Let There Be Darkness

Metalheads are torn over the Brit metal sensation. And their problem is?

Never Die Alone
The Darkness gets a jump on their metal peers.
The Darkness gets a jump on their metal peers.
It's so easy to laugh at metalheads, because it's so hard for us metalheads to laugh at ourselves. You'd think a genre that came of age in a codpiece, that once rocked bangs high enough to imperil aircraft, would inherently have a well-developed sense of humor. But alas, headbangers are a terminally overserious bunch these days. No band reveals this better than the Darkness.

With their debut album, Permission to Land, quickly approaching platinum sales, the hot-and-bothered Brits are the biggest thing to hit these shores since the bulge in Nigel Tufnel's trousers. Tickets to the band's Cleveland premiere at Peabody's on March 30 were gone in three hours, making it the quickest sellout in Peabody's history. (Shortly thereafter, ducats were fetching upwards of $150 a pair on eBay.) When the gig was bumped up to the 2,000-capacity Agora Theatre, that venue filled up just as quickly.

The Darkness's following is big, but its sound is even bigger. With an ear-ringing falsetto, frontman Justin Hawkins sings like Freddie Mercury with his nuts in a vise. It's as if his bandmates take turns kneeing him in the groin before he enters the vocal booth. He sings of masturbation and badminton over rude 'n' randy riffs that bump bellies like dueling linemen. And he belts it out in a zebra-stripe unitard, letting loose with gnarly leg kicks that could earn him a spot on the Brecksville gymnastics team.

The Darkness is winning over the masses, thanks to MTV's nonstop airing of its video, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." But the band has also polarized the metal community, which you'd think would compose its most obvious audience. While some headbangers are eager to join in on the good-natured revelry that has made the Darkness famous, others cry that the band is goofing on their scene.

"To be perfectly honest with you, I think that the Darkness is a joke, and that's, unfortunately, exactly what the world wants," Disturbed frontman Dave Draiman snivels in the latest issue of Metal Edge magazine. "The world wants rock bands to be idiots. The world wants rock bands to be these bumbling buffoons, these morons who made fun of themselves and their music and their art, and don't take themselves seriously in any way. It's all supposed to be a joke. It's unfortunate."

How a guy like Draiman, whose protruding chin piercings make him look more like a coat rack than an actual person, can take himself so seriously is beyond us, but there can be little doubt that the Darkness is much more in touch with the true spirit of heavy metal than he ever will be.

"Rock and roll has always had a sense of humor," Darkness drummer Ed Graham said in a recent phone interview from London. "Look at AC/DC."

And he ain't kidding. In the late '70s, bands could be serious and snide at the same time, and no one thought twice about it. (Hell, most rockers of that era never bothered to think once.) Blue Öyster Cult's odes to rogue reptiles, Ted Nugent's gonzo guitar playing, and Black Sabbath's pseudo-Satanic posturing -- which even they would later admit was a joke -- proved that bands could be goofy and great. No metalhead worth his weight in denim would ever deny the artistry of a song like AC/DC's "Big Balls," but can anyone seriously argue that it's any more prosaic than the Darkness's "Love on the Rocks With No Ice"?

Of course, everything went to hell in the '80s, with the cartoonish metal of Britney Fox and Poison and Trixter. Then the '90s gave us the scowl-at-all-costs sounds of Nirvana and Korn. For years now, metal has been no more than a cliché of forced angst. Face it: Godsmack and Staind parody the genre better than the Darkness could ever hope to.

In an era of mopey metal millionaires, the Darkness has come to lighten us all up. And still there's more to them than just punch lines with power chords. There's sweet sentimentality in songs like "Friday Night," in which Hawkins recounts a childhood crush. It's proof the Darkness isn't merely being ironic when it throws up the devil horns.

So c'mon, fellow metalheads, have a chuckle at your own expense. Everyone else is.

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