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Back in 2012, Adult Swim's animated series Metalocalypse — featuring the biggest band on the planet, Dethklok — concluded its fourth and final season of mayhem, murder and brutal death metal with a serious cliffhanger and the unexpected abduction of guitarist Toki Wartooth.
The following year, the band were gloriously reunited during the finale of The Doomstar Requiem special episode. But the triumph was ultimately short-lived, as all went silent while Adult Swim pondered whether to renew the show.
Metalocalypse co-creator and musical mastermind Brendon Small turned his focus to his "intergalactic" progressive-metal solo project Galaktikon (which have released two full-lengths, Galaktikon and Galaktikon II) and the future of Dethklok remained uncertain.
But, as any fan knows, the mysterious power of Dethklok cannot be contained, and, in Small's words, an unexpected "earthquake" happened that revived the project. This year, those after-shocks will be felt across the globe as the animated quintet make their much-anticipated return.
Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar, an original full-length movie written and directed by Small, picks up where The Doomstar Requiem left off. The epic film sees the band — Nathan Explosion, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, Toki Wartooth, William Murderface and Pickles — grappling with their ever-brutal (and hilarious) inter-band issues, while also trying to prevent the impending Metalocalypse and gear up for a final showdown with the evil, enigmatic Tribunal leader Mr. Salacia.
As if Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar weren't enough of a reason for Dethklok fans to celebrate, there are also two full-length albums being released: Small's orchestrated soundtrack from the film, and Dethalbum IV, a vicious 11-track record that represents the first collection of new Dethklok material since 2012's Dethalbum III.
Adding to the brutality, Dethklok will return to live stages this fall for a co-headlining North American tour with kawaii-metal outfit BABYMETAL.
In late May, Revolver spoke at length with Small about the making of the new feature-length film and albums — and what the future holds for the world's most brutal band.
THERE WERE SEVERAL YEARS WHERE ADULT SWIM DIDN'T SEEM INTERESTED IN BEING IN THE METALOCALYPSE BUSINESS. WHAT CHANGED?
BRENDON SMALL I don't know exactly what happened. I think there was a shake-up or two at the network, and then it was almost like an earthquake happened and the show kind of sprung loose again.
I think there were people at the network that, you know, after some people either came or went, were standing around looking at this thing and going, "This has numbers! Let's do something with this!"
THE DOOMSTAR REQUIEM SOUNDTRACK WAS ALL MUSIC AND NO DIALOGUE. DID YOU CONSIDER TAKING A SIMILAR APPROACH WITH THE NEW FILM ARMY OF THE DOOMSTAR?
No. The Doomstar Requiem was a really crazy musical challenge — telling a 52-minute story without any dialogue — but with this one, the main idea was, "How do you make this into something that feels a little bit more like a feature film?"
Because we've got this Metalocalypse and all this crazy shit has to happen, and the world has to go to hell and back again. How dire can we make this? And how much can you play by the rules of a movie?
So, we were always thinking about Star Trek the TV series versus Star Trek: The Motion Picture or The Wrath of Khan … any of their things where the world gets a little bit more intense.
And because I'd already done this musical thing, I didn't necessarily feel like we needed to do that again. I wanted to make this a little bit more cinematic.
WAS MAKING THIS FILM A CASE OF LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY PUTTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER?
It was! Seriously, it was just putting the band back together in my mind, hanging out with these characters in my head, getting [Metalocalypse co-creator] Tommy Blacha back in the studio and getting people that had worked on the show before.
It was like, "Let's get our character designer back up. Let's get that compositor who I've been working with on this Galaktikon stuff. And let's get our animators and everybody that have helped along the way, whoever's available and whoever we clicked with."
And so we did, and then we added some new people who took it over the top a little bit more, too.
AT WHAT POINT DID THIS NEW FILM AND ALBUM START TO TAKE SHAPE?
