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Over the Labor Day weekend,while a healthy segment of the local nightlife population was busy at Burning Man, practicing hedonism and learning how to keep desert sand out of orifices, a festival of a different stripe slouched into San Francisco. An epic extravaganza of underground metal sounds from here and abroad, "Three Days of Darkness" presented some 20 bands and delivered more doom than a psychotic Pentecostal preacher on a weeklong crack bender.
Though the festival definitely lived up to its own billing (a "vomitorium of rock from the dark side"), "Three Days of Darkness" managed to include one small concession to more mainstream hard rock tastes. Tucked away in the second slot of the opening Friday night show at the Elbo Room, the San Francisco-based quartet Dirty Power didn't come armed with the massive amplification or punishing, Sabbath-at-16-rpms drone that most of the bands dealt out that evening. Instead, the group unleashed a ferocious set that unabashedly spotlighted the dueling lead guitars, anthemic choruses, and cowbell-banging backbeats of a bygone era.
Legs splayed apart in a rock power stance, frontman Patrick (aka Patrock) Goodwin sang in a gruff growl punctuated by wails that would have done Deep Purple's resident air-raid siren, Ian Gillan, proud. Goodwin and fellow guitarist Steve Perrone tag-teamed riffs and shared intricate, harmonized licks, all while bassist Nick Ulman and drummer Jeff Potts pushed the tracks forward with relentless rhythmic fury.
It wouldn't have been unusual for the underground metal audience to have turned up its collective nose at a band so rooted in traditional hard rock. But the gargantuan hooks and balls-out power of the band drew the crowd in, inducing the involuntary head-bobbing and fist-pumping that classic AC/DC and Judas Priest songs can inspire, if jacked to the proper volume. After Dirty Power wrapped its set, the subsequent down-tuned doom acts couldn't help but come off as a bit monochromatic.
John Cobbett, the founder of the long-running metal club Lucifer's Hammer and a principal member of ambitious conceptual headbangers Hammers of Misfortune and the black metal band Ludicra, affirmed the strength of Dirty Power: "A lot of the hard rock bands that are drawing at clubs these days are these really fucking pathetic tribute bands, which I think is a totally sad comment not only on the state of music but our entire fucking culture these days ...
"Dirty Power isn't reinventing the wheel; what they're doing is really straight-ahead hard rock. But it works because they're totally unaffected and they write great songs. They do it right and draw from all the best influences, without ripping off any one band too much.
"Punk pretty much killed the idea of using dynamics and melody beyond what you can do with a barre chord. Making the kind of hard rock that was made in the '70s is really a dying art, and Dirty Power is doing its part to keep that alive."
Winning over the attendees at "Three Days of Darkness" might not have been such a stretch for Dirty Power. There are, after all, only a few degrees of heaviness separating the dynamic, '70s-style songwriting of the band and the sludgy, riff-mongering appropriations of your average doom metallers.
Still, the positive reception raised the question: What could Dirty Power do, opening for the hard rock warhorses who periodically pass through the Bay Area? If given a chance to preach to the truly converted graybeard Hessians who make the trek from the suburban reaches of Concord and Pittsburg to see Blue Oyster Cult or Dio, could the group come across as giants who had stepped through a portal from an alternative universe where their songs were played twice an hour on AOR radio stations across the country?
In an era when recycled no-wave, new wave, and dance-punk have emerged as dominant forces in the musical landscape, discussion of classic metal and a hard rock resurrection might seem pointless. Why talk about a style of music built on defunct or aging bands, an aging fan base, and a radio format that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur?
Well, if our ears and airwaves can be subjected to a whole new generation of moping, whining rockers who sport asymmetrical haircuts and skinny ties, there is no particular reason that the goat-horn-rocking sound of balls-out, riff-heavy mayhem shouldn't rise again.
Entering into a conversation about classic metal/hard rock with a fan of the style will likely produce a very subjective and highly personal take on what defines a great band or what the best albums are. But most headbangers would probably agree that the true beginnings of metal are planted in the release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album in 1970.
One could, of course, point to the heavy blues workouts of Cream or Led Zeppelin, the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix, or even the acid-damaged power-trio squall of San Francisco's Blue Cheer as Sabbath predecessors. No one, however, can deny that the ominous vibe and oppressive atmosphere achieved on songs like "Black Sabbath" and "Wicked World" was new to the world of rock music.