The legendary animated metal band is back with Dethalbum IV, a Def Leppard-in-an-arena-sized approach to gruesome, Cannibal Corpse-style riffage. Metalocalypse mastermind Brendon Small tells us how his cartoon came to life.
If fate hadn’t intervened, Dethklok’s newest album, Dethalbum IV—the first since 2012’s Dethalbum III—probably would’ve sounded quite different than it does. That’s because Dethklok mastermind Brendon Small would’ve enlisted his tried-and-true equipment: enviable guitars up the wazoo, a go-to Marshall cabinet with Celestion speakers, and at least a few mics. Instead, some thieves saw to it that Small take a different approach when they robbed his home studio.
“I think some people saw me carrying guitars back and forth and crowbarred my studio door, so my main A-league guitars were kaput,” Small recalls somberly. After the robbery, he moved everything out and went undercover. “I went into the modern world of direct recording,” he explains. “It pushed the record into a different place than my normal ‘safety gear’ would’ve.” In the theater world, one might raise their hands above their heads and exclaim gleefully, “unexpected results!”—the inevitable and, often, positive outcomes of unintended actions.
Metalocalypse: Dethklok | Gardener of Vengeance (Lyric Video) | Adult Swim
If anyone knows a thing or two about unexpected results (and theatrics), it’s Brendon Small. Having cultivated a career that he refers to as “whatever it is that I do for a living,” Small somehow managed to marry a Berklee College of Music guitar education with Emerson College comedy-writing classes to create a wildly unique career path for himself. Born in 1975, Small first gained widespread recognition as the creator, writer, and co-producer of the animated television series Home Movies, which aired from 1999 to 2004. The show followed the humorous exploits of a young boy named Brendon, his friends, and their amateur filmmaking endeavors. Small’s most notable achievement, however, came with the creation of Adult Swim’s animated cult classic Metalocalypse. It was the medium through which he finally, successfully, combined his songwriting and comedy-writing talents.
Premiering in 2006 and running for four seasons, Metalocalypse depicted the fictional band Dethklok embarking upon absurdly dark adventures as the self-proclaimed “heaviest metal band ever created.” Metalocalypse blended humor, satire, and heavy metal culture with sharp musical performances and scores, creating a unique and, ultimately, beloved experience for metalheads and animation fans alike. Small created and produced the series, provided the voices for several main characters, and composed most of the music featured in the show, including the tracks performed by Dethklok. In August, nearly a decade since the cliffhanger ending of The Doomstar Requiem – A Klok Opera in 2013, Metalocalypse finally returned with a full-length animated movie. Written and directed by Small, Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar brings Nathan Explosion (vocals), Skwisgaar Skwigelf (lead guitar), Toki Wartooth (rhythm guitar), William Murderface (bass), and Pickles (drums) back together for another action-packed journey.
Brendon Small's Gear
Dethklok creator Brendon Small resurrected the animated band this year after a decade-long hiatus.
- Epiphone Brendon Small GhostHorse Explorer
- Fender Jazz Bass
- Gibson Explorer
- Gibson Snow Falcon Flying V
- Ibanez JS240PS with Sustainiac mod
- Ibanez Tom Quayle Signature TQM1
Amps & Effects
- Neural DSP Quad Cortex Quad-Core Digital Effects Modeler
Strings & Picks
- Dunlop DEN09544 Electric Nickel .095–.044
- Dunlop Ultex 1.14mm
Released in conjunction with the movie, Dethalbum IV is a bludgeoning aural assault that showcases Small’s knack for combining glossy production with “some of the ugliest sounds” he could conjure. “There’s this melding of the putrid and the beautiful that I’m trying to smash together,” he attests. Songs like “Aortic Desecration,” “Gardner of Vengeance,” and “Poisoned by Food” may be lyrically silly and satirical—even gross—but the music is serious business, on par with Mastodon, Lamb of God, and other like-minded metal bands who combine cunning songcraft with stunning instrumental proficiency. Riff-heavy, melodic, and merciless, Dethalbum IV is an expertly crafted record where death growls are overtaken by soaring melodies and vice versa, guitar histrionics are undergirded by monstrous grooves courtesy of drummer Gene Hoglan, and the production aesthetic, perhaps largely due to Small’s unintended switch to direct recording, is easily Dethklok’s slickest yet.
