Hopefully those of you that read THKD on the regular realize that I don’t just listen to death, doom and black metal 24/7. I love all kinds of music, and sometimes I need something big, loud, bright and catchy, with pristine production and intelligible vocals. So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered Volbeat a few weeks back, opening the Megadeth/Rob Zombie tour that recently wrapped up its trek across the US. I knew little about the Danish band prior to the show, save the one song being played on the radio (“A Warrior’s Call”) that my wife had brought to my attention, and the fact that none other than Mercyful Fate’s Hank Shermann is their touring lead guitarist. “A Warrior’s Call” is about as far removed from Mercyful Fate as it gets, but it is also a catchy, grooving and fun slab of metallic hard rock; sometimes that’s all it takes to pique my interest.
My curiosity paid off, because Volbeat turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, I just hadn’t realized it. Imagine for a second that Metallica had actually been adept at the chugga-chugga groove metal/hard rock hybrid style they attempted to adopt after the black album. Now take that sound and add in hints of rockabilly, country, thrash, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Social Distortion and even an occasional slight nod to the Misfits. This is the sound of Volbeat, an odd mash-up of sounds that works a hell of a lot better than it has any right to. The band quite literally wears their influences on their sleeves; singer/guitarist Michael Poulsen has “Elvis Aaron Presley” tattooed down one arm and “Social Distortion” tattooed down the other. Hard to believe the same man who once fronted the death metal band Dominus is now throwing down on revved-up covers of Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Wanna Be With You” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesone I Could Cry.” But even Volbeat’s originals are infused with the spirit of classic rock ‘n’ roll and country music, it’s just that they’re being played through Marshall stacks and recorded using modern production techniques. Many of the band’s riffs and rhythms sound like they were lifted directly from that era and turned up to eleven, while Poulsen’s vocals sound like the love child of Elvis, Mike Ness and James Hetfield.
Yes, Volbeat sound slick, modern and radio-friendly, but I don’t have a problem with that when it’s done well and with sincerity. I mean, I’m pretty sure getting on the radio and selling records was the goal for guys like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly. It’s kind of weird to think that there was a time when popular music was popular because it was actually good and the musicians behind it were talented; Volbeat’s music harkens back to those days, but they do so without coming off as shamelessly retro. Those classic recordings already exist, so there’s no need to repeat them, but there is something to be said for taking those influences and doing something different and unexpected with them.
There’s also something to be said for music that’s fun, that gets bodies moving beyond the usual headbanging, fist-raising, moshing, etc that goes with heavy metal. Early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly songs were designed to get people on the dance floor and Volbeat understands this aspect of their influences implicitly as well. Sure, you can headbang to those riffs all you want, both those riffs also groove and swing; I think I’d rather cut a rug with my lady to songs like “Sad Man’s Tongue” and “Pool of Booze Booze Booza” than stand around headbanging with a bunch of other gross, hairy, sweaty dudes (don’t get me wrong, if the sausage-fest aspect of metal is your thing that’s totally cool, I respect that).
I guess what I’m ultimately getting at is this: there is just as much room for a fun, commercial-sounding band like Volbeat in my musical universe as there is for Cannibal Corpse and Volahn and whatever the hell else I might feel like listening to. As Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” If you listen to a band and it’s genuinely something you’re not into, that’s fine, but don’t fall into the ignorant trap of immediately dismissing a band because they’re on the radio, or they’re in Revolver or “hipsters” supposedly like them, or they toured with Limp Bizkit (ok, that last one might be grounds for immediate dismissal…) or whatever other lame reasons people give for not giving a band a chance; you just might miss out on something great.