STORM WARNING

The Stormtroopers of Death return to set heavy metal straight

Stormtroopers of Death are coming to town!

For many people, that statement means nothing. Is it the title of a Roger Corman movie? The ominous slogan for some millennial militia? Pat Buchanan's campaign platform?

Only a small segment of society understands those words, comprehends the gravity of the situation. Those in the know are easy to spot, because they're probably grunting the chunky riff to "March of the S.O.D." through clenched teeth and thanking their Dark Lord that they didn't kill themselves when they were 16, else they would be missing the greatest thing to happen to heavy metal: the fulfillment of the dream of every Midwestern kid who perched shirtless on the edge of his bed, playing air guitar along with "United Forces" while his parents were at work.

The second coming of Stormtroopers of Death. The return of the once and future kings of metal. Just when heavy metal needs them most, the four original members of S.O.D. have come together like Voltron to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, an avenging scourge that attacks the flaccid modern metal scene and its crybaby bands with equal parts chutzpah and humor.

To the outsider, "heavy metal" is a broad term that encompasses everything from Mötley Crüe to Slayer. Shout at the Devil is the same beast (worship) as Diabolus in Musica, and it is all the same racket: Long hair, leather clothes, distorted power chords and light-speed guitar scales. Towering stacks of Marshall amps and retina-scarring pyrotechnic displays. Alpha-male posturing and unnecessary umlauts. It is a dark, seedy term that conjures up images of acne-plagued high-school pariahs who are into devil worship, suicide pacts and the Internet.

Heavy metal represents everything unwholesome, in the eyes of respectable people. It is synonymous with Crestwood, Maplewood and other suburban dens of iniquity. Any prefab community choked with bored and disillusioned youth who have too much time on their doughy hands is a breeding ground for the evil of heavy metal. (Right now, as you read this, a coven of pimply- and pasty-faced teens are in a tasteful Restoration Hardware-appointed Chesterfield basement, bashing out the chords to "Iron Man" with malicious glee. Idle hands do the devil's work, you know.)

Heavy metal is considered a distasteful phase that afflicts teenage boys, like bed-wetting or chronic masturbation. It is dismissed as lowbrow music made by and for lowbrow people, an unholy tumult that is impenetrable to outsiders, which is precisely why it endures. Heavy metal, by its very nature, excludes everyone unwilling to accept its extremes of violence and volume, so it becomes an exclusive club populated by a select few. Outsiders see only a black-clad mass of sullen, unkempt kids. But on the inside, heavy metal is a kaleidoscope of factions and sects, each struggling for dominance. It is musical Darwinism at its most vicious, as bands rise from parts unknown to challenge the accepted norms of heaviness and are either assimilated into orthodox metal dogma or disappear forever, blotted out by their louder/faster/heavier successors. Today's Guns N' Roses is tomorrow's Slash's Snakepit, and no one gives a dirty kilt about Axl and the boys anymore, do they? Only the strong bands survive for any length of time in the shifting sands of the Metal Empire. S.O.D. have lasted for 15 years, and they have done so on the strength of one studio album (1985's Speak English or Die) and a live version of the same album released seven years later (Live at Budokan).

Their influence reaches throughout music, from obvious fans like Slayer to more incongruous ones, like Dave Grohl. To unlock their mystique, you must step back in time to the mid-'80s, when heavy metal was at a crossroads.

It was 1985. Metal bands were getting airplay on the radio, because confusion among outsiders led them to believe that Judas Priest and Bon Jovi were made of the same ferrous stuff. MTV, aware of a prepubescent Ricky Martin's future star power and desperate to keep themselves afloat until he could be molded into a legitimate "phenom," jumped on the bandwagon and began airing metal videos. As was the case with MTV then and now, "too much is never enough" was the order of the day, and so they clogged the airwaves with footage of any band that called itself metal. Someone (probably a record executive) decided that if Mötley Crüe sold well, then Europe would sell great, and Cinderella was going to be the next big thing (at least until Britney Spears got those implan -- er, "had a growth spurt"). These girly glam-bands wrestled metal into a compromising position, replete with massive John Waters bouffant hairdos and drag-queen makeup.

Soon every Merry Go Round employee who could hold a guitar and croon vapid poetry along the lines of "Every rose has its thorn" was offered a recording contract, and the Metal Empire inched toward Marshmallow Fairyland. The ripples in the industry were strong enough that previously heavy bands Judas Priest and Iron Maiden began wearing neon aerobics outfits and released synthesizer-laden albums. Ozzy Osbourne, once-proud Lord High Minister of All That Was Sinister, released the Billy Joel-esque "So Tired," and a subculture wept. Something had to be done.

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