Wolfmother, The Sword and Dungen: Irony Men
Orginally printed in Guitar World, September 2006.
Wolfmother. The Sword. Dungen. Are they the next big thing in metal, or
just dedicated followers of fashion? Join us as we put on our very best
imitation vintage rock T-shirt, throw the "horns", and enter the
red-hot world of Hipster Rock.
Hard rock and heavy metal are currently finding favor with a new and decidedly unheadbanging audience. Go see a band like Brooklyn neo-thrashers Early Man, Toronto scuzz rockers Priestess or Austin stoner metal quartet the Sword, glance at the trendy-looking people around you and you’ll arrive at a certain conclusion: the music is suddenly, and curiously, very…um, hip.
That much was evident this past March in Austin, Texas, at the annual music conference South by Southwest, an event renowned for its celebration and fetishism of cutting-edge alternative rock. Among the festival’s must-see showcases was a short and frenetic set by Wolfmother, a trio of curlyhaired Australians that delivers Hessian-style riffs in grand, earnest and exaggerated—in essence, completely unhip—fashion. Though at the time the band had released only a modest four-song EP in the U.S., it didn’t seem to matter to the jam-packed indie crowd who made it inside. They responded enthusiastically to Wolfmother’s hard-rock sound, even if, for the most part, they did not appear to be typical hard rock fans.
No surprise, then, that Wolfmother and their peers have been stamped with the tidy, if somewhat disparaging, tag “hipster metal,” which acknowledges the music’s appeal beyond what is perceived to be its core audience. Certainly, many of the bands have affiliations with noted indie-rock labels and producers, as well as band members who are active in that world, but the term implies that, at some level, the groups are catering to a musically hyperaware audience: other genre nicknames have included “irony rock” and “meta-metal.”
Whatever you choose to call it, the fact is that these bands are appealing to, what is for hard rock and metal, an untraditional fan base while playing music built predominantly on the most timehonored facets of those styles. They are the newest offshoots in an ancestry that encompasses everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, Motörhead and Metallica to Kyuss and High on Fire. Intense riff worship, noodly guitar solos, hard-hitting rhythms, indulgent jams, histrionic vocals and plenty of long, scruffy hair and unfettered machismo are the order of the day, and it’s all furthered with the help of decidedly vintage gear, vintage tones and vintage style.
Guitar World has chosen to spotlight three of the most exciting bands at the vanguard of this new trend: Wolfmother, the Sword and Dungen. In addition, we’ve included 10 similar-minded acts that you may not have heard. Good or bad, ironic or serious, revolutionary or revivalist, these bands are producing some of the most exciting heavy-guitar based music of the moment.
Their self-titled debut album has only recently been released in the U.S., but the Sydney, Australia–based trio Wolfmother have already attracted more than their fair share of champions and critics. In their native country, where Wolfmother was issued last fall on the Australian label Modular Recordings, they are established rock stars, with Platinum sales, hit singles and numerous awards and accolades under their collective belt. On these shores, however, they are still approached somewhat skeptically, their strongly retrograde sound and style suggesting that they are merely the latest entry in a growing crop of backward-looking acts who plunder rock history. The fact that the album was helmed by Dave Sardy, who recently helped Australia’s Jet ride the Seventies-inspired
clothes-and-riffs combo to the top of the charts, has only raised suspicions.
Which is unfortunate. Wolfmother (Interscope) is an exhilarating and unexpectedly fresh-sounding album, its arena-scale hooks delivered with a lust-for-life enthusiasm so effective and affecting as to render any intellectual evaluation of its intentions moot. Anchoring Wolfmother’s sound is the rhythm section of bassist and keyboardist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett, who split the difference between Black Sabbath’s proto-metal stomp and Grand Funk Railroad’s big-bottom boogie, impressively swinging their Jurassic-size grooves when they could easily plod. Guitarist Andrew Stockdale, for his part, offers up fuzzed-out single-note riffs and biting, fullvoiced chords, while singing impressionistic lyrics laced with bits of neo-hippie mysticism in an overheated, keening wail that is equal parts Ozzy Osbourne and Jack White. It’s an approach that suggests enormity at every turn and works to beautiful effect on songs like the psychedelic epic “White Unicorn,” the stoner-prog power ballad (replete with swirling, Styx-like keyboards) “Mind’s Eye” and the cocksure “Woman,” a linear blues-rock stomp that evokes Led Zeppelin playing the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”— only faster and heavier.
