His choice of instrument hardly made sense, especially given his dad's history as a guitarist in cover bands, and nearly a decade and a half hence Brian Koenig remains unable to explicate exactly what inspired him as a fifth- grader to study the oboe, of all instruments. But choose it he did, and how his classmates down in the self-styled Swiss cheese capital of the USA teased him for it. To compound the fact of its clearly being a girl's instrument, one of the girls whose instrument it was called the director of the orchestra in which Brian played Daddy, so no matter how good he got, he'd never be first chair.
But then, as a 14-year-old freshman at Monroe High, Koenig realized his hands were finally big enough to try the guitar. He discovered and quickly came to love the sinister, ponderous music of Soundgarden, and hit on the idea of playing on electric guitar some of the Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann oboe pieces he'd loved with the throatily belligerent tone of Soundgarden's Kim Thayil. He discovered the music of Metallica and forgot all about his Nintendo.
Koenig forgot all about everything except his guitar. He played along with Metallica's "Master of Puppets" until he'd mastered every lick Kirk Hammett played on it, and then studied the music of Joe Satriani after reading that Joe had tutored Hammett. He swooned at Yngwie Malmsteen's marriage of classical and rock influences, and realized he'd won the genetic lottery: As does only one in 10,000, he had perfect pitch. Mastering the guitar was more satisfying than anything he'd ever done, more exciting!
Now, 16 years after he chose the oboe, or the oboe chose him, and his classmates hooted in derision, nobody's laughing anymore, as Brian Koenig is the principal songwriter, arranger and lead guitarist of the best metal band in south central Wisconsin, the Ottoman Empire. If his band's dizzyingly deft performances of his music - fussy though some of it may be, silly though some metal conventions may be - don't make the hair on the back of your neck stand up at least occasionally, it can only be because you're listening with very prejudiced ears.
And who, really, can blame you? Isn't (heavy) metal the music of 15-year-old sociopaths with bad skin who, lacking the nerve to approach girls, favor songs about the depravity of women, and who, desperate to be noticed, desperate to be perceived as fearsome in any way they can, profess fealty to Satan in spite of having nodded off halfway through Wikipedia's first paragraph on Satanism? Can you not tell them by their manos cornutos (a.k.a. horned, or devil's, hands)? Can you not tell them by their lank long hair and black T-shirts depicting stridently gruesome cover art by bands with names like Meathole Infection or Abortus?
Well, yes. But metal is no less the music of, for instance, 30-year-old local computer technician and family man Mike Burmeister, founder of the metal e-zine Adrenalin, whose contributors include a chemist and an employee of a Watertown marketing company. Dissent and Revolt vocalist Aaron Miller, also 30, is a few scant units short of a degree in creative writing from the UW. Ottoman Empire's bass player, Jacob Bare, is a much-in-demand web developer. Its frontwoman, Mary Zimmer, who was singing the music of such favorite Romantic composers as Brahms, Schumann and Schubert at UW-Whitewater while Brian Koenig was tooting his oboe, is a reluctant member of a local corporate human-resources department.
The daughter of parents whose record collection included the Beatles, the Who and the Cars, Metal Mary was originally drawn to the music that would become her life by the Finnish band Nightwish's juxtaposition of a classically trained mezzo-soprano with metal backing. Her exploration of the genre led her by and by to death metal, which she thought the best thing...well, ever! The intensity! In many cases, she found the metaphoric quality of her new partner in crime Brian's lyrics impenetrable, but it wasn't as though she was unaccustomed to singing lyrics she didn't understand. Brian was writing no more incomprehensibly, after all, than Gaetano Donizetti.
As for Satanism, well, people hear what they want to. Greg de Roussan, who, like his colleague in Dissent and Revolt Aaron Miller, makes his living as a salesclerk in a CD shop just to be around music, has observed that lay (that is, non-metal) customers assume, when metal's playing, that they're listening to paeans to The Dark One, though they can't understand a syllable of what the vocalist is...well, singing isn't exactly the right word.
Therein lies a big part of the problem. Metal vocalists have come more and more to fear they'll be taken for what Grandpa Simpson might call mollycoddles if they don't forsake traditional singing for the unintelligible guttural growling introduced by Napalm Death and Obituary. Even one as musical as Mary Zimmer feels compelled to vocalize about a third of the time in what has come to be known, to the metal community's understandable chagrin, as the Cookie Monster style, after the perpetually ravenous Sesame Street character.
Forget that such vocalizing has no pitch; metal isn't exactly the music Hoagy Carmichael fans naturally gravitated to after the great melodist's passing. At least as perplexing is that it renders the vocalist unintelligible. "Empire Bargain Basement," by the Green Bay/Madison band Erebus (as in the son of Chaos, the embodiment of primordial darkness, natch), is about America's ruthless exploitation of the Third World. By lending money to poor countries, lyricist Dave Frazer asserts, we are turning them into indentured servants; they use the money we've lent them to build their economies, only to be compelled to sell us the products they manufacture so cheap that they wind up worse off than they started.
All very thoughtful and provocative. The problem being that, as Erebus performs it at the Annex in December, a couple of acts before Ottoman Empire comes on, the song sounds like a videogame ogre growling to the accompaniment of a planeful of pots and pans crashing into a cheese-grater factory. KER-RANG! You can't understand a syllable.