Simply put, Dethalbum IV is a fierce musical statement that deftly combines hook-laden melodicism with fist-pumping metal. “There was a point where I was listening to this record, and I’m standing back and going, ‘This is much more aggressive and much heavier than a Dethklok record normally,’” Small explains. “[Producer] Ulrich Wild really landed the bird with this one, getting it to that aggressive and modern place, which is somewhere between Cannibal Corpse and Def Leppard’s Hysteria.” Small calls this amalgamation of influences “stuff that hits your DNA” when you’re a kid. “The impressionable parts stay with you,” he admits.
“Doing a Dethklok show is like storming the beach at Normandy during a laser tag battle.”
Despite being Dethklok’s de facto studio guitarist, what really sets Small apart from many other contemporary shredders is that he considers himself a writer first and foremost. “Ever since I had a guitar, I was always trying to write music on it,” he says. “Even when I couldn’t play it, I would just start to write ideas or lines or a riff on the lower strings.” Composition first, and then form-fit around it, he likes to say. “I like to come up with stuff, either in the script form or with some kind of instrument hanging around, from keyboard to guitar to spoons—whatever I can do.”
Even though he ultimately gravitated towards traditional recording techniques (like a mic in front of a speaker cab), Small admits that having digital options early on made his guitar and comedy-writing career possible. “I don’t think I could have made music unless I had that Line 6 POD in the very beginning,” he admits. “I’m a writer who happens to play guitar, and I have to find a way to mangle these sounds into something that makes sense. I’ve got to get the sounds down in the big notepad that is the Pro Tools session.”
Though his return to direct recording was a matter of necessity, it was influential to the overall sound of Dethalbum IV, and Small asserts that he tried to let the music unfold naturally. “At some point, I look at the record and go, ‘Whatever this is, I can’t stop it from being what it needs to be,’” he says. “There’s something in the pineal gland that’s driving it from the astral plane pushing it forward.” Ultimately, he attests, the Dethklok characters start to take over in his mind: “Nathan Explosion is making decisions, and Skwisgaar wants more notes, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll see if I can make it work because I’m not as good as that guy,’ so I have to really work it.”
After thieves plundered his home studio, Small decided to record Dethalbum IV without any amps—a homecoming of sorts for the early Line 6 POD user.
Speaking of Skwigelf, Small cites one big difference between Dethalbum IV and previous Dethklok records. “Now Skwisgaar has a whammy bar and 24 frets,” he chuckles. “There are dive-bombs on this record that I never did before, but I wanted to be able to do what Jeff Beck did, get a little bit more expressive—go from the fixed bridge to the whammy. I’ve had guitars with it, but I just wanted to finally put them on the record. There’s just a little bit more goose in it.”
“I think if you’ve decided to jump onto the carnival train that is your own creative life, you have to bob, weave, fail, and succeed all in a matter of 20 minutes every single day.”
Small’s cross-section of music and comedy began during his time at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in his junior year. “I started having forward thoughts of my impending doom, like, ‘I’m going to graduate, and what the hell am I going to do with this guitar? I love it, I hate it. What am I going to do?’” he recalls. He was also having a hard time corralling the school’s curriculum into a solid identity for his own guitar playing. “I’m in a jazz chord lab figuring out what Joe Pass used to do. Then, I’m thinking about Danny Gatton in my country lab, and then I have advanced concepts of prog-rock where I’m learning about Gentle Giant, and then I’m in traditional harmony trying to mimic an étude or learn how to write a chorale, or voice leading, or figured bass, or any of that cool stuff, and I’m having some kind of musical identity crisis and fearing the end of school and the real world.”
Instead of going the weekend-warrior route via gigs posted on a corkboard at Berklee, Small pursued internships at two different jingle houses in New York. One was David Horowitz Music Associates, and the other was Michael Levine Music. “Michael Levine wrote the Kit Kat theme: ‘Give me a break, give me a break…,’” Small sings. He soon realized that his roommate Jed, from Emerson College, had what he deemed a much cooler internship with Conan O’Brien.