Then there’s “Pyramid,” a song built on a throbbing and endlessly repetitive bass line designed to “make you feel like you’re running breathlessly through the Black Forest, in Germany, in the middle of the night,” says Stockdale. “I like to think of Wolfmother as a journey—or a quest. It’s music that is meant to take you away from everyday stuff and bring you somewhere else. It’s open and positive. It lifts a weight off your shoulders.”
As it happens, the members of Wolfmother, who range in age from 28 to 33, were each embarking on nonmusical quests when they began playing together in 1999. Stockdale was a budding photographer who had recently relocated to Sydney from Melbourne, Ross was a digital production man and Heskett a graphic artist who, like Stockdale, has seen his work featured in gallery shows. At the time, music was merely a way to have some fun and pass the day. “We jammed for three or four years, actually, and I still don’t think we’d written any songs,” says Stockdale. He eventually got fed up. “I wanted to do a show, so we got some songs together, recorded an EP and booked a gig. All of a sudden we had a goal in sight.”
That first performance, which took place before a sparse crowd at Sydney’s Hopetoun Hotel on a Monday night in 2004, proved to be more significant than the band could have imagined. While Stockdale says that he had grown up surrounded by the sounds of classic rock radio—“I could play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on guitar, but I don’t remember learning it”—Wolfmother’s earliest songs were, he recalls, “sort of indie-folkish” and sounded like Wilco, an alt-rock group with a large indie following.
However, one tune they played that night at the Hopetoun stuck out from the bunch. “We did ‘Woman,’ which was the only real ‘riffy’ song we had,” Stockdale recalls. “It got this incredible reaction, right up to the dudes who were just there to drink but then turned around from the bar and went ‘Yeeeaaahhh!’ So we knew that was the shit. That was what we should be doing.”
They were soon doing it on much larger stages, and in front of considerably more people. It was after only a handful of shows that the band signed to Modular, which issued the group’s self-produced EP. “And then we toured and played everywhere,” says Stockdale. Interscope got involved in 2005, and the band headed to L.A. to record their debut with Dave Sardy. More touring and playing followed and will continue for the foreseeable future.
“It would appear that things happened pretty quick, and I guess in a way they did,” says Stockdale. “But we had been together for years before all of this. So it was like a dream to be able to quit our jobs and play shows and make records. We felt like we’d escaped society.”
Which is fitting, as Wolfmother truly come across as a band out of time. While there is nothing particularly unique or, for the most part, interesting about acts that take inspiration from hard rock’s Seventies heyday, Wolfmother’s approach, a combination of calculation and instinct, is oddly compelling. It’s as if Stockdale and his bandmates are trying to conjure an aesthetic, an aura, that has been absent from rock music for quite some time. “There was something about rock and roll back then that was just more mysterious, more thoughtful,” he says. “Music today is too much about personal ambition and angst. It’s this phenomenon of self-absorption. I never felt like that was a good enough creative outlet. I want to do something more open-ended, something that lifts you off the ground.”
Whether or not that “something” has already been done before isn’t his concern. “That’s like saying one day people are going to stop coming to New York because they’re going to get sick of seeing the Empire State building. It’s like a classic, you know? Everyone’s gonna want to see it at some point; it doesn’t need to change. That’s the way I feel about music. If it’s good, that’s all that matters. It is what it is.”
Throw on a copy of Age of Winters (Kemado), the debut album from the Austin, Texas–based band the Sword, and the first sound you’ll hear is a single, solitary guitar chord. It’s no mere cluster of notes but rather a beefy, rumbling, nausea-inducing power chord bathed in warm distortion and emitting ominous overtones. The chord slides slowly up the guitar’s fretboard and is soon doubled on a second guitar, whose growl is darker and dirtier. The bass and drums rise to join the proceedings, and the song, “Celestial Crown,” settles into a lumbering groove so wide and slow it sounds as if it might crumble under its own weight. Thus, the message has been sent: If you’re going to christen your band with a name as brash and unequivocally metal-sounding as the Sword, you better make damn sure you’re heavy as hell.