I think it all started kind of coming into focus in 2019. The network reached out and said, "Hey, would you like to do a live Dethklok show at one of these Adult Swim festivals?" And I was like, "Yeah, sure, OK." And then it just kept on opening up bigger conversations — and at some point, a little bit before the pandemic, they said, "How would you like to finish the story, or do whatever you think this is?"
So that's when all the prep started for everything. But the outline for the story was the same chief outline that I'd had in mind for like 10 years or so.
SO, WHEN YOU FINISHED THE DOOMSTAR REQUIEM, YOU ALREADY HAD A PRETTY GOOD IDEA OF WHERE THE STORY WOULD GO FROM THERE?
Yeah, if the opportunity arose. Season 4 of Metalocalypse kind of set up The Doomstar Requiem, and at Doomstar Requiem time, my question to the network was, "Should I just wrap this whole thing?" And they said, "Don't do it."
And then that was the in-between time where it was hard to get a straight answer from the network about whether we were going to do more shows — where it was like, "Are we dating? Are we broken up? What's going on?" [Laughs]
So I basically had a bunch of events in mind that had to happen, that were kind of worked out to a degree. But then I didn't really think about it much until around the pandemic when it started getting developed further.
BY "EVENTS THAT HAD TO HAPPEN," YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT IN THE METALOCALYPSE STORYLINE?
Yes, certain events have to happen. There's this whole Murderface thing going on; there's the Metalocalypse itself; and there's this idea of a Song of Salvation. These are all lingering things that are put into place through The Doomstar Requiem, and they all need to be satisfied.
The Tribunal — what is their final plan? What are they building towards? And it's all inside of the lore, you know? Underneath everything, as we were just kind of making jokes and doing stupid things, we were also setting up this future.
All the information's there in the very first episode, really — everything that we have to conclude is in that episode. We have to conclude this relationship between the good guys and the bad guys, which is not the most important part of the show, but it is an important part of the first episode.
And we have to conclude that cat-and-mouse game; we have to go to the final place. And also, with the arc of the characters, you have to go to a final place.
I was talking to a friend recently — he's a moviemaker — and he said, "I don't understand how you can make TV, because the characters' arcs are just, like, kind of in stasis." And I said, "That's exactly what it's supposed to be. That's exactly what TV is."
If you're gonna change a TV character's arc, it has to be at the end. I think about The Office, the original U.K. Office: It was 12 really great episodes, and by the 13th, the Christmas special, that's the character's final opportunity to change.
And that was the same thing with the Extras Christmas special, they got to that final place. It was emotional; it was great. They landed the thing really well. So, all these things are the reasons that we [landed where we did with our storyline].
I knew that I had plot points. I knew that some of the characters were going to have to go down, and some of the characters would live. This is a bit of a spoiler, but the relationship with the fans is something that's been going on quietly throughout the entire show, which is, "We hate you for liking us. We disrespect you, and we abhor you, and you make our lives miserable."
And this is also about how a band is a family — a family of stinky, farty roommates that have to travel the world with each other but don't really have any kind of way to talk to each other. So, it's like, "Can we yield? Can we be vulnerable? Can we get to the core of a couple of things?"
It's about a band's relationship with itself — and the ultimate relationship, which is that there is no band if there is no audience. This is a love story between an audience and a band. And hopefully, by the end, they can kind of have an epiphany that makes their relationship just a bit stronger.
But on a basic level, this movie is the story of a celebrity — Nathan Explosion — whose life is in a flat spin after The Doomstar Requiem. He's the only one who remembers all this tragic, fucked-up stuff, and he was at the center of it.
His professional, personal and romantic life are all in a total flat spin, and that is the point when he's given the ultimate songwriting challenge.
AND IT'S AT THE MOMENT WHEN HIS ABILITY TO RISE TO THE OCCASION IS AT AN ALL-TIME LOW…
Exactly. In fact, we kind of modeled it after a sports movie, but I'll leave it at that — let's see if people can figure out which sports movie. [Laughs] This whole thing is about the ego, and about releasing it.