For real-life concert appearances, Small brings Dethklok to life alongside an all-star band that includes Mike Keneally (guitar), Nili Brosh (guitar), Bryan Beller and Pete Griffin (bass), and Gene Hoglan (drums).
Small’s fly-on-the-wall experience tagging along with Jed at the late-night talk show prompted him to draw up a plan for his future. “I went back to Berklee in my final year, and I started taking writing classes along with Emerson [students],” he explains. His assignments included writing a spec script and a sample episode of a TV show, and demonstrating he could write character, story, jokes, and tone. “I saw that it’s like a good piece of music,” he says. “You’ve got an A theme, a B theme, and maybe a C theme, and how do they all intertwine into this final pocket at the very end?” Conceptually and structurally, it made sense for Small: “It was like the études I was studying. There was something baroque about it that I understood.”
These combined college experiences ultimately led Small to start thinking about the intersections of songwriting, screenwriting, and acting, and how that combination might be a viable career path for him. “If you can make sense of your guitar enough to score music, I think ultimately that’s a battle of you versus yourself,” he says. “Once you prove that you can take this foreign object [a guitar] and make it a part of you, you can do that with anything. You just have to learn where the knobs are, where the frets are, how to bend notes, and how to find your rhythm. Everything’s a storyline, from a piece of music to a piece of media. Whatever it is, there’s a beginning, a middle, and end. Ultimately, it did me well to think of them as similar things.”
“Everything’s a storyline, from a piece of music to a piece of media. Whatever it is, there’s a beginning, a middle, and end. Ultimately, it did me well to think of them as similar things.”
To bring Dethklok to life for this year’s Babyklok Tour alongside Babymetal, Small enlisted heavyweights Mike Keneally (guitar), Nili Brosh (guitar), Bryan Beller and Pete Griffin (bass), and Hoglan (drums). While preparing to hit the road, Small was focused on the aspects of live performance that the concert experience demands of him. “Doing a Dethklok show is like storming the beach at Normandy during a laser-tag battle,” he chuckles. “There’s lights and craziness and fog and haze, and you’re like, ‘Where am I?’ There’s a lot of muscle memory and position memory that has to be there. I have to think about the lyrics, the vocalizing, and if all I can see is the low E string, and I’m on the high E string, I have to trust that my hand remembers where it needs to be.”
Circling back to “whatever it is I do for a living,” Small offers the following wisdom for those interested in pursuing an artistic life: “I think if you’ve decided to jump onto the carnival train that is your own creative life, you have to bob, weave, fail, and succeed all in a matter of 20 minutes every single day,” he says. “How do you stand back and try to conceptualize and solve a problem? I think that’s what makes it fun, and treacherous, and terrifying, and filled with failure, and a little bit of success.”
Dethklok shreds a live performance of "Thunderhorse" for the Adult Swim Festival Block Party, combining thrilling Metalocalypse-style animation with furious technical performances.
Lamb of God’s Mark Morton and Willie Adler talk about their favorite Boogie heads, developing upstroke wallop, and how their love of Hendrix and Billy Gibbons informed their diverse new album, Resolution.
Willie Adler (left) and Mark Morton onstage with Lamb of God.
Listen to "Ghost Walking" and "Desolation" from Resolution:
“Whether it’s Slayer or Megadeth or anybody else, I want to go out there and mop up the floor with them,” said Lamb of God’s lead guitarist Mark Morton in Walk with Me in Hell, the band’s 2008 documentary DVD. “I want to play as hard as I can and make them look old and tired when we’re done.” This take-no-prisoners mindset has been the driving force behind LoG since its earliest incarnation in 1990 as Burn the Priest. The current lineup was solidified in the mid ’90s, when Morton, drummer Chris Adler, and bassist John Campbell were joined by vocalist Randy Blithe and guitarist Willie Adler (Chris’ brother), and the band changed its name to quell controversy that got it banned from more than a few venues.
Around that same time, change was also in the air for the metal scene in general. Along with bands like Pantera and Mastodon, Lamb of God helped usher in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement , bringing back some long-missing credibility to the genre after several years of “nu-metal” reigning supreme on the charts and radio waves with a recipe that often seemed to jettison melody and musicianship in favor of detuned monotony and guttural gibberish.