And the Sword—singer and guitarist JD Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo—are, indeed, heavy. The music on Age of Winters is fashioned from a seemingly bottomless well of snaky, detuned guitar riffs that tumble and bounce atop subterranean bass lines, pounding drums and crashing cymbals. It’s an amphetamine-spiked, considerably metallic
take on stoner rock that straddles the line between sonic ecstasy and obscene indulgence. Similarly, Cronise, who sings in a bong-weary monotone that sounds as if he is constantly being caught mid yawn, delivers lyrics that are thick with blood-and-thunder imagery: there are no love songs on Age of Winters, only tales of warriors (“Freya”), wild animals (“Winter’s Wolves”) and, naturally, swords (“Barael’s Blade”). The whole thing is so brazen, so over the top (see the eight-minute dirge, “Lament for the Aurochs,” about ancient cattle), and so overtly metal, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t conceived as a deliberate put-on. But it wasn’t.
“I would never want people to think that what we do is ironic,” says Cronise. “I appreciate bands that are tongue-in-cheek or kitschy in their approach, and I do have a sense of humor. But that is not what we’re about, at all.”
The Sword’s primary songwriter and lyricist, Cronise was weaned on a healthy dose of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, two bands that quite ably combined metalloid riffs with medieval musings in an exaggerated but hardly sardonic manner. At the same time, he indulged heavily in the fantastical writings of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard. It’s this love of a well-spun tale—he counts Frank Herbert’s Dune and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as personal favorites—rather than rote heavy metal cliché, that fuels his lyrics. Thus you get a line like “Forged by the crow-mage from shards of darkness/Honed by the half-breed to vorpal sharpness” (from “Barael’s Blade”), in which Cronise manages to reference not only that holy grail of metalhead geek games, Dungeons and Dragons, but also Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”— and do so in lines which, both in rhythm and tempo, mirror the guitars’ heavy and insistent lope. “I don’t just write some poetry and then try to put it to music,” he says. “The lyrics always come in the form of a riff, where the phrasing and timing of the words is as important as what’s being said.”
What the resulting massive sound makes abundantly clear is that Age of Winters, despite its lack of musical diversity, is remarkably focused in its execution. Songs are packed with unison guitar-and-bass riffs, but these are never arbitrarily strung together; rather, patterns weave in and out of each other, pull back or plunge forward, and occasionally collapse into themselves only to reemerge in different form, often by shifting tempo or fanning out into harmonized lines. Solos and guitar fills emerge from time to time, but for the most part all the instruments push forward as one solid mass. “The idea is to keep a constant rhythm going, and to alter things while staying in that groove,” says Cronise. “There’s always an unwavering beat, and the guitars, bass and vocals serve that.”
It’s a formula that was firmly set early in the Sword’s history—so early, in fact, that it predates the existence of the band. “I started writing the songs before we even formed,” says Cronise, who debuted much of the material that would eventually comprise Age of Winters at the Austin club Beerland in June 2002, as a solo act. “I played guitar and sang, and used prerecorded backing tracks for the bass and drums,” he says. “The general reaction from the audience was, “That’d be great…if you had a band!” He soon did, adding guitarist Shutt and bassist Richie, both veterans of the Texas metal scene, as well as drummer Wingo, with whom Cronise had played years earlier in a Virginia-based group called Ultimate Dragons.
While some critics contend that the music on Age of Winters is Sabbath-like and that the Sword are merely the newest entry in a long line of doomy retreads, Cronise doesn’t see it that way. “We’re not trying to live in some time warp and pretend it’s 1974,” he says. “I think some people see us as a retro band because current metal is so abrasive; it’s all about being angry and pissed-off. But we’re about much more than that.
“Plus, I’m not an especially angry guy. So yeah, I could sit around and write a bunch of pissed-off songs, but they’d never sound as pissed-off as other people’s pissed-off songs, anyway. So why bother?”
Dungen are perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the current crop of rock revivalists. The Swedish four-piece functions primarily as the vehicle for the songs of 26-year-old multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes. The band’s influences range from the predictable (the Beatles, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix) to the peculiar (Sixties Swedish experimental rock collective Parson Sound, Norwegian avant-garde guitarist Terje Rypdal, old-school hip-hop acts Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions), and it is this union of classic-rock comfort music and more adventurous sensibilities that is at the heart of Dungen’s appeal. The songs on the band’s most recent release, Ta Det Lugnt (Kemado), brim with gorgeous melodies and hooky choruses, but also hold many jarring and unusual twists: sunny folk-pop strummers are desecrated by gloomy melodies, proggy epics are colored with chirping flutes and weepy fiddles, crunchy acid-rock workouts simmer into jazzy breakdowns, and the whole affair is shot through with the frenzied, fuzzdrenched lead playing of guitarist Reine Fiske.