Same thing with Madison's Dissent and Revolt. Miller, the one who almost has a degree in creative writing (and who, in the right light, can make you think, "Oh, so this is what Garry Shandling would look like with waist-length dreadlocks!"), believes his song "Adore the Tulpas" to be something highly unusual in metal, a love song to spiritual energy, positiveness among all the darkness - a tulpa, in Tibetan mysticism, being thought made flesh. And what does it sound like? A guy on PCP running bellowing through a million angry wasps while opposing armies fire weapons of mass destruction at each other.
You can't understand a syllable.
It may very well be that the uninitiated simply aren't supposed to get it. A true believer can hear nuances in the Cookie Monstering that make unmistakable which of the music's nearly countless subgenres is at hand. A nonbeliever may, while recognizing that major chops are required to play this stuff, find it impossible to imagine why anyone would want to. But that suits the metal community just fine.
Not that there is such a thing as a monolithic metal community. A power metal band - that is, one that features "clean" (non-Cookie Monster) singing and melody - is almost certain to vex fans of grindcore, for instance. Ottoman Empire, who think of what they play as progressive thrash, and who can evoke Boston (of "More Than a Feeling" fame) as vividly as Slayer (of "Reign in Blood" fame), have had to suffer the sarcastic air-guitaring of no few death metal fans.
One is pleased to discover that, just as most of the key true believers in Madison-area metal are bright and affable, most listen not only to Napalm Death, Carcass, Obituary, Cradle of Filth, Venom and others equally felicitously named, but to, well, secular music too. Aaron Miller admires the Doors and Syd Barrett, Regina Spektor and Fiona Apple. Ottomans bass player Jacob Bare doesn't care who knows of his affection for Depeche Mode, and Dissent and Revolt's Greg de Roussan, perhaps the most thoughtful 20-year-old in Dane County, acknowledges that the more metal he listens to, the less he likes metal - because of what he refers to as the just-add-water sameness of so much of the music. One may find further comfort in the knowledge that Mary Zimmer, whose extremely conservative parents have found her fans acceptably behaved in spite of their scary tattoos, avidly owns Erasure records.
Metal and punk may converge with great regularity on the basis of the rage they have in common, but where punk has traditionally believed that rage is all, the typical Madison metal band seems to believe that fury is most effectively expressed with twin bass drums impersonating the heartbeats of hummingbirds, with the guitarist evoking "Flight of the Bumblebee," with the bass player somehow keeping pace with the guitarists, and with everyone forever stopping on a dime, and then going from a dead stop to Mach 1 speed over the course of two bars. One may not like frantically overarranged music, but there's no denying that it takes considerable dexterity to play it. In its obsession with technique, is metal really that different from bluegrass, which shares its reverence for the idea of a great many notes played very quickly?
For every Wisconsin metal band like Misery Signals that actually earns a living (they've performed as far afield as Sydney and Tokyo), innumerable others count themselves lucky to be able to put enough gas in their vans' tanks to get to the next gig - there, as often as not, to play for fewer people than Christina Aguilera has dressing-room flower-arrangers.
By all accounts Madison itself, especially since flames consumed key venue O'Cayz Corral in 2001, isn't very big at all on metal, preferring indie rock and hippie jam bands. It isn't, as Ottoman emperor Brian Koenig glumly notes, like the Twin Cities, whose residents seem to seek out live music much more avidly - and to buy a lot more merchandise. Local kids buy metal CDs but don't go to shows, especially ones they can't go to because they're under 21.
Once in a while the Klinic will be packed, but if the same bands that packed it try to return in triumph three weeks later, they shouldn't be surprised to find themselves playing to their girlfriends and a few dudes from rival bands. Dissent and Revolt have found that they actually prefer such far-flung outposts as Sheboygan and Green Bay, where there are rentable VFW halls and skate parks in which a band can play to all ages. The less there actually is to do in a particular place, the more appreciative the local kids when a band drives up from The Big City.
The Ottoman Empire has done its best the past couple of years to be perceived as a regional, rather than local, band, driving like mad on Friday afternoons to Cleveland, say, or Omaha, playing up to a dozen shows a month in municipalities 15 or fewer hours away (so those with corporate jobs can be back at their accursed desks on Monday morning). They're signed with a management company in Cleveland, and hope that one of the bigger metal labels will sign them. In a world in which there are no guarantees, they don't know whether to quit their jobs (and relinquish their health insurance) to devote themselves full time to trying for The Big Time.
With luck, their new managers won't try to capitalize in the wrong way on Ottoman Empire being that very rare bird - a woman-fronted metal band. Mary Zimmer acknowledges that it's possible to not be sexy enough - as in the case of Nightwish's Tarja Turunen, who wears pantsuits - but would hate for anyone to think of her as bearing the slightest kinship to In This Moment's Maria Brink, whom she thinks as talentless as she is hot.
Is it corny, in its own way, when the four non-drumming Ottomans headbang in unison? Of course it is. Exactly as corny - and as cute - as when Paul McCartney and George Harrison, 45 years ago, at the end of the chorus of "She Loves You," shook their mop-tops in unison.
Hail, you know, Satan.