Albums like Ashes of the Wake and Sacrament—the latter of which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance on “Redneck”—and prime touring slots opening for icons like Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer gave Lamb of God a prime spot to surf on that new metal wave. Resolution, the band’s latest release, hit the streets this January, and though its title and timing might lead some to think the band is embarking on a feel-good spiritual reawakening, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Although we do like puppies and flowers, that’s not what we’re writing about,” explains Morton. “I think it’s safe to say all of our songs are pretty dark. Resolution is more about being resolved to something. It’s more about the end of a certain phase of one’s life or situation, and also the clarity of an image.” Asked to expound on the latter point, Morton says, “I think we’ve kind of reached a new sound—a more realistic vision of what we are, personally. I don’t want to get too specific—I prefer not to spell things out literally, because it’s always best when people interpret the songs for themselves. But I think it’s all there [on the album].”
We caught up with Morton and Adler to get the inside scoop on recording Resolution, their signature axes, and the secret formula for maintaining a successful career.
Resolution has 14 tracks in a pretty broad
range of styles. Is it difficult to be that
adventurous and still keep a sound that’s
identifiably Lamb of God?
Adler: It’s gotten to the point now where we really don’t see any kind of barriers, as far as our sound goes. It’s inherently going to sound like us because it’s us playing it— and I don’t think any of us would depart from the traditional sound. But it’s constant exploration, and we’re willing to try anything to see if it sticks and if it’s cool. Josh [Wilbur], our producer, was there for the entire songwriting process, and he kind of cracked the whip on us. He was like, “Yeah it’s not quite there. If you want to save the song, you better go home and rewrite it.” I’d be in the practice space from noon until 6 o’clock, and then go home and be in my own studio from about 9 o’clock till about 4 a.m., rewriting. There would be parts here and there that were standout, great parts. For quite a few songs on this record, these parts got mashed together to make one killer track.
“King Me” has a lot of parts. Is that one
where you combined bits and pieces from
different demo songs?
Morton: That one was originally brought in by Willie and was pretty far developed. We’d already recorded the tracks for it and pretty much decided it was going to be the closer on the album. Then Josh came up very late in the process with the idea of adding the opera vocals and the string arrangements. It’s a very unique piece for us. We all really love the song. We usually try and close the album with something big and powerful. The last track on the album is one that we reserve for an epic piece, like we did with “Reclamation” on Wrath and “Vigil” on As the Palaces Burn. So “King Me” was already holding that spot, but I think when Josh had the idea of adding those extra elements, it really took it to the next level.
Adler: When Josh came up with the idea to add the strings, it was a little bit of a scary prospect at first. I kept questioning myself, “Can we do this?” But the rest of the band was so down for it. And once I heard, I thought, “This song really lends itself to this.”
Adler cranks out blistering riffs on his signature ESP solidbody, which features Seymour Duncan JB (bridge) and ’59 (neck) pickups.
Were they real strings?
Adler: They were real strings. Josh knows a few guys up in New York, and they came in and put real strings on it.
Who wrote the parts?
Adler: I think the string players wrote them out.
The intro to that track [“King Me”]
has this haunting, minor/major7-type
Adler: That’s my crazy, untrained and un-theory-knowing brain. I just kind of play completely outside the box and have no idea what I’m doing other than it’s sounding amazing.
It doesn’t really matter what it means,
theory-wise, because what it comes
down to at the end of the day is what
it sounds like.
Adler: Yeah, I don’t get caught up thinking, “What mode is this in? What scale is this in?” I don’t have those walls to confine me.
Any advice for someone looking to
develop the speed and endurance
needed to play songs like “Visitation,”
“Guilty,” and “Desolation?”
Morton: I’ve found that it’s useful to have a very accurate and powerful upstroke. If you can get your upstroke as powerful as your downstroke, it enables you to have a more fluid sound. Another thing you might try is playing a slower lick or riff using all upstrokes. Force yourself to do it with all upstrokes, and that will really hyper-focus you on defining your upstroke. It’s going to feel very awkward, and it’s probably not something you would do in a performance setting.
Do you use exercises like that to warm
up before a show?
