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.”