Subtlety is a dead art in underground heavy music: Artists such as Dillinger Escape Plan, System of a Down, Mr. Bungle, any number of left-field death-/grind-metal bands, and the twin granddaddies John Zorn and Frank Zappa have been shoveling dirt on top of the corpse for years. Fans of heavy music are no longer expected to dig too deep or pay too much attention to musical nuance. Why bother when these bands beat their art over your head like a sock full of AA batteries? And too often this assault wears the listener out with its forced prowess, weirdness, and a cleverness that is frequently anything but clever. I truly regret that no one paid proper attention to these artists in high school, but we shouldn't have to pay for it by attending to their paint-by-numbers intensity.
Dead Meadow is the remedy. This Washington, D.C., trio proffers a form of art-metal that doesn't rely on extreme facial hair to get their point across and, miraculously, doesn't include a member who makes "wacky" faces while running up and down the fret board of the World's Most Dangerous Bass (given away by wood grain and more than four strings). The band may, upon a perfunctory listen, sound easy to classify as throwback artists, but there's so much going on under the surface. At first you might think of the band as a simple power trio or a Blue Cheer tribute act, but when you start to hear the past 30 years of psychedelic pop, thudding boogie, and heavy (and doom) metal seeping from their molasses-tempo music, then Dead Meadow's achievement seems anything but simple.
In the space of three albums, Dead Meadow has steadily evolved a working marriage among some intriguing bedfellows: the proto-metal of Sabbath, the aforementioned Blue Cheer, Atomic Rooster, Budgie, and Led Zeppelin; the Anglo-drone of Spacemen 3; the more topical psychedelia of Bardo Pond; and '80s doom-metal outsiders Saint Vitus and Trouble.
The nation's capital has long been a key home for heavy music and other forms of underground rock, from the once-dominant hard-core sounds of Bad Brains and Minor Threat to the lighter indie rock of the Teenbeat and Simple Machines labels. But Dead Meadow doesn't owe much to any of those scenes, instead coming together to create something entirely on their own terms.
At first, Dead Meadow's sound did owe a passing debt to another scene that flourished in the late '90s: the unfortunately named (and often sounding) "stoner rock" movement, which casual rock fans can thank for giving birth to Queens of the Stone Age. Though not much of that scene remains vital today, the now-defunct flagship label Man's Ruin did a bang-up job of saturating the already tiny market with musicians who incorrectly assumed they could do something different with a Sabbath riff. Most of the stoner rock movement was born of either decommissioned death-metallers or stalwarts from the early-'90s "aggro" gutter-rock scene that gave us the Jesus Lizard, Helmet, and the prominence of the Touch & Go and Amphetamine Reptile labels. Logistically, Dead Meadow had nothing to do with this but would certainly appeal to fans of the scene's better bands, like Kyuss, Sleep, and the atmospheric metal of Seattle's Earth.
Fugazi bassist Joe Lally made the connection between the emerging hometown band and that nationwide scene and released Dead Meadow's first two albums on his (also now defunct) Tolotta label -- both in fairly quick succession during 2001. Prominent indie Matador Records snapped up the band in 2003, throwing them on tour with Guided By Voices and releasing the band's current album, Shivering King and Others. And though Dead Meadow is certainly less palatable (and completely different) from the label's recent cash cows -- the New Pornographers and Interpol -- the relationship can only mean more exposure for a great band. No harm in that. On a European jaunt, the band so impressed John Peel that he not only wanted to record Dead Meadow but allowed the band to do it at home in the States, a first for his legendary sessions.
Apparent road dogs, the trio has toured extensively over the past three years, and Monday night will mark their fourth appearance in our usually skipped burg. Live, they go all analog and pump extreme volume through beautiful Orange amps, creating a clean, balanced, and near-deafening unity. This may be the answer to whatever that nebulous term "power trio" means. Guitar, bass, drums -- plenty of power? Yes. And dreamy psych, amazing solos (and I generally detest solos), and high-register vocals delivering big fat hooks. Think of it as Beach Boys and Mountain somehow morphing into the same band, except that the guitarist doesn't weigh 400 pounds.
Dead Meadow can be a lot of things to a lot of different listeners. They forego the testosterone hemorrhaging of so many more mundane heavy bands but pack an ample punch anyway. The wah-wah pedal is never lonely, but not abused. The vocals are refreshingly pretty for this type of music, and they fulfill an always noble goal: They stick in your head. So while I lament the demise of subtlety in all things loud, Dead Meadow shows that impact and diversity can be achieved in the heavy-music arena without solipsism, self-aggrandizement, and screaming at the top of your lungs.