Morton: I usually grab a guitar 15 minutes before we go onstage. I don’t know why, but I’ve never really noticed a difference between playing for 45 minutes before a show and playing for five minutes before a show. I’ve had great shows where I didn’t even touch a guitar before I went onstage, and I’ve had terrible shows where I’ve warmed up for 45 minutes before.
Have there ever been times where you
guys were playing live and the adrenaline
was flowing and the drums sped
up so much that you couldn’t execute
some of your faster riffs?
Adler: It can happen. We would have meetings afterwards, and we would be, like, “Dude, you ramped that part up so [expletive] fast, I couldn’t play it!” Thank god, Chris is using a click now. He started using a click during the last touring cycle for Wrath. He maintains his speeds and the solidity of the songs, so it’s not up and down, up and down, up and down.
Mark, even though you have chops to
spare, one thing you do that a lot of
shredders don’t do is play bluesy phrases
in between the fast stuff. Who are some
of your favorite lead players?
Morton: My favorite players are blues players. I grew up on that stuff, as well as Southern rock and classic rock. I’m in a metal band and I have a vast appreciation and respect for metal but, honestly, my favorite players are Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. Certainly, those guys are rock players, but they’re very heavily blues influenced. Those are the masters to me. Those are the guys that I look up to. I’d rather listen to Billy Gibbons than Yngwie Malmsteen, any day.
Morton conjures low-end growl with his signature Jackson Dominion guitar, which comes stock with tappable Duncan ’59s although it will soon feature new custom DiMarzios.
Your solo in “Ghost Walking” has a
nice contrast between arpeggios, scalar
sequences, and soulful bending.
Morton: Yes, I think “contrast” is a very good word. I think of it as dynamic. There’s some pretty burning stuff in the “Ghost Walking” solo, and there’s also some more bluesy stuff, and I think when you put them next to each other there’s a push and pull—kind of a peak and a valley—and it makes it more exciting.
It also seems like you’re more focused on
the integrity of the song than sticking in
solos at every opportunity.
Morton: I’d rather be known as a songwriter. I never wanted to be one of these guys that could play a solo but couldn’t write a song. Even in my first band, when I was 14 years old, I found myself writing riffs and lyrics and laying out entire songs. I only really put a solo in a song if I feel that it needs one.
Let’s talk about gear for a minute. Can
you tell us about your signature guitars?
Adler: ESP sent me their original Eclipse, and I wanted mine designed pretty much straight off of that. My signature model’s got Duncans—a JB and a ’59. There are a couple I have that are absolutely my babies. I’m actually retiring them from the road now. They’re getting beat up, and they sound so great in the studio so I’m just not taking these out there anymore.
Morton: Mine is the Jackson Dominion. Right now they’re coming stock with the Seymour Duncan ’59s, but we’re switching that over to DiMarzios, because I’m about to wrap up the final details on a signature pickup with them. There’s also another signature model, the D2, which is more of an entry-level guitar. That one has a bolt on neck, isn’t chambered like the Dominion, doesn’t have the coil taps, and has different tuners and pickups.
It’s pretty uncommon for a metal
guy to use a chambered guitar.
Why did you implement that on
Morton: It started years ago when Jackson sent me a Swee-Tone model. It was chambered and I just really liked the way it resonated—it had a really bright, loud resonance to it. I was playing the Swee-Tone for a while on Ashes of the Wake album and the As the Palaces Burn tour. So I incorporated that when we went to do the signature model.
Active pickups seem to be the de
facto metal pickup, but you guys
seem to remain firmly in passivepickup
Adler: I don’t know if I’m particularly a fan of the way that those active pickups sound through a [Mesa/Boogie] Mark IV or Mark V. I’ve been a passive pickup guy for so long, man. In my mind, tone needs to come from the amps and cabinets that you’re using, not from your pickups. Not to say that I don’t really love the Duncan JBs and ’59s—they have a real gushy, powerful tone with so much bottom-end growl. They complement my Mesa tone so well that it was just like, “Okay, I’m sold.”
Morton: I’m not a big fan of active pickups. I don’t think they have anywhere near the tone or dynamics that a passive pickup does.
You guys are both big Mesa/Boogie
aficionados. Which of their amps are
Adler: The Mark V. I’m kind of messing around with combining the Mark V and Mark IV tones to get that gushy low end that the V has, and brightness that the IV has.
