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Death Be Quite Proud

Dave Grohl Leaves the Fey Foo Fighters Behind for Some First-Class Doom

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/11/2004

Probot

Probot

Just admit it: The Foo Fighters have always been a vanilla band. Not just a sit-at-the-bar-during-opening-act yawn festival; we're talking call-the-girlfriend-on-the-phone-because-absolutely-nothing-is-on-TV boring. And it's been the case since way before 2002's One by One, a boiled egg of stagnant guitar piffle that not even Raymond Pettibon cover art upgraded. No, the Foos were lame out of the gate--especially with that insipid "There goes my hero/ watch him as he goes" song becoming both a lame excuse for a pop-rock song and an uplift soundtrack for James Van Der Beek's drawling quarterback in Varsity Blues. Take away the cheeky clever video and "My Hero" is inoffensive, midtempo Stone Temple Pilots stadium schlock lacking the reckless affectations of junky self-indulgence.

Blame it all on Dave Grohl. He can lay down some mean drum kicks, but when he opens his mouth to sparrow-scream his lyrics, you get the impression a coupla really Glengarry Glen Ross-competitive Girl Scouts could make him their bitch during cookie sweeps. And no amount of black-denim rocker outfits complete with chin-strap goatee--actually, that may have been just to butch Grohl up and keep him from looking too much like ex-People magazine fashionista Steven Cojocaru--costumes the truth. The egoless demeanor that makes Grohl a total sport in interviews and as a talk-show guest is what makes him an utterly uncharismatic bandleader. In the Foo Fighters, Grohl is a killer backing musician slumming as a frontman.

Nothing drove this fact home harder than Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 Songs for the Deaf. The Queens tapped the hammering machine that put the rib cage-bruising elbow-throws into Nirvana's pity-me soul binge-and-purges, and over 14 tracks packed with title-fight guitar hooks, Grohl beat his snare and bass drums like a reformed spoil-the-rod high-school coach-cum-health teacher told that the bad-attitude boys are once again fair game. The experience definitely rekindled a fire under Grohl's ass, because he's gone off and done something nigh sublime: He's made one of the greatest tribute albums of all time.

Under the clunky name Probot, Grohl has smelted a mash note to early 1980s-to-1990 metal, and it is a right solid slab of hair-parting oomph. For these 11 tracks, Grohl teamed up with different vocalists--writing their own lyrics and melodies--and a guitarist or bassist here/there; the rest of the pile-driving licks are all Grohl.

Probot's near seamless self-titled album for Southern Lord--Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson's Los Angeles-based metal shop batting near perfect with its output--is a K-tel records compilation of underground '80s death-metal and speed/thrash pipes: Venom's Cronos, Sepultura's Max Cavalera, Motörhead's Lemmy, Corrosion of Conformity's Mike Dean, D.R.I.'s Kurt Brecht, Napalm Death's Lee Dorrian, the Obsessed/St. Vitus' Scott "Wino" Weinrich, Celtic Frost's Tom G. Warrior, Voïvod's Snake, Trouble's Eric Wagner, and Mercyful Fate's King Diamond. Each vocalist brings his own personal mood-setting presence, yet the whole thing sounds remarkably of a set.

From the horror movie scene-setting slow fade intro of the Cronos vox- and "war bass"-driven "Centuries of Sin" to the closing gothic haunt of the King Diamond-belted "Sweet Dreams" featuring ex-Soundgarden ax man Kim Thayil providing the grandiosity, Probot aims for death-metal heaven and doesn't miss. Lemmy's "Shake Your Blood" is Ace of Spades vintage Motörhead menace, Wino's scorching guitar lead and rumbling vocal cords smoke "The Emerald Law" with a classic stoner-rock haze, and Grohl's drum-kit assault provides the perfect bag-of-bricks beat down for Cavalera's throat in the shredding "Red War." And best of all, Dean's hyperkinetic "Access Babylon" features ex-Void guitarist Bubba Dupree--yes: Bubba fucking Dupree--firing off a Tommy-gun guitar line, reminding you that Dupree was one of hardcore's few guitarists who could step to Black Flag's Greg Ginn. And the whole affair is recorded with extra-sensitive studio attention paid to huge sonics that '80s underground metal bands could only dream about.

It's a little too convenient and simplistic to knight these tracks as the greatest ______ songs ______ never wrote, but step back from the adrenaline surge for a moment to admire what Grohl pulled off: He orchestrated an album that session-musician sidelines himself, and the end result more than likely gives his inner-teenage boy a power surge that trumps a box full of free porn. And most tellingly, Probot passes that telling inner-teenage-boy litmus test: While playing a first-person kill-everything-that-moves video game with headphones strapped on and the volume pegged, you feel like god.

If anything gives pause about the Probot rush, it's this '80s teenage-boy factor. The Probot logo and album cover were designed by Voïvod's Away. Probot premiered as a "Centuries of Sin" b/w "The Emerald Law" 7-inch limited to a (now sold-out) single edition of 6,666 copies. And the video for "Shake Your Blood" boasts 66 Suicide Girls that are, according to the Southern Lord Web site, "writhing around on $10,000 worth of top-grade bondage furniture." The inner teenager isn't simply being appeased: He's got leukemia and he's making the ride the mostest bestest ever.

Metal has never left the musical landscape; it has merely traveled through periods of fluctuating visibility. And thanks to the devoted and die-hard, American metal has grown in popularity, quality, and visibility since the early 1990s--with a new generation inspired by many of the same bands Grohl pays respect to here--even after spandex-clad stadium chasers did everything they could to sully metal's image in pop culture's mind's eye. Probot simultaneously recalls that excess era from this one, and underneath the album's surface is a tension between the music's muscular majesty and the baboon antics celebrated by its chart-topping faux practitioners, where masculinity was an attitude tried on as easily as a new concert T-shirt. Probot does truck in death-metal dark and imaginative subject matter that reads like a hobbit away from fantasy cliché to outsiders, but you won't find a smidgen of the superficial adornments that made metal a pop peacock. And while Grohl does stand on the precipice of remember-when nostalgia, he stops short of a trying to re-create an era. That's a very fine bet-hedge, but it's enough to permit Probot to be a sterling example that it can be invigorating to remember the past rather than a sad reach to live in it.

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