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Metal on the rocks?
System of a Down, Saliva, Chevelle, and Taproot try to put the hard stuff on top again

The 2002 numbers are in, and it’s official: last year was a bad one for the music industry in terms of sales. And it was simply a terrible one for commercial heavy metal. The only bands who released platinum albums were Korn and Disturbed, and even those two perennial favorites struggled to match the sales of their previous discs. The genre’s flagship tour, OzzFest, endured a summer of hardship that started with a cancer scare for first lady Sharon Osbourne and ended with the sudden death of Drowning Pool frontman Dave Williams, who succumbed to heart disease on his tour bus. Meanwhile, a bunch of well-dressed collegiate types threatened to take over rock and roll in the name of emo pop and garage punk.

Still, there were a few bright spots on the new-metal landscape. Linkin Park, System of a Down, and P.O.D. kept cranking out hits from their year-old breakthrough albums, and the latter two were rewarded with top billing on OzzFest. The year ahead is shaping up to be a huge one with the announcement of the Summer Sanitarium Tour, which hits Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on July 6 with performances by Metallica, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Deftones — each of whom expects to have a new disc in stores this spring.

Until then, rock radio is biding its time with a clutch of new-metal releases from last fall. System of a Down’s Toxicity is still in heavy rotation, even though the LA art-thrash agitators have already released a follow-up, Steal This Album! (both Columbia). Memphis melody men Saliva just released their second disc, Back into Your System (Island), and they’re headlining the Jaegermeister Music Tour, which hits Avalon on March 9. Two lesser-known bands, the moody Chicago trio Chevelle and sensitive Ann Arbor dudes Taproot, are finally starting to catch on after a couple of years on the scene. Both groups are opening for Disturbed on the "Music as a Weapon Tour," which stops by the Central Maine Civic Center in Lewiston on March 19 and the Tsongas Arena in Lowell on March 21.

System of a Down’s Steal This Album! is an odds-and-sods collection of previously unreleased tracks written throughout their lifespan — from before they were signed up through the studio sessions for Toxicity. The band hadn’t intended to release the CD so soon after Toxicity, but they changed their mind when rough mixes of the material showed up on the Internet last spring. So they returned to the studio with producer Rick Rubin, put the finishing touches on the tracks, and packaged Steal This Album! to look like a bootleg: no artwork, just a track list and instructions on how to find lyrics and credits on the Internet.

Since System of a Down already have the entire rock world’s attention, they can afford to pull stunts like that, and Steal This Album! builds on their reputation as one of the quirkier and more intense bands in the new-metal pantheon. The first single, "Innervision," is as twitchy and evil as anything on Toxicity, and its harmony-rich chorus makes it one of the most radio-friendly songs the group have released. They continue the trend toward melody on "Roulette," an acoustic duet between frontman Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian. "I don’t know/How I feel when I’m around you," sing the two banshees in a rare moment of peace and quiet. The disc wraps up one track later with "Streamline," which finds Tankian back in howling mode and Malakian unleashing a cinematic tearjerker of a guitar solo.

These tunes are among the most personal the band have recorded. But Steal This Album! also reminds us that political rumblings bring out the best in System of a Down. On the funk-metal peace chant "I-E-A-I-A-I-O," Tankian spouts surrealist riddles and Malakian breaks the tension with a few bars of the metal classic "Knight Rider." They get more explicit on the punked-up anti-war cry "A.D.D.": "We don’t give a fuck about your world/With all your global profits and all your jeweled pearls." As one of rock’s most skilled and uncompromising acts, System of a Down have mastered the art of heavy-metal protest music.

Saliva gained a foothold in rock radio two years ago when their major-label debut, Every Six Seconds (Island), went gold on the strength of the hit "Your Disease." But the band’s real breakthrough came last summer, when frontman Josey Scott scored a Top 10 smash with "Hero," a duet with Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger from the blockbuster Spider-Man soundtrack (Columbia). Saliva had already flirted with pop on their first album, so it’s no surprise that their new Back into Your System follows "Hero" into more commercial waters.

Scott tackles domestic violence from the victim’s perspective on "Always," the first single. "I love you/I hate you/I can’t get around you," he sings, reaching his breaking point on the bombastic chorus. His bandmates have an unfortunate tendency to settle for bar-band clichés, but they make up for it with their knack for balancing melody with crunch. On the second single, "Rest in Pieces," they get a lesson from pop-metal master Nikki Sixx, who dug their first album so much that he personally presented them with this tune. Like Sixx’s best work with Mötley Crüe, it’s a sticky-sweet power ballad with a sarcastic twist, and the band have no trouble empathizing with its mushy heart.

