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November 12th, 2003 MARK BAUMGARTEN | Music Stories
 

FINDING LIGHT in THE DARKNESS

Ozzy Osbourne has kept serious metal around, but it will take playful acts like the Darkness to kick the music back to the arenas.

     
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Ladies and Gentlemen...THE DARKNESS
"For every band that writes something earth-shatteringly important, there has to be a band you can go out and drink beer to." ­Warrant's Jani Lane, Creem Metal Special Issue: Poison, Warrant and Other Hard-Rockin' Bands.

Ozzy Osbourne's grip on many segments of popular culture is definite, if not a little sickening. The former Black Sabbath singer and his family have owned the cable spotlight with MTV's "reality" series The Osbournes. Sharon, the prince of darkness's wife and manager, has her own incredibly obnoxious morning talk show in syndication.

And then, of course, there's Ozzy's music.

Resurfacing from obscurity in the mid-'90s for the third time in his career, Osbourne organized Ozzfest, the improbably annual touring metal festival. In doing so, he effectively saved a genre of music that he helped weave into the national fabric in the '70s and then watched implode in a glittery heap in the late '80s.

But while metal lives on, it's drawing stifled breaths. Metal bands are rarely on the charts. Metallica's prominence is waning. The much-hyped nü-metal bands of the late '90s, like Linkin Park--who always sounded more Beastie than beastly--are also fading. And the numerous hair-metal and pop-metal bands of the '80s, who sold millions of albums and filled stadiums, have been completely written off.

It's been clear for some time that, while Osbourne has kept serious metal in the national consciousness, record labels, musicians and fans themselves have been less than willing to indulge in the stacked hair and onstage excesses of yesteryear.

Now comes a band of long-haired, spandexed, arena-rockin' Brits who could change all of this recent history. Born during a night of Queen-inspired karaoke and regarded initially as a spoof band, the Darkness has been selling out shows for the past year in their homeland. Up until last week, the band had the No. 1 U.K. album, Permission to Land (Atlantic), for six weeks straight.

As garage-band cool becomes crushing and the retro curve slices into the '80s, the Darkness could find themselves the pioneers of the Next New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the same way Def Leppard brought about the first NWOBHM in the early '80s. With an infectious knack for songwriting and showmanship, the quartet is bringing its cock-rockin' to the States, and America could very well be at its mercy.

Almost every metal band currently on the popular radar comes from the intense and dark side of the metal family tree that Black Sabbath bore. Some hit it fast and hard, taking their cues from Slayer and Metallica, as will most of the bands that will play this week's MTV's Headbanger's Ball tour at the Aladdin Theater.

Others play tuned-down and sludgy, as Sabbath did 30 years ago and as many of the bands in last August's Stoner Hands of Doom Festival did. Either way, the current sound of metal is serious and often brutal.

The Darkness, despite its name, plays a different brand of metal. In this band's school of metallurgy, David Lee Roth teaches stage antics, Freddy Mercury teaches vocal manipulation, and AC/DC and Slade collectively teach riffage. The goal is to entertain, whether that entertainment is sought through flying eagles, lead man Justin Hawkins' vocal acrobatics, brother Dan Hawkins' thick riffs and bouncy solos or the tiger-print spandex and handlebar-mustache image of the band.

Yes, there is a bit of schlock to these guys' rock, but, satire or no, the Darkness is bringing back everything that has been absent from rock since the early '90s.

When Nirvana exploded in 1991, flannel became requisite onstage apparel and Seattle sent bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi to their graves. Grunge was seen by critics and a new army of music fans as a victory of substance over style.

Throughout the '90s, the focus became what you said and how you said it, and if you looked disheveled and out of your element (but still somewhat handsome), all the better. Posing took a back seat to poetry.

No more guitar solos, no more flying V's, no more public talk of groupies and after-show orgies. That was the stuff of rock stars, and the world was now officially anti-rock-star. And if metal were to survive, it had to embrace its darkness and hide its silliness.

Now the seriousness has become somewhat tiresome. The major-label antidote has been bubble-gum and pop punk, but those artists aren't holding up. As other options like R.E.M. and U2 and indie rockers across the board set forth with important political agendas, grown-ups need a few bands they can drink beer to and relax their brains.

It's not going to be the Strokes, who too often make us all feel a bit uncool, or Justin Timberlake, who just makes us realize we can't dance. Beer-drinking Americans need riffs and anthems. They need a man in tiger spandex singing "My mamma wants to know/ Where I'm spending all my dough/ Honey, all she does is nag, nag, nag."

The Darkness has only just set foot in the Colonies. But if Atlantic Records gets behind the men in tight jeans, the band, like Ozzy, could soon be woven into the stretch fabric of everyday American life.


The Darkness plays Seattle's Studio Seven on Saturday, Nov. 22. Go to www.catwalkclub.net for show and ticket info.

MTV's Headbanger's Ball Tour, featuring Shadows Fall, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage and God Forbid, hits town Sunday, Nov. 16, at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 233-1994. 7:45 pm. $16.50 advance, $19 door. All ages.

Black Sabbath, Black Box: The Original Black Sabbath (1970-1978), originally scheduled for release Nov. 4, has been pushed back to a 2004 release date.

 
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