You mean the real Mark IV and not the
Mark V’s IV mode?
Adler: Yeah, a real IV.
How would you say the Mark V’s IV
mode compares to the actual Mark IV?
Adler: It’s good, but a Mark IV is an actual amp. The Mark V has a killer tone and I absolutely love it as the Mark V, and then the Mark IV, I absolutely love as the Mark IV.
Morton: I have a Mark V and have used it a bit, but until very recently I was pretty much using the Mark IV. Recently I’ve been switching over to a Royal Atlantic with EL34s.
Is it Marshall-y?
Morton: Not really. It’s got a nice, tight saturation. To me, it’s kind of a blend of the Mark IV, with a little bit of the Rectifier/ Stiletto sound on the bottom end—just a tighter low end than a Rectifier has.
Your respective sounds mesh really well.
Do you guys EQ your amps differently to
accomplish this balance?
Morton: Sometimes I’ll use an overdrive pedal with the distortion turned all the way off and just use it as a line boost for a solo. For a while I was using the MXR GT-OD, but recently I’ve been using the Way Huge Green Rhino.
Adler: A little bit. Mark has a little bit more high mids in his sound. I’m a little more scooped.
How scooped are you—a total V, or kind
of scooped but not all the way?
Adler: I’m kind of scooped but not total metalcore scooped. Our guitars sound drastically different, and that scooped sound really complements my guitar.
Moving on to big-picture stuff, you’ve toured
with some of the most influential metal
bands of all time—and you’re now one of the
biggest names in metal. What did you learn
from being on tour with, say, Metallica?
Morton: Without getting too specific, I think they just taught us the next level of being pro. Those guys approach everything with the most professional attitude. I have never seen a show where they are just going through the motions. They are really … they’re the biggest and best heavy metal band in the world. I think it was, more than anything, really inspiring to see a band at that level really care so much about what they’re doing and still take it so seriously. I’ve seen really big bands that honestly don’t give a [expletive] about what they’re doing on any given night. I’ve never seen that with Metallica.
That said, you guys have been around for
a while now, too. How do you maintain
Adler: That’s a very good question. It’s hard to say. I think we’re all smart enough to realize that it’s way bigger than its individual parts. We’re all part of something that we all deem extremely special.
Morton: I think we just enjoy what we’re doing. We’d be doing this anyway. I’d be playing guitar whether I had a record deal or not. Also, we work hard to keep the same lineup. A lot of bands change members and break up at the first conflict. We’ve weathered a lot of conflict, personally speaking— things in our lives that have nothing to do with the band. I think we all realize that the five of us are Lamb of God. So, as long as we want to do Lamb of God, that’s what it is.
The music industry has changed significantly
since you guys started out. What
advice would you give upcoming bands—
musically and business-wise?
Adler: It is a whole new game, man. Musicwise, stay true to yourself. Don’t try to compete with anybody. Don’t try to sound like anybody. Do what you love. If it’s something that’s meant to be, it will happen. Honestly, it’s a whole lot of luck. We were just fortunate to be in a position where the iron was hot and we were able to strike it right then.
Morton: If you’re in a band because you want to get rich and you want to get famous, then you’re probably looking at it the wrong way. You’re setting yourself up for failure. There are so many things that have to fall into place and so much of it is luck. I mean, yes, you have to be good … yes, you have to be dedicated … yes, you have to surround yourself with people that are as dedicated as you are. But there’s a lot of luck and timing involved, too. My advice is to do what you love and then let the rest come if it will.
To witness Lamb of God’s brand of merciless mayhem, check out the following clips on YouTube.com.
LoG plays their Grammy-nominated hit, “Redneck,” to an insanely huge crowd at the Download
“Laid to Rest” has been featured on Guitar Hero II and covered by Gym Class Heroes, but when all is said and done, no one does it better than the badasses from Richmond, Virginia.
“Set to Fail” was nominated for a 2010 Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Although they didn’t nab the honors, it was far from an epic fail. Watch the band ravage through the brutal number in this clip from the main stage at the 2009 Graspop Metal Meeting in Dessel, Belgium.