Helium metal


June 8, 2001



`Idon't want Ozzfest to be like Lollapalooza," Sharon Osbourne says in Rolling Stone's summer concert preview. "I want to be the underdog. That's what this music is all about."

As the festival's mastermind, Ozzy's spouse and the infamous iron maiden of rock management, Osbourne is half-right: Heavy metal has always been the loudest, least compromising, most critically reviled genre in rock. Its fans wouldn't have it any other way.

But despite the headlining presence of Black Sabbath, the cornerstone band of the genre, the sixth annual Ozzfest actually has very little to do with heavy metal and much more to do with the current mainstream of generic major-label hard-rock product.

"Nu-metal" is the tag the industry has given the music of Ozzfest attractions such as Crazy Town, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Slipknot and Chicago's own Disturbed. The sort of meaningless modifier favored by television ads, "nu" is an appropriately ersatz description for a prefab sound most often distinguished by down-tuned guitars; churning rhythms that provide a stiff, white answer to hip-hop's grooves, and the histrionic bellowing of disaffected, angst-ridden, woe-is-me lyrics.

Think Korn. Think Limp Bizkit. Or better yet, turn off your brain and don't think at all--nu-metal isn't really conducive to it. It's more like amped-up background music best appreciated while obliterating aliens or enemy soldiers via PlayStation 2.

As for the "metal," there's actually very little of it in this nu-fangled stuff--at least in terms of the classic metal sounds of bands like Deep Purple, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, whose work is echoed much more accurately these days in stoner rock.

"It's wrong to call this nu-metal `metal' in the same way that it was wrong to call hair metal `metal,' " says DePaul University sociology professor Deena Weinstein, author of the definitive book Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture. "Anybody who knows classic metal or underground metal will just giggle at that."

Fans of either of those branches of the metallic tree are likely to skip Ozzfest in favor of Milwaukee Metalfest, the country's premier annual gathering of the vibrant metal underground. Scheduled for Aug. 10 and 11 at the Milwaukee Auditorium, Metalfest offers a $55 pass that buys admission to two 14-hour days featuring 150 bands from around the world--quite a bargain compared to the top ticket price of $78.25 plus $16.50 in add-on fees for the "nu-er" fare at Ozzfest. (Visit the Milwaukee Metalfest Web site at www.metalfest.com.)

The sounds that dominate Metalfest are death metal, which pioneered the growling, distorted vocals but packs a much harder wallop, and black metal, a more ornate sound that incorporates melodic keyboards and gothic imagery. These are the sounds lauded by Chicago area metalhead Tom Trakas in his fanzine Midwest Metal, and he sees little or no connection between them and the music at Ozzfest.

"Ozzfest is all about the money and the major labels," Trakas says. "What these bands are creating is really a severe case of `been there, done that.' To me, metal has to come from an angry place inside. I hate to sound like an old man, but these bands aren't screaming about anything but [b.s.], and they're very fashionable on top of that. They're supposed to be so angry, but they're wearing $800 leather pants."

This isn't to say that Ozzfest 2001 lacks any promise. After dominating the smaller stages and the mainstage for most of the day, the nu-metal will finally yield to the more old-school stylings of Marilyn Manson and Sharon Osbourne's husband's first band, Black Sabbath.

Though it sold a fraction of his earlier epic "Antichrist Superstar," Manson's last album, "Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)," was a solid glam-rock effort that continued to betray the deepest, darkest secret of the former Brian Warner of Canton, Ohio: Underneath all that makeup and demonic posturing, he's really a pop tunesmith.

The combination of massively catchy riffs and Manson's always-entertaining stage antics promises an engaging performance. And while he's recently been eclipsed by the likes of MTV's "Jackass" and bad boy rapper Eminem, the singer can still scare up some righteous outrage: A Denver church group has been trying to ban him from performing there, citing the still-fresh memory of the Columbine shootings.

As for Black Sabbath, when the original quartet of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward performed at the Rosemont Horizon in January 1999, the group succeeded where Page & Plant, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and countless other reunited rock legends had failed.

Although the band didn't perform a single song that was less than 22 years old, the music still sounded fresh and vital, largely because it had never been about traditional adolescent concerns. Compare this to the nu-metal bands and ask yourself: Will Papa Roach's Coby Dick be able to croon "Last Resort" at age 53 with a fraction of the credibility that Ozzy brings to "Iron Man"?

Since '99, Sabbath has come through on several other "final farewell" excursions. Now the group has dropped the pretense of disbanding again and promised an album of new material--its first since 1978--to be produced by Rick Rubin.

This could go either way. The two new tracks on "Reunion," the 1998 tour cash-in live album, were uninspired junk. But there have been glowing reports of another new number that the band played at recent European warmup gigs, and it's said to be mixing up its set list by digging deep for some '70s rarities.

"We came up with about six or seven songs," Butler says in the online music magazine Blistering.com. "It's back to the roots, back to the old early '70s sound. It's nothing like the `Reunion' tracks. That was done on Pro-tools, and Bill and myself weren't even there until the songs were done. This time we did it exactly the way we did the first three albums--just sit in the studio and jam together and record everything and then listen back to it all and then take the stuff that we like and work on it."

It's reasonable to believe that the kings of classic metal won't be unduly influenced by the plethora of nu-metal at this year's Ozzfest; it's easy enough to blame that on the industry-savvy, bottom-line-conscious Sharon Osbourne. But the bottom line remains: Ozzfest has less to do with genuine heavy-metal thunder than with the sound of clinging cash registers.