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Heady Metal, Britain's Favorite DJ, and a Defense of Americana's Best Killers

Metal never dies, it just gets smarter: This column has been accused of being too highfalutin, so I’ll take this moment to jam some metal up yr ass!!! I predicted 2006 would see hard rock and heavy metal becoming fodder for hipsters, indie snobs and self-aware intellectuals. Want concrete proof? We’ve already seen the rise of Wolfmother, and a long New York Times Magazine profile on “heady” metal bands Boris and Sunn0))). Now, yet more interesting tidings. First came the May demise of the metal bible Circus magazine. Founded in 1968, it declined along with hair bands in the ’80s, but its influence lingered for years, suspending metal in a permanent adolescence. Recently, a more erudite genre publication called Decibel has arisen. The second-anniversary issue features an excellent roundtable discussion on hipster metal featuring two journalists, label dudes from Metal Blade and Kemado, and freelance intellectual John Darnielle (a.k.a. the Mountain Goats). It won’t win a Pulitzer, but it certainly made my temples pulse — much like the music of Decibel’s latest cover stars, Mastodon. That Atlanta four-piece released one of 2004’s best records, Leviathan — a prog-metal concept album about Moby Dick — and its major-label debut, Blood Mountain (Reprise/Warner Bros.), came out last month. While lacking the grooves and beauty of its predecessor, it makes up the difference with speed and topical awesomeness. This time the concept revolves around a spiritual journey to find a crystal skull atop a pulsing, sentient peak. Encounters with tree men and a giant Cyclops encourage both serious and comic interpretations: Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien snorting a mound of cocaine, then reconceiving Frodo as a burly stoner on a vision quest to bag a Suicide Girl.

Dirty Projectors, New Attitude EP (Marriage Records) This “band” is 24-year-old Yale graduate Dave Longstreth and whoever joins him. After four low-profile full-lengths, this EP is a breakthrough that could provide generative points for a career’s worth of exploration. I caught a whiff of post-Ligeti classical music (“Likeness of Uncles”), heavily syncopated African funk (the live “Two Young Sheep”) and sub-bass sounds worthy of an avant-garde Miami booty rapper (“Imagine It”). Impressive too are Longstreth’s meandering torch vocals — his clarity of tone matches Chet Baker’s. He might do better to make all these strands coalesce but, regardless, the potential!Dirty Projectors play the Echo on November 9.

The Killers, Sam’s Town (Island) I guess we’ll have to be the ones to defend this major-label glam-rock band. Yes, Sam’s Town is as much a PR move as an artistic statement. Yes, they sucked when they performed on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back. That said, the critical drubbing this album has received is undeserved. It’s been tagged as a blatant rip-off of Bruce Springsteen’s arena rock and Joshua Tree–era U2. But aren’t the Killers the most logical inheritors of that sound? They’re fronted by a Mormon and based in Las Vegas, the Southwest’s most fantasy-obsessed desert town. U2 aren’t even from this country! Saying the Killers aren’t allowed to embrace Americana is like saying Elliott Smith ripped off Lou Reed because they both sang about heroin. Ridiculous.

Cursive, Happy Hollow (Saddle Creek) These Midwestern emo dudes make self-castigating concept albums about growing up. Less fun than drinking near beer with President Bush on the ranch, right? Still, there’s a reason their peers in the Omaha indie-rock scene envy them. Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes) says singer/lyricist Tim Kasher is the scene’s only true poet. On their fifth full-length, Happy Hollow, Kasher revisits Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz as a disillusioned middle-ager; embodies a homosexual preacher seeking forgiveness for being horny; and contemplates the Big Bang. It’s heady stuff, and while there’s less self-examination than on previous albums — a good thing — Kasher also pinpoints a major irony about himself: Both America’s wannabe rock stars and conservative Bible-thumpers are fueled by naive, idealistic visions. The music features crosshatched guitars, snaky but powerful rhythms and harmonically rich horn arrangements. I’m reminded of the Stooges’ thick maximum rock & roll and the fierce intelligence of punk bands who matured into adulthood (the Clash, Fugazi, Bad Religion, the Ex). Cursive play Avalon on October 26.

Sufjan Stevens live! “Put Sufjan Stevens on/And we’ll play your favorite song,” says Gary Lightbody on Snow Patrol’s new “Hands Open.” You know you’re on to something when peers are literally singing your praises. On Stevens’ just-completed U.S. tour, he debuted a remarkable nine-minute-plus theme song, “Majesty Snowbird,” which began with a small piano figure redolent of Satie but drew tears with an expansive, noisy finale. The show was poignant by nature and funny by design: During a Christmas song, dozens of inflatable Santa Claus dolls were dropped on the crowd like beach balls at an REO Speedwagon show.

John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft’s Margrave of the Marshes (Bantam Press) On October 25, 2004, the famed BBC DJ John Peel died of a heart attack while on vacation in Peru. A year later came this (auto)biography — started by the man himself and completed by his wife. Among the book’s revelations: Peel getting buggered by a bully as a teenage schoolboy; dissed by Marc Bolan after T. Rex became famous; and physically abused by his first wife, a 15-year-old Texas schoolgirl he married during a ’60s stint living in America. Scandal, however, is not why you should read this. Rather, it’s a road map to sustaining idiosyncrasy in a world where “eclecticism” is a brand. Buying Sub Pop records, shopping at American Apparel and listening to KCRW doesn’t make you interesting; by contrast, Peel’s tastes — which ran from grindcore to happy hardcore techno to the works of Africa’s Four Brothers — were exquisitely unreliable. I always assumed Peel fell victim to a heart attack because he fell in love with too much, too madly — the Fall, the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” Liverpool football. What comes across, though, is mildness, kindness and endless curiosity. Margrave is available only as an import, yet it deserves a proper U.S. release. Perhaps next October — upon the third anniversary of his death?


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