Children of Bodom’s “Hate Crew Deathroll” Turns 15
I remember the plump moistness of late nights back home, more than a decade ago now. The air fattened itself; thickets of fog materialized from the darkness, making things nearly opaque in nature's most boring off-grey. Insects went wild, chirping and flying about, drawing the attention of jet-speed bats. It was hotter than shit, though dense pockets of brisker air nestled cozily in shallow valleys between the wooded hills which made up this suburban landscape. Monster mansions with dim yellow light emanating from their grandiose windows perched themselves atop these private "mountains" (lesser homes relegated to lower altitudes), all connected to the spilled-spaghetti latticework of the local back-road system via driveways long enough to be roads themselves. Boring-looking deer mingled about, hidden and dangerously unaware, threatening passing vehicles with surprise carnage and their occupants with mild heart attacks, spilled drinks, and potential mountains of insurance paperwork.
It was on this winding system and through these sweltering nights amidst the danger of gratis venison that I found myself reaching for the same CD over and over again to fit that mood, the one where insomnia attacks at 3 a.m. because life just feels so directionless and meaningless that even sleep loses purpose. That CD was Children of Bodom's Hate Crew Deathroll, freshly exposed from its Best Buy-branded shrinkwrap and charming in its bloody, reaper-core aesthetic. I was a teenager, my car had a turbocharger, and I was hell-bent on discovering the better truths that I knew had to exist at the ragged edge of a near-certain death by violent windshield ejection and vicious tree-limb entanglement. The only soundtrack fitting enough for pubescent automotive antics would have to buck authority, demolish self-loathing, inspire recklessness, and riff like a superpower, all while not taking itself too seriously.
That soundtrack turned 15 years old today, just about as old as I was when it came out.
Blaring all-time classics like "Triple Corpse Hammerblow" and "You're Better Off Dead," I devoured countless miles of bent, black ribbon at ludicrous speeds -- sometimes crossing the double-yellow in a screeching blur to perfectly nail an apex -- with my mind fully vacuumed of all conscious thought for precious moments alone without even myself to bother me. In essence, Hate Crew Deathroll helped free me from my number one enemy (me), if only temporarily. Exercising no rational or reasonable regard for anyone whatsoever, I achieved full presence in a demanding situation where mind and body transcend the conscious barrier to perform synchronously, almost mechanically, in real-time immediacy. Being so in charge of such a hairy situation and surviving made me feel that nothing else -- including words from people's mouths -- could ever touch me. To wit:
Until tomorrow is a better day to be,
You're better off dead than fucking with me!
What if there ain't no tomorrow...
Well let me tell you, there wasn't one today!
Absolute fucking mantra for the pained, adolescent soul, though perhaps the message's delivery mechanism is even more important: Hate Crew Deathroll is a veritable trove of riffy delights, synthy triumphs, and crushing power plays which sting like killer bees on goosebumped skin. Drawing perhaps from the age of pop when melodies were more important than beat, it's the catchy guitar/keyboard interplay passages which act as the album's mainstay while also juxtaposing aggressively fun vocals and surprisingly punky drumming. All the while, Hate Crew Deathroll's spasmodic energy never falters; dare it be said that the album is even upbeat. This dynamic between sheer fuck-you-up-ism and the flippancy inherent in not giving two shits is what makes Children of Bodom special, and no other album of theirs nails this fifty-fifty balance quite like Hate Crew Deathroll.
As the last Children of Bodom album to feature the massively underrated guitarist Alexander Kuoppala (whose fluent synergy with the famed Alexi Laiho contributed significantly to the success of prior albums), Hate Crew Deathroll represents a kind of virtuoso culmination and maturity which unfortunately disintegrated during the band's later years into cheap showmanship and limp party muzak. Earlier albums, especially Hatebreeder (1999), maintained higher levels of composure and seriousness, yet none were no less serious an effort than Hate Crew Deathroll despite its edgy nonsensicalness. None of this is to say that Hate Crew Deathroll is Children of Bodom's best album (by vote, that award might go to 2000's Follow the Reaper). Rather, it's to say that the band had found the resonant frequency of a room containing both metal for smashing faces and metal for hoisting oranges, a turning point in their career.
We're hate crew, we stand and we won't fall...
We're all for none and none for all!
Fuck you! We'll fight 'til the last hit,
And we sure as hell ain't taking no shit!
I was metal as fuck, but in my own unusual and inward sort of way. I never wore my fandom, though sometimes I wished I had had the confidence to don battle gear rife with stitched-on indications of my favorite bands at the time. Well enough, I had joined the Hate Crew in my head: Hate Crew Deathroll wasn't a rallying cry for a battalion of loyal members (customers), it was an invitation and step-stool for metalheads who felt disenfranchised or just plain shy to demolish their guard and proudly display the objects of their musical desires. It was then when Children of Bodom became true loud-'n'-proud fools (hooligans almost), transcending the blatant technicality of prior releases for something with a bit more presence, pizzazz, and pantomime. Sure enough, songs like the straightforward but inimitable "Needled 24/7" and balladic "Angels Don't Kill" demonstrate Children of Bodom's penchant for noodling out delicate, score-worthy passages with enough blunt energy to jumpstart a stalled star. And the infamous "Sixpounder" was simply the heaviest goddamn thing the band had ever written.
As icing on the cake, Children of Bodom supplemented Hate Crew Deathroll with a cover of Slayer's "Silent Scream" as well as the Ramones' "Somebody Put Something in My Drink." These selections echo the album's ethos brilliantly: neither track is bound to the gravity of its content, but both tracks feature prominent guitar and vocal hooks both aggressive and inspiring and therefore emotional in their own right. Given the Children of Bodom treatment (and for their own benefit), perhaps these songs shine even brighter with Laiho's grisled growls and flamboyant guitar techniques -- nevertheless, they fit alongside the likes of "Lil' Bloodred Ridin' Hood" and "Bodom Beach Terror" with peculiar aplomb. It's one thing to express yourself honestly through someone else's songwriting, but it's another thing altogether to cohere this with your own genuine work without sounding like a ripoff.
Therein lies the magic: Children of Bodom became simultaneously vapid and brilliant with Hate Crew Deathroll. Seemingly gone were the studiousness and fastidiousness of prior albums, i.e. the details and minutia your analytical side munches on. These characteristics weren't actually gone, though, just repositioned to where only your emotional side could access them, usually by dampening the part of you which spends too much time thinking and not enough time hearing. This is where driving came in: one of the few activities which quells inner monologue and frees up bandwidth for direct input. Whatever your particular activity or method is, the idea is to feel the music first, and then understand it, not the other way around. That is the profound shift that Children of Bodom made with this album, and why it's so important for them as a popular band.
Late night you party until it's light,
While pointing at the sky!
Wash your hands in the lake of your blood,
Just before you die!
Great driving music doesn't always make great music, but Hate Crew Deathroll was both (and you didn't have to be speeding out of control to make sense of it like me). It was almost as if Children of Bodom had reached a decade into the future to grab themselves by the collar and punch themselves in the face for writing Halo of Blood (2013), followed by quickly making up for the whole debacle by doing some late-night joyriding together. With newer Children of Bodom in mind, Hate Crew Deathroll is suited and permed by comparison, but once you do some undressing, you'll discover it's wearing polka-dot skivvies and a holstered pistol. It screams the "don't mess with crazy" adage while also promoting the "keep strange company" one -- seemingly contradictory, but artistically intertwined into something dualistic in nature rather than separatist. Therefrom flows Hate Crew Deathroll's manically grinning ecstaticism for the notion that no matter who you are, you can join the Hate Crew if you're wild enough.