Photo by Vince Edwards

Check out my latest interview for Alan Cross’ A Journal of Musical Things with Madonna’s metal guitarist Monte Pittman where we talk about how playing for the Queen of pop is similar to playing for his old band Prong. Plus guess what Slayer song Madonna jams out in the rehearsal room?

Photo by Danielle Griscti  

The Opera House, Toronto – Dec 9/14

The last time I saw Dave Brockie he was smiling. It was a good smile too. Not a big toothy one, but the kind of wide smirk that can only be achieved within the bounds of a drunken stupor. Just a couple of hours before, Dave had stepped offstage at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre as Oderus Urungus the lead singer / warlord of Gwar. After the show a small group headed to a bar up the street.

The two of us were the last to leave, and Dave had specifically put me in charge of making sure he got back to the bus, as he had no idea where we were going. Even though it was a straight shot back to the venue, as we were leaving the bar Dave immediately made a right turn so I had to spring into action. As we walked we talked about the things that guys talk about. It was then that the smile emerged. It had contentment written all over it. At age 50 he had achieved the impossible. Gwar, the silly costumed metal band he’d nurtured for three decades had become sustainable. In our interview earlier that day he talked about how he wanted Gwar to carry on after his retirement.

Three months later he was gone. Just over a year later, Gwar returned to Toronto to play The Opera House. Although there has been much written about how the band now had two new lead singers, make no mistake, Gwar is now an ensemble act. Everyone is lead singer. Original Gwar bassist Michael Bishop, the first to portray character Beefcake The Mighty, has now returned as the antler-adorned Blothar. Also for the first time in 15 years Gwar has a female vocalist with the debut of Vulvatron (portrayed by fashion designer Kim Dylla).

How is the show without Oderus? Surprisingly, heartwrenchingly sad. Yes Gwar fight monsters and those monsters explode and cover the audience in fake blood and bile. Yes there are amazingly terrible one-liners, and yes Vulvatron’s breasts shoot blood too. That all seems in line with what you would expect from a Gwar show. But without Oderus, everyone else on stage gives a little bit extra to fill the gap. Vocal duties are shared, and Blothar naturally filled in on the bass when Vulvatron and the current Beefcake stepped up for a duet. Guitarist Pustulus Maximus (Brent Purgason), who became integral to the band after the 2011 passing of guitarist Cory Smoot, also had his fair share of time at the mic.

The show began with a projection of Oderus fronting the band before being carried away into a time portal. The band then spends the rest of the show using their time machine to search for him, while in the process finding their new members and coming to terms with the fact that Oderus is actually dead. It’s the only way Gwar could get over the loss of their creative chief.

By the end of the show the band is jamming on their mash-up of the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” and Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died”. It’s in the latter that they start chanting: “Oderus died, died! Oderus died, died!” Suddenly I see Dave and that smile, and I feel tears behind my eyes. The purpose of the tour seems to be to show definitively that Brockie’s life’s work had meaning to many. In that regard it’s a blood-drenched success.

Check out my new video interview for A Journal of Musical Things with guitarist Juan of the Dead and drummer Ill Will from Ice T's legendardy rap-crossover act Body Count, shot backstage at the Toronto stop of the Rockstar Mayhemfest tour. Watch it now in the Interviews section.

For the first time in eight years I’ll be missing Wacken Open Air, the largest heavy metal festival in the world. Wacken itself is a tiny village of fewer than 2,000 people located about two hours north of Hamburg, Germany. But every summer at the end of July they are inundated by over 80,000 headbangers over four days. The vast majority of the village takes it in stride with many of the residents running businesses out of their homes during the festival.

Since my first trip to Wacken in 2007 I’ve at times been criticized for attending, usually by someone who says that the festival has grown “too big”, with more youthful modern sounding bands playing side-by-side with the masters. The problem with that view is that while heavy metal exists in an underground state, it’s also extremely inviting. Like horror films the music offers a more enhanced diversion than average entertainment, and that attracts an eclectic group of people.

Despite that, for a subculture of outsiders it can sometimes be incredibly judgemental. While some may be born knee-deep in nostalgia, most young metal fans cut their teeth with more popular acts. Bands like Trivium or Avenged Sevenfold who play a more accessible version of their metal forefathers are essential to the genre’s growth. The idea that everything within heavy metal could somehow be perfectly underground is ridiculous. It’s too damn big. The ideas are big, the music sounds big, and whether they’re high-pitched and melodic or extreme and guttural, the vocals sound big.

It’s just impossible for there not to be bands that become well-known just by sheer numbers. Especially within a genre that elicits such passion. These bands are often regarded as somehow more accessible. The latest Arch Enemy album is extremely melodic and catchy, that is if you’re into extreme vocals. Some fans seem to be out of phase with the notion that even at its most poppy, extreme metal doesn’t jive with most other audiences. Accessibility is not a guarantee of success in metal either. Listening to Mayhem’s “Live In Leipzig” (which, if you don’t know, sounds like the band are zombies performing to a zombie audience inside a crypt), it’s hard to believe that they’ve now played the Wacken “Black Stage” in broad daylight.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand in the world of heavy metal it’s any illusion of exclusivity. Metal by nature is nothing but inclusive. It’s a clubhouse with the door eternally open. Yes the music may feel like it belongs to you, but you have no control over it. It will reach out to whomever it wants. The worst thing to do in any subculture is to reject someone because they’ve just discovered it.

That’s the main reason I’ve continued to go Wacken time and time again. However this year as the festival celebrates its 25th anniversary, it will be without my presence. I can’t complain. Most heavy music fans in the world would do a number of ridiculous things to even attend once. I will simply have to sit back and be satisfied that a whole new group of people from around the world will attend Wacken for the first time this year, and feel as excited and accepted as I did nearly eight years ago.

Wacken Open Air runs July 31st – August 2nd. Check out the full line-up at the official site, and have a listen to my interview from last year’s festivities with Ihsahn, frontman of Norway’s Emperor, who are headlining this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their album “In The Nightside Eclipse”.

A Journal of Musical Things