it and hate it. Some don’t get it and hate, and some are just plain confused…We embrace the kitsch. If people want to make the show about the show and not the music, then we still gain them as a fan. Whereas, if people want to make it about the music and not the show, we can play to that too. If critics are making a big deal out of [the antics and music] and not enjoying it because it’s ‘not authentic’, then I don’t want them as fans.”

A key part of what Christian said — “not authentic” — is what bothers me the most about critical acceptance of most so-called “party rock” bands. What makes a band like new critical darlings Japandroids or Cloud Nothings, who were both on top year-end lists everywhere (including ours), more “authentic” than Foxy Shazam, who released an equally hard-hitting record this year in Welcome to the Church of Rock ‘n Roll? It’s because those bands sing serious songs while wearing jeans and Converse, while another wears spandex and top hats whilst singing lines like “That’s the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen / and I like it.” Where does the disconnect happen between music writers praising Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, or Thin Lizzy, and then footnoting bands like The Darkness or Andrew WK?

Chicago’s Thunderunderus, who is following in the close footsteps of the iconic ‘70s bands mentioned above, wear jeans, beards, Nike high-tops, Stratocasters, and Jaguars, but still deliver dueling guitar harmonics, foot-stomping hard rock, and damn catchy Southern party rock (you know, like Kings of Leon used to export). They’re more along the lines of W.K. and Foxy Shazam: a straight-forward rock barrage. Last month, I asked lead singer/guitarist Jimmy Kennedy and lead guitarist Chris Delaney about the “bands then vs. bands now” disconnect, as well as a recent, somewhat scathing TimeOut Chicago listing for their headlining concert that said, “If the name Thunderunderus doesn’t set off your bullshit alarm, then their music will.”

Kennedy said, “When you cut to the core of it, our music is honest. We’re playing stuff we want to hear. I am a fan of the heydays of rock, the ‘70s. I always feel like I was born in the wrong time period. If I could have seen Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC, Queen, KISS, Thin Lizzy back when they were making this amazing music and putting on these grand concerts, my life would never be the same. And that’s what I strive for with Thunderuderus. To recreate the true rock n roll experience.”

Delaney echoed the sentiment; “If people want to say we are any less cool or legitimate because of what the music is, then that’s their opinion. But we don’t need to defend ourselves to them.”

In a recent interview, Dan Hawkins of The Darkness put it in a similar way: “People who get a bit up their ass about nostalgia acts and people who think these bands are there just to take people’s money should ask how the audience that actually goes to see these people play feel about it…So, get off your fucking high horse and go see the band you want to see and stop fucking whining about it.”

I suppose there’s still no accounting for taste.

As Christian said, somewhere in the past 20 years people lost interest in pyrotechnics and guitar solos, and began to view them as inauthentic. Grunge took over hair metal, and a new norm of rock show took hold. Maybe the popularity of Andrew W.K., Foxy Shazam, The Darkness, or Lordi shows the pendulum might be swinging back the other way. Will we get to a point where these bands will be celebrated not for their “ridiculousness”, but for the fresh breath they put into a navel gazing rock scene? Can an honest conversation about how I Get Wet ushered in a new life-celebrating rock into the dour rock world in the summer of 2002 be had? As Klosterman writes: “Whenever social pundits try to explain why glam metal died, they usually insist that ‘it wasn’t real’ or ‘It didn’t say anything.’ Well, it was certainly real to me and all my friends. And more importantly, it did say something. It said something about us.”

This music says we were born to rock, and you squares are just going to have to deal with it.

Nick Freed is a staff writer for Consequence of Sound.

Thunderunderus and Lords of the Trident both play in Chicago on February 8th at LiveWire in Logan Square.

Photography by Jeremy D. Larson

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