Released in the summer of 2004 on the small Swedish boutique label Subliminal Sounds, Ta Det Lugnt was initially available on these shores only as a pricey import. Yet, in short order, the album began garnering much critical praise and online word-of-mouth buzz for its shockingly authentic approximation of Sixties-era psychedelic rock—if Sixties-era psychedelic rock featured lyrics sung entirely in Swedish. The band’s early stateside performances increased the level of chatter, and a U.S. deal was eventually inked with Kemado, which reissued Ta Det Lugnt in August, 2005 as a double-disc set that paired the original disc with a five-song bonus EP. “There are a lot of people who listen to us back home,” says Ejstes, “but it’s definitely bigger at this point in America.”
Dungen are presently in the midst of their first U.S. headlining tour in support of Ta Det Lugnt, which, almost two years after its initial release, continues to draw new listeners taken by the stunning breadth of its musical scope. The album’s opening track, “Panda,” kicks off with a tumbling drum fill that approximates the sound of Keith Moon soundchecking on John Bonham’s kit, and is then joined by hiccupping distorted guitars, a percolating bass line and Ejstes’ smooth, drawn-out vocal. The sublime “Du ar For Fin For Mig” begins as a mournful ballad built on a bed of strummed acoustic guitars, reverberated flutes and swelling fiddles (the latter played by Ejstes’ father, Lars-Olaf), then shifts into an inspired extended instrumental section, while “Om Du Vore En Vakthund” drops the listener in the middle of the Mars Volta jamming “Third Stone From the Sun.” The album ends with the Sabbath-y “Sluta Folja Efter,” its murky doom riffs spiked with shards of piercing, practically unhinged guitar feedback. “Life is very up and down,” says Ejstes, “and my songs are a reflection of that. Music is feeling, and it is always going to be both joyous and sad.”
Raised in the small village of Lanna, Sweden, Ejstes was surrounded by music from an early age. He would listen to his father, an accomplished fiddle player, teach traditional folk songs to local musicians, and at the same time absorbed a healthy dose of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix from his mother’s record collection. Along the way Ejstes taught himself to play a variety of instruments, from fiddle to piano to guitar. “We had a lot of instruments around the house, and I just started to make noise,” he says.
When, as a teenager, he decided to turn that noise into music, his genre of choice was hip-hop. “I could see the similarities between [Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer] Mitch Mitchell and Public Enemy,” he says. “It was all hard beats and chaos.” He and a few friends formed their own hip-hop crew and began pillaging his mother’s records for sounds to sample. The sampling aesthetic, so essential to hip-hop, had a profound influence on Ejstes’ work, which combines elements of the various music, from Swedish folk to rock to hip-hop, that he absorbed in his youth. “A friend of mine talks about these people called ‘crate diggers,’ meaning people who listen to music without caring so much what kind of music it is,” he says. “That’s the way I listen to things. I don’t care if it’s rock or hip-hop or classical or jazz. If it’s good music, it’s good music.”
Ejstes’ first two releases as Dungen, the sprawling and wildly eclectic 2001 self-titled debut and the next year’s Stadsvandringar, both ably adhered to this credo. But it was on Ta Det Lugnt that Ejstes’ vision reached full bloom, his penchant for cut-and-paste genre hopping balanced by more focused songwriting. “For Ta Det Lugnt, my goal was to create a collage of sound, where I could take parts of different recordings and put them together,” he says. “At the same time, I wanted things to be more open. To that end, I tried to approach the songs as if they were being played by a power trio.”
But it was a power trio with, for the most part, one member. Ejstes tracked the bulk of Ta Det Lugnt on his own at a secluded farmhouse outside of Stockholm that belongs to his mother. Except for the minimal involvement from guests like Dungen touring drummer Fredrik Bjorling and Lars-Olaf, the only other musician to contribute in large doses was Fiske, who played lead guitar, as well as some bass and percussion.
Ejstes is currently working on songs for the next Dungen album, which is tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2006. After this round of touring he plans to head into the studio, but it remains to be seen whether he will bring some company along with him. “Now that we have been playing together so much as a four piece I am seeing the benefits of making music as a band,” he says. “So maybe there will be a little more of that on the next record.”
As for the direction the new music may take, Ejstes laughs. “I don’t really know what it will sound like, because I don’t really know how to describe the sound of what I do. I don’t make music that is hard rock or punk rock or retro rock or anything like that. I just make the music that I like to hear.”