This is about fighting against the one thing that I didn't like about these characters, ever, which is that they didn't really make a difference. They had all this power, and they could have done so much with it. And this is their last opportunity to make a difference, and hopefully not fuck it up.
WHICH BRINGS US TO "AORTIC DESECRATION," ONE OF TWO SONGS FROM DETHALBUM IV THAT ARE ALSO IN THE FILM. WAS THIS ONE OF THE FIRST SONGS YOU WROTE FOR THE PROJECT?
I knew that there were two songs that would be in the movie, and I had to have the wrong song and the right song. And for a long time, "Aortic Desecration" was just called "The Wrong Song."
"The Wrong Song" is an ego-driven, self-denigrating, infuriated tantrum. I didn't know what the lyrics were gonna be, but they were gonna be vitriolic — and again, pointed inwards.
I had this song early on; I had a couple different versions, because I'm thinking, If this song is gonna trigger something really bad, and everything's gonna be fucked up, just how evil can I make this?
The fun is stopping, and the evil is starting, and the song really shifts the movie into a more dire place. And this is our mid-movie crisis.
So that was the idea, and then at some point you start going, "OK, that's what this song is," and refining it. The process is still pretty similar to how I worked on the music for each episode.
I'll sit in my little studio by myself, and I'll work out guitars and drum programming; and then when it's time for [drummer] Gene Hoglan to come in, he'll just get all these demos, and most of them won't even have words or anything else.
In the TV show, sometimes there would only be 35 seconds where you'd hear just an inkling of a song — verse, bridge, chorus, solo. But this is an 80-minute movie, so the songs could be longer, and there's more activity happening around them.
There's a crazy catastrophic sequence with "Aortic Desecration" that nods to the Rube Goldberg-style things we've done before, where one thing begets the next. A guy jumps on a diving board, goes in the air, gets caught in an airplane engine, the airplane falls on another thing, exploding a gas tank that hits the Washington Monument that goes around the Earth and eventually lands in the Arc de Triomphe.
It's just like, "OK — America and France, finally together!" [Laughs]
PENETRATION HAS BEEN ACHIEVED!
Yeah, and there is another penetration that's an important part of this movie: Nathan re-engaging his relationship with music — where he's holding a cable between his legs and inserting it in the right place.
This is a dipshit messiah story, and that's like him finding God again. [Laughs] Seriously, it's literally a dipshit messiah story — where our Jesus is the stupidest man on Earth, and his disciples are just idiots.
The other thing, too, is that this is a show where the art goes from corporate to religious. In the first season, you realize that they're all financially focused — and then at the end, there's this voice from the skies telling people what to do and where to go.
WHEN YOU GOT THE GREEN LIGHT TO MAKE THE FILM, DID YOU ALSO IMMEDIATELY GET TO WORK ON DETHALBUM IV?
Oh yeah, that was part of the deal. There were three things that I was thinking about. One is the narrative of the movie: how it's gonna look and feel, how it's gonna behave, how all the technical aspects of the animation and the cinematics are gonna work. That's one thing.
The second is Dethalbum IV, which is a bunch of totally original music — some derived from the movie, and some derivatives from the show like "Murmaider III," but ultimately just a completely brand-new piece. So, I wrote tons and tons and tons of demos for that throughout the pandemic.
And then, finally, the other big thing was the soundtrack album. The soundtrack is really a moody movie score; it's somewhere between Basil Poledouris' Conan, Hans Zimmer, Goblin and lots of bits and pieces from like, Bernard Herrmann to John Barry.
The film-score album was done concurrently with an orchestra with real French horns and strings blended with buzzy-sounding synths and all that stuff. That was the third thing. I had all those things that I needed to deliver. So, when I was thinking about one thing, I was kind of thinking about all things.
