While Beck was subjected to the most high-profile criticism regarding the legitimacy of 2015's Grammy winners, there was a large contingent of armchair Kanyes who were even more irate over the best metal performance award going to rock lampooners Tenacious D. Heavy metal is serious business, so why would a comedy duo deserve to win over luminaries like Motörhead, Mastodon, and Anthrax? Granted, most metal fans would concede that their favorite bands can veer into dubiously campy realms, but there is a hard line between theatrics and irony. Theatrics are at the heart of metal; irony is for suckers. But some heavy bands manage to find a self-aware middle ground where they can acknowledge the absurdity of metal while still taking the music seriously. Cheeky heavyweights like Torche and Big Business may not be overtly menacing, yet they seem far more earnest than the legions of longhairs with spiked gauntlets and witchy motifs. We need more Fucking Champs, less Steel Panthers.
Mutoid Man also occupy this self-aware middle ground, and they've fortified the territory. Originating as a duo comprising Ben Koller and Steve Brodsky, the project was far less serious than either member's more established bands. Koller has drummed for Boston hardcore legends Converge ever since their vitriolic, betrayal-themed 2001 album Jane Doe. Brodsky is the guitarist and vocalist for the ever-evolving space-rock/art-metal juggernaut Cave In. It was actually during Cave In's tour cycle in support of Perfect Pitch Black that Brodsky and Koller first jammed together, with the Converge drummer filling in after the temporary departure of Cave In's J.R. Conners. Seven years later, both Brodsky and Koller wound up living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint and began playing together again. "In the beginning, we were sending demos back and forth under the name Narcoleptic Beagle," says Brodsky. "So it was kinda silly to start with, and I think that's because it was just the two of us and we didn't know what was gonna happen. Was this a band? Was this a project? What were we even gonna do with these songs we were writing?"
There was little preliminary discussion about Mutoid Man's direction, other than the two friends wanted to build upon the playfully frantic musicianship of bands like Lightning Bolt and Mastodon. "And of course, I was a fan of Converge," Brodsky adds, "and Ben was a fan of Cave In, and I think we both try to extract our favorite parts from each other's bands." But the development of Mutoid Man was a gradual process. The duo recorded their debut album, Helium Head, in their practice space, eventually recruiting bassist Nick Cageao to round things out for their first batch of shows. "Every step along the way it became a bit more actualized, but we also never took it too seriously." This attitude is evident in the band's live set, where Brodsky peppers between-song banter with impromptu guitar solos, Koller tosses in gratuitous stick tricks in the middle of 300 bpm drum fills, and Cageao gleefully hammers on one of his gaudy '80s hair-metal basses—all three members look uncharacteristically ecstatic while they try to keep up with each other. "I'm just trying to make sure my hands are doing the right thing and my mouth is making the right words. Especially playing with Ben—once he starts, you just grab the ropes and try to hold on. The whole thing is so ridiculous that the only way to get through it is with a smile on my face."
The absurdity of Mutoid Man's chops was enough to elevate the side project into a real band. Helium Head—with its cartoonish cover art of stoned turtles and a vulture rock band playing on a bed of psychedelic mushrooms—landed on numerous year-end lists. Heavy-metal fans were impressed; record labels were interested. And while things have gotten serious for the trio, the band itself is still casual. "I'm always interested in seeing the human side of a musician peek through. I need more than just dark images, unreadable band logos, and scowling faces. The older I get, the harder it is for me to buy into that pose." So while Seattle audiences should be braced for some serious frenzied riffage at their Sunset Tavern show, they shouldn't expect any bleak theatrics. "If I'm playing a Mutoid Man show, it's the best part of my day," says Brodsky. "Why hide it?"