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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Jon Mueller

Deconstructs Metal

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Heavy metal, despite its commercial success, remains a highly misunderstood, frequently maligned genre.Often, too much attention is paid to vocal or guitar histrionics, while the rhythm section goes unnoticed or underappreciated. Yet if you closely examine some of metal’s greats—Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Slayer, to name but a few—you’ll begin to realize that it is the drumming that propels these bands. Whether it is in the shape of Bill Ward’s manic originality, Clive Burr’s galloping time keeping, or Dave Lombardo’s brutal blast beat, it’s the drummers that separate the great from the good in the world of metal.

Having grown up a fan of the genre, Milwaukee-based drummer and percussionist Jon Mueller is intimately familiar with the visceral power of heavy metal. The title of his latest solo album, Metals, refers to his love for the style of music, and one hears the influence of some of metal’s greats throughout the record’s three cuts. This is perhaps most pronounced on the album’s standout track, “Homeostatic,” a 12-minute dose of pure energy that pummels the listener with wave after wave of percussive noise. Like all great metal, it literally overwhelms the senses, creating a feeling of disorientation that is equal parts exhilarating and disconcerting. Yet what makes Metals even more impressive is that Mueller is creating this racket by himself. There are no guitar solos, no high-voltage shrieks—only Mueller’s explosive drumming.

Despite the intensity of Mueller’s playing on Metals, the record never sounds excessive. Atmospheric opening track “Trace Essential,” which effectively sets the mood for the rest of the album, gets its force from its tension-building simplicity. There is an economy of sound here, one in which the bombast frequently associated with the genre is stripped down to its bare essentials. Mueller has successfully deconstructed heavy metal, showing that, at its core, the style of music, contrary to the imagery often associated with it, is actually quite life-affirming. To Mueller, heavy metal is not primarily about any sort of violence; instead, it is about the release of human emotion.

Such a conclusion allows Mueller to connect his playing on Metals with his other, perhaps more esoteric, projects—he plays in the local group Collections of Colonies of Bees and has collaborated with such avantgarde artists as Asmus Tietchens and Jeph Jerman. Much of Mueller’s catalog relies upon, as he notes, “finding the essence of frequencies and sounds, and then building these things up into extremes in some cases.

“I have a really strong history of listening to heavy metal, and the reasons why I liked this kind of music when I was young was because of these same kinds of ideas—the exhilaration, the intensity,” Mueller adds. “So I thought it might make sense to try to combine these two worlds somehow.” This strategy allows Mueller to create a sound that draws from the strengths of these two worlds, crafting a sound that is both forceful and thoughtful.

“It’s kind of its own thing,” Mueller says. “I didn’t know that it would work until I did it. I think it comes out in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone, and it doesn’t appeal to anyone specifically either.”

It is this ambiguity that is perhaps Metals’ greatest strength. In an era when musicians and fans alike feel a compulsive urge to place themselves in the most specialized subgenre, Mueller’s work reminds us that a certain sort of universality may lie beneath all such labels. Metals is a record that could appeal to metalheads, hardcore kids, noise aficionados and fans of experimental music, but this sense of inclusiveness does not come at the cost of originality—the album remains a challenging, innovative listen. Mueller, by tweaking the music he fell in love with as a young man, has hit upon a powerful premise: the liberating potential of common ground.

Metals can be purchased at www.jonmueller.net.