“Fanklok” is the first new episode of Metalocalypse in a year and a half, but just because the show hasn’t been around doesn’t mean the band hasn’t been busy. The new season kicks off with a one-sentence voice cameo by Werner Herzog, who must have been brought in just because there hasn’t been anybody better suited to deliver the words “As the prophecy foretold” since The Amazing Criswell died. Then a TV-news anchor announces that Dethklok has returned to Earth, which is a great relief, even if you didn’t know its members ever left. In between, there are spectacular, animated-album-cover-style visuals of helicopters and searchlights and the band performing in apocalyptic weather conditions, images that, to paraphrase Hamlet, are undreamt of in the philosophy of the makers of the SyFy original movie Space Twister. This intro serves as a welcome announcement that, though the band might be back on Earth, their show is still broadcasting from the farthest reaches of a distant, uncharted solar system.
The overblown, sci-fi/fantasy imagery and the vague hints about the powerful conspiracy going on around Deathklok are bows to the grandeur of heavy metal and the fantasies that it sets off inside the skulls of the deeply susceptible. The show continues to find new ways to joke about the contrast between that grandeur and the ordinary tackiness that sometimes invades even the lives of metal gods. Dethklok may have recently completed some unimaginable, life-threatening mission, and the forthcoming release of its new album has the potential to collapse or stabilize several different sectors of the global economy, but all frontman Nathan Explosion can talk about is his new relationship. He has, in the words of a Nathan Explosion love expert called in to advise the Tribunal, been “cursed by love” and has taken up with one of his fans, a move that the N.E.L.E. describes as “a last-ditch, pathetic effort to avoid intimacy.” Nathan, to the revulsion of his bandmates, thinks he’s found true love. Given that Nathan’s way of poeticizing his feelings for his new girlfriend is to compare her to an “amazing hot, loyal Labrador, but with really nice tits,” it seems likely that whatever passes for true love in Nathan’s mind should be stamped out quickly, before it has a chance to spread.
Most people probably think of This Is Spinal Tap as the gold standard of heavy-metal comedy. There are solid reasons for its claim to the title. This Is Spinal Tap is a piece of brazen mockery, broad and not especially specific in its approach, from a bunch of young show-business veterans who belonged to the first generation of professional smart asses to have grown up listening to rock music and who thought of it as something other than a strange fad that had mysteriously outstayed its welcome. It is not without affection for its targets, but the affection is less for metal itself than for anyone in the entertainment business who had more stick-to-itiveness than brains, talent, or luck, and who, after a certain number of years, had become endearingly bewildered about why the dream hadn’t taken them farther.
Metalocalypse, by comparison, is the real hardcore thing—the pure, uncut shit. It’s the work of people—principally, co-creators Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha—who are old, smart, and self-aware enough to see everything that’s silly (and worse) about metal iconography and the kind of power fantasies into which it taps. But Small and Blacha are honest enough to admit that some part of them still loves all the silliness. The sincerity of that love is evident in the joke that’s the starting point of the whole Metalocalypse universe, which is the band’s never-diminishing popularity and the Vatican-level standard of power that flows from that. Dethklok, rather than Spinal Tap, is the truer ultimate metal parody band for the simple reason that you can’t have lovable losers as the heroes of a power fantasy. Metalocalypse may depict the members of Dethklok as fumbling idiots, but it never doubts the potency of the fantasy they’re peddling and embodying. That’s why the show can make you feel the attraction of that fantasy even as it’s inviting you to laugh at it. In “Fanklok,” those twin urges come together in a brief music video illustrating Nathan and his girlfriend Trindle’s love; it climaxes with a demonic head puking out their faces on a chocolate heart.
Because Metalocalypse is so in tune with what it’s parodying, it can sometimes seem to suffer from some of the same limitations that have plagued heavy-metal culture, such as what might be gently described as a seeming lack of interest in, and empathy for, women. It’s a very male show, and the discovery that Nathan’s lady friend is a psychopathic serial killer who has not only laid waste to a string of Nathan Explosion lookalikes, but is caught performing fellatio on a mob of faux-Nathans at a Dethklok fan convention called Klokkikon, isn’t going to convert many female fans to the cause. In the show’s defense, in context this is less undiluted misogyny than part of a larger assault on crazed fandom in general: Klokkikon is a hellish hall of mirrors in which the band members are confronted by scores of hideous, out-of-shape, and dim-witted male fans who strive to look like their idols as much as possible, even if they’re obese wrecks tooling around in motorized wheelchairs. (Meeting one of them, Murderface asks in wonder, “Where did you get a hundred-ounce Coca-Cola?”) When the convention building goes up in flames at the end, it’s a chance for a thrilling, cathartic vision of fat Nathans, fat Murderfaces, fat Pickleses, etc., being crushed by falling scenery and suffering the odd decapitation.
After a wild fling of 21-minutes per episode for the third season, Metalocalypse is now back to 11 minutes every week. I have mixed feelings about that. The show had surprisingly little difficulty filling twice the usual amount of airtime, and shrinking back to less than a quarter of an hour means that we’re that much less likely to see anything resembling a real plot take shake. But the show may be more itself when it’s forced to dole itself out in punchy, concentrated doses. And, as 99 out of every 100 metal drummers has never learned, there’s something to be said for leaving the audience hungry for more.