BUT YOU WERE ONLY EVER GOING TO USE TWO DETHKLOK SONGS IN THE FILM: "AORTIC DESECRATION" AND "SOS"?
Yeah, absolutely. In a regular episode, looking at the ratio of Dethklok versus orchestral music, the amount of metal that's in there is not huge. That was just part of the Dethklok way of doing things, which is, don't overdo it — make it so that when the metal does come, it's a big deal.
There'd be little songs that Toki would sing, or whatever, but that wouldn't be heavy metal. But that was kind of our ratio; and in this bigger landscape it's still somewhat similar, because we're playing longer versions of the songs, but they're just the two most important songs in the movie.
There are also instrumental metal pieces in the movie — "The Fall," "Let's End This" and "Army of the Doomed" — that are just me and Gene, just bass, drums and guitars.
They didn't feel like they were Dethklok songs, but they're almost like Dethklok scored parts of this movie. So, they're on the Army of the Doomstar soundtrack as well.
AND THEN THERE'S DR. ROCKZO'S BIG NUMBER!
Yeah, Dr. Rockzo is giving his big final sermon to the show and leaving on a positive note. But also, what's his version of Heaven? It's a clown God snorting cocaine, naked angels with pasties and clown noses, and just lots of cocaine. [Laughs] So that's a bit of fun before everything starts getting dire.
WAS IT JUST YOU, GENE HOGLAN AND PRODUCER ULRICH WILD BEHIND DETHALBUM IV? OR WERE THERE OTHER FOLKS INVOLVED IN ITS RECORDING?
Yeah, it was just the three of us — the exact same thing as the first album. If I had done this movie 10 years ago, it would have been completely different.
It would be the same story, but I think there are a lot of little skill sets that I've developed since then that make it a more exciting piece. And musically, when 10 years go by, things change, too — your playing changes, your musical ideologies change.
I think time just makes everything different, but it's the same amount of work and it's the same style of working. I work with Gene very closely, and then I work with Ulrich very closely, and they're both really important people in making this sound the way it does. It's definitely Dethklok; the DNA's there, but it's just mutated.
HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO WRITE THE SONG OF SALVATION, "SOS," KNOWING THAT THIS WAS THE SONG THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE STORY?
Well, there's a thing that Dethklok does, which is this mid-tempo kind of epic thing — like on "Go Into the Water" or "Black Fire Upon Us." They're songs that are built to be like Queen's "The Prophet's Song" — which I'll never achieve [Laughs] — or like Dio and Sabbath's "Sign of the Southern Cross."
Just epic, slower-paced things. And I thought, This is a song that needs to be energetic and fast and slow at the same time. I wanted it to build slowly, and then ultimately be a song that would have a message.
But I didn't wanna come out and say everything either. I like a lyric that leaves a little bit of vagueness around it — unless it's a funny song that can just be funny and stupid. I wanted this to basically say, "Look, we're all the same pieces of shit. We're all going to fucking die." [Laughs]
But there's power in that. There's power in us working together, and I need you. I fucking need you. I need your help. I need someone outside of myself. And that's something that's really hard to say.
Can you say it and still be badass with it? Can you still be kind of cool with it? Can you still be epic with it? So that was the challenge. It's a call to the people of the Earth because we need to gather, and this is part of the Prophecy.
DO OTHER SONGS ON DETHALBUM IV RELATE TO THE ARMY OF THE DOOM-STAR FILM?
Well, there's "Murmaider III," where you have this parallel underwater lore that's happening. Again, that's why I think the first and second episodes of the show kind of indicate the future; because you've got this underwater thing that won't go away, and there's this God creature down there that needs to speak to Nathan, which is part of the pull that took him down to the water in the second episode.
And there's the song "Gardener of Vengeance," where I actually brought a Weedwacker into my studio and miked it. I went to Home Depot, rented one, and I returned it within like an hour.
