Essential Albums: Probot (S/T)

Dave Grohl, with Lemmy and Wino

Nirvana may not have been a strictly “metal” band, but they had a metal sensibility that is impossible to deny.

Take “Senseless Apprentice” from the band’s final studio album, “In Utero.” The riffs, drumming and vocal delivery are straight metal. Even the band’s biggest hits, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box” were driven by large metal riffs in the choruses. In an interview published some years ago, former band drummer Dave Grohl said fellow band mates Kurt Cobain and Chris Novoselic were big fans of metal bands like Celtic Frost.

Nirvana differed from the metal aesthetic in that metal music (generally) is considered powerful and empowering by listeners, while Nirvana’s discography was more about powerlessness, hopelessness and indifference (Yeah, I know the previous assertion about “powerlessness, hopelessness and indifference” being the key themes of Nirvana’s music is extremely subjective. But that’s my opinion, so there. Feel free to tell me to get stuffed if you disagree. Thanks.)

But in terms or riffs and song structure, it’s hard to doubt Nirvana had a connection to metal. So it was no surprise to me at all when Grohl proved his love for obscure metal with the fabulous 2004 Probot project.

By the time Grohl realized his ambitious goal with Probot, he was already close to a household name in rock music. After Nirvana, Grohl recorded a bunch of his own songs himself and released them under the name Foo Fighters. A short time later, Grohl’s Foo Fighters were a full-time band, with a string of rock radio hits and high-selling albums.

While Foo Fighters have less of a metal influence than Nirvana, Grohl had grown up listening to underground metal and had a devotee’s love for the genre. Perhaps expecting a hard sell from the metal vocalists he wanted to record with on Probot, Grohl sent demos of the songs to each.

Apparently, none thought Grohl was attempting to be ironic – joining Grohl for Probot are a string of metal legends, including godfather of metal Lemmy (Motorhead), Cronos (of the first black metal band, Venom) Dennis “Snake” Belanger (of sci-fi art-metal geniuses Voivod) and King Diamond (the Merciful Fate/King Diamond vocalist who once famously scared the hell out of a young Metallica, who were sharing rehearsal space with the King). Also joining Grohl on the outing are the current/former lead singers for Sepultura, D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, Celtic Frost, The Obsessed, Cathedral and Trouble.

Grohl’s accomplishment with “Probot” takes some consideration to appreciate. Do this: Stop for a minute and imagine trying to write a song for Lemmy. That’s not as easy as it sounds – Lemmy built his career on Motorhead’s signature sound. That style is easy to imitate … but your average copy cat Motorhead is, usually, rather boring.

But what Grohl does again and again on “Probot” is get the style right of the band he is honoring, without crafting songs that sound like throwaway B-sides. “Shake Your Blood,” which features Lemmy on bass as well as vocals, feels like authentic Motorhead. You could see Lemmy adopting this song into a Motorhead set and having it fit alongside “Ace of Spades” or “Rock ‘n Roll.”

“Sweet Dreams” is another good example. The song is not a King Diamond rip-off – it freakin’ sounds like King Diamond. The same is true with “Dictatorsaurus;” Grohl has absorbed so much of Voivod’s sound that he practically becomes a one-man Voivod, capturing the band’s chaotic, discordant atmosphere. This is damn impressive stuff.

Lemmy, Chronos, Wino and former Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil all contribute bass lines and guitar solos on certain songs, but for the most part, Grohl handles most of the music. Not every song is perfect; “Ice Cold Man,” with vocalist Lee Dorrian is only s0-so — but the rest of the disc is a grand slam, particularly “Silent Spring” with DRI vocalist Kurt Brecht, “Big Sky” with Tom G. Fischer and “My Tortured Soul” with Eric Wagner of Trouble.

The closest “Probot” comes to irony is “I Am The Warlock,” a bonus track featuring a roaring Jack Black in full-metal mode. Yes, it’s funny to hear Black bellow “I’m going to f*** your mind up,” but is it irony? Look at it like this; 1) The music is straight metal; 2) Black has a metal frontman’s voice, and 3) Dio was in Black’s movie, “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.” Was Dio in your movie? No? Then quit talking about Black being ironic with metal – if Black was cool enough for RJD, he’s cool enough for you.

I wish Grohl would roll out a “Probot II,” but I doubt it’ll happen. At least we have this labor of love. Highly recommended.

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1 Comment

  1. Funny thing is I didn’t even listen to this album until about 2 years after it was out. Mainly because I really do not like foo fighters and I love King Diamond and I was afraid that his song with Probot would suck. Which I guess is what I feared about the whole album actually,but I am glad that I did wind up buying it at a yard sale for 25 cents.


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