Saliva have acknowledged the influence of Southern hip-hop on their sound ever since they first hit radio with the rap-metal chug of "Your Disease." And despite its pop overtones, there’s plenty of rabble rousing on Back into Your System. Scott exudes rock-star charisma on the opening "Superstar II"; "Raise Up" is a solid new-metal party jam. Back into Your System comes off as the work of a band who can’t decide whether they want to be pop softies or rock bad boys. For now, at least, Saliva are doing a pretty good job of having it both ways.

Four years ago, Chevelle made their new-metal debut with Point #1 (Squint), which was recorded by indie-rock legend Steve Albini and landed a pair of singles on rock radio. Like P.O.D., the band — brothers Pete (vocals and guitar), Joe (bass), and Sam (drums) Loeffler — got their start in the Christian-rock scene: Squint is an imprint of the powerhouse Christian label Word. Two years ago, Word was acquired by Warner Bros., and the group ended up leaving Squint during the restructuring that followed.

That situation inspired the title of their new Wonder What’s Next (Epic), a release that was delayed several times while Chevelle were changing labels. What turned out to be next for Chevelle was a taste of stardom: the album is already gold, and they were just named to the main-stage line-up at OzzFest 2003, which hits the Tweeter Center in Mansfield on August 14. The lumbering first single is a smash, a slow-burning anthem that culminates with a classic new-metal tantrum: "Seeing red again!" "The Red" is a catchy enough tune, but like much new metal it doesn’t sound like a shoo-in for heavy rotation on first listen. Like Tool, Deftones, and Helmet, Chevelle specialize in bleak, claustrophobic soundscapes and the kind of serrated edges that appeal to boys precisely because they’ll never be anyone’s little sister’s favorite. Even when the band let some sunlight brighten the knotty grooves of the second single, "Send the Pain Below," the subject matter of Pete’s most salient howl turns out to be suffocation. He mixes things up on the solo acoustic number "One Lonely Visitor," but the vocal melody is as forlorn as the tune’s title. The group keep it slow, dark, and loud for the remainder of the disc — the fun here, if that’s even the right word, is in the way Chevelle wind their way through shape-shifting arrangements.

New-metal bands hardly ever get a warmer reception from critics than they do from fans, but that’s exactly what happened to Taproot when Gift (Atlantic) came out three years ago. For their new follow-up, Welcome (Atlantic), the band looked to remedy that situation by hiring one of modern metal’s most proven hitmakers, producer Toby Wright (Korn, Alice in Chains). Not long after they went into the studio with Wright, the producer suggested they go back to the drawing board to come up with better songs. They did, and the second effort appears to have paid off.

Taproot work themselves into a funk-metal frenzy on the first single from Welcome, "Poem," on which frontman Stephen Richards conjures up the ghost of deceased Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley with his multi-tracked psychedelic vocals. "You’re my blessing in disguise," wails Richards on the second single, "Mine," and his angst-ridden delivery once again sounds eerily similar to Staley’s. Other than that, the song’s fidgety rhythms and clever dissonance manifest themselves as the work of a talented young band in search of their own identity. But it’s hard not to be distracted by the band’s sonic resemblance to Alice in Chains, especially since they hired one of Alice’s old producers.

Unlike the morbid Staley, however, Richards is a fresh-faced college-town boy who spends more time looking on the bright side of life than does your average new-metal frontman. "Everything" is a sincere love letter to his single-parent mom. And "Art" is an elegant redemption hymn with the album’s most epic chorus: "I must eliminate and change/Yesterday’s pains today," he sings, as a string section swoops down to emphasize the song’s uplifting vibe. With tunes as challenging as they are catchy, Taproot have made good on the hype that surrounded their debut CD. Whether that will contribute to a turn-around in metal’s commercial fortunes in 2003 remains to be seen.

Saliva perform on Sunday March 9 at Avalon in Boston. Call (617) 423-NEXT. Chevelle and Taproot open for Disturbed on Wednesday March 19 at the Central Maine Civic Center in Lewiston; call (207) 775-3331. The same tour comes to the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA on Friday March 21; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: February 27 - March 6, 2003
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