They were like, "You know, you get three more hours with this!" And I was like, "No, I think I got everything I need." And then my little, tiny studio smelled like gasoline for two weeks afterwards. [Laughs]
HOW DOES THAT SONG TIE INTO THE FILM?
"Gardener of Vengeance" has a line where Nathan's copping out. He says, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what salvation is." Salvation isn't a metal concept.
Nathan's like, "If you want a song about, like, having your guts liquified by a Weedwacker, I'm the guy you talk to for that. You don't talk to me about salvation." So that was the idea — and I thought, How can I write a song that just ends with that line? Your guts will be liquified by a Weedwacker? [Laughs]
I remember I had a rough version of the song, and Gene was like, "Oh, that's the album opener!" Gene has a lot to say with the song order of the records.
I listen to him every time, because he really thinks in terms of how a record feels from beginning to end. We went back and forth on a few things, but this is ultimately his pitch: the evil, fast, aggressive side of the record, and then the mystical, next-level kind of epic side.
There are other songs that have to do with the movie, like "Horse of Fire," "Satellite Bleeding" and "DEADFACE." And there are songs that have zero to do with anything, like "Mutilation on a Saturday Night," which is definitely a comedic song but is also about just bursting out of your house, out of your own prison and going completely feral.
They're speeding down the highway, they're playing mailbox baseball with sledgehammers, they're setting dumpsters on fire, they're spray-painting with bad grammar and now they're here to fuck up your party! [Laughs]
I remember in high school, my sister had a party when my parents were out of town, and it just got worse and worse; like, somebody drove into the neighbor's driveway where they'd just freshly poured asphalt, and their tires kept churning through it and spitting out asphalt all over the side of the house.
It was just a disaster! [Laughs] So I was thinking about all that while trying to come up with the lyrics, and I thought, That's a song right there — like, what if Dethklok shows up to your house?
YOU'RE TAKING DETHKLOK OUT ON TOUR LATER THIS YEAR WITH BABYMETAL ON THE AMAZINGLY TITLED "BABYKLOK TOUR." HOW MUCH DETHALBUM IV MATERIAL WILL YOU BE PLAYING?
I would love to do all new stuff, but I think because of the nature of this tour — because of how much time has gone by, and that we've only done two one-offs in the last 10 years or so — we have to deliver some of the hits.
I think we're gonna fold in some songs from the movie. If I had time, I would love to play "Gardener of Vengeance" and just bring the Weedwacker out. But the crazy thing about doing this is, if we're gonna play a song, we've gotta have a whole visual component to go with it.
And to do that, I've gotta get my compositor back. I've gotta get animators back. I've gotta get editors back. And as I'm getting into the preparation of the live show, that's something I have to think about. What can we afford? How much money is there? Who's paying for it? Do I have to recoup that?
And I just wanna make sure we give a show where we are playing "the hits," the things that get people excited. I think we will probably be embracing a bit of nostalgia on this one, because it's been a while.
And these kids that, like, just started watching it, or grew up on it and are now in music school or whatever, they didn't get a chance to see Dethklok back in the day.
We want to give them a show that has all that stuff. But I would love to keep expanding it and challenging ourselves to get this material up on its feet.
IF THE ARMY OF THE DOOMSTAR FILM MARKS THE END OF THE DETHKLOK SAGA, DOES THIS MEAN THAT THE FORTHCOMING LIVE TOUR WILL ALSO MARK THE END OF DETHKLOK AS A TOURING ACT?
Not necessarily. Let me say this: This is the end of the Tribunal. And it's the end of a few characters along the way, too; some helpful people that all started out kind of working for the bad guys, but then in one way or another became part of the Dethklok world.
So, this is the end of that story. Do I have plans for the future? I don't. But if Dethklok wants to keep on playing, and it's still fun and we can make it all work and make everybody happy, I don't see why we should ever stop — unless at some point this music is so hard to play and we're so old that we can't, which I can see happening too. [Laughs]