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Bruce Dickinson released Tattooed Millionaire, his debut solo album, to little fanfare in 1990. The record served as Dickinson’s played-straight love letter to the old-school glam rock he held in such high regard. He even included a cover of Mott the Hoople’s ineffable glam anthem “All the Young Dudes,” penned for the group by a then-glittery David Bowie.
For Dickinson, this foray into a relatively uncool genre was perfectly acceptable. Two years earlier, he had sung on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and before that, Somewhere in Time, and before that, Powerslave, and so on, and so forth. He’d earned the right to do pretty much whatever he wanted. Hell, listen to “Can I Play With Madness” again and you’ll realize that Tattooed Millionaire, while far from a perfect album, was a more than understandable experiment.
Fast forward to today, where the past half-decade has seen a bevy of albums by Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Mike Scheidt, Erik Wunder, Scott Kelly, and Steve Von Till that fall somewhere on a spectrum between Springsteen’s Nebraska and the discography of Wovenhand, maybe just a few paces south of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads. It’s not a collection of one-off experiments anymore; it’s a full-fledged subgenre of metal dudes doing dark Americana. (Metallicana?)
Like Dickinson’s stab at glam rock, most of these records haven’t been all that far-fetched. The latter-day output of Neurosis broods like Kelly and Von Till’s solo output. Wino’s recordings with the Hidden Hand have no shortage of borrowable lyrical fodder. When Wunder performs live with his Americana project, Man’s Gin, they play Cobalt’s “Dry Body.” By and large, the leap to dark folk music is one these dudes’ audiences have been willing to make.
And at its best, this stuff really fucking works. Take “Nuclear Ambition Parts 1 and 2” from Man’s Gin’s excellent Smiling Dogs. Here, Wunder weaves a tale every bit as harrowing as any of Nick Cave’s ballads of death and delivers it with every ounce of demonic conviction his black metal material requires. “It’s time to fist fuck everything,” he sings at the climax of “Part 2,” sounding half-demented, half-euphoric and not at all like the Boss.
Steve von Till’s earliest dips into the genre’s waters are similarly enthralling. 2000’s As the Crow Flies and 2002’s If I Should Fall to the Field came out before heshers were regularly folking out, so the recordings therein naturally sound bold and fresh, as if von Till was making it up as he went along. In a sense, he was, but his non-metal road map couldn’t have had a much better pedigree.
Of course, these notable successes aren’t the full story. Songwriters who specialize in creating massive atmospheres have sometimes struggled with zeroing in on the personal level, and it’s led to some clumsy results. At times they go too maudlin, as Scott Kelly does when he opens his latest album The Forgiven Ghost in Me with the creaky lyric, “I love you like a flower loves the rain.” Other times, they try to too directly translate their metal successes into folk music, like YOB’s Mike Scheidt does with the long pauses and negative spaces that characterize this year’s mostly dull Stay Awake.
What’s concerning is that metalheads – those sympathetic and unsympathetic to this stuff alike – might not venture beyond metal-dude renditions of the genre. Just as no one threw out their copies of Ziggy Stardust (or Shout at the Devil) when Bruce Dickinson put out Tattooed Millionaire, longhairs who cast judgment on this brand of Metallicana would be remiss to ignore the work of Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, Wovenhand, Nick Cave, and a dozen more artists who made those albums possible.
There’s something unavoidably fascinating about this material, totally ancillary to its level of quality. Even the most flawed of these albums offer a look at the sides of metal musicians that they feel metal can’t convey. It leads to some baffling problems, sure, but it also leads to stunning moments of clarity.
The very best of these moments, the ones where all the accoutrements of metal are stripped away and we’re given a look at the bare soul of someone usually obsessed with darkness and evil, make it all worthwhile. Whether these guys are fist-fucking everything or loving you like a flower loves the rain, they’re eschewing brutality for the chance to be brutally honest. That’s refreshing enough to indulge them their failures.
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