One way to gauge anything's prominence in pop culture is if there's been a cartoon made about it.
That means metal is again part of America's cultural weave, at least for males 18-35, thanks to "Metalocalypse," Adult Swim's series about the dysfunctional and ultraviolent exploits of impossibly popular death-metal band Dethklok. Call it tongue-ripped-away-from-cheek humor, with the series currently approaching the end of its second season.
But there's another level of cultural saturation: the transfer from the animated world to reality. It's reminiscent of Disneyland or "'Finding Nemo' on Ice" - only Dethklok doesn't do frozen ponds or theme parks. It's a band, so it plays concerts.
"I wanted it to feel like a big stupid ride, like a big Universal Studios kind of a ride," said "Metalocalypse" co-creator Brendon Small, who not only writes most of the series' dialogue but pens most of the fictional band's music; he even voices three of its five members. "I wanted it to be somewhat interactive with the audience; just enough story to hang your hat on it, and be a lot of visual fun."
Small reaches for that goal through several methods. The accomplished guitarist (he's a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music) and three other top-flight metal musicians - including drummer Gene Hoglan (Death, Strapping Young Lad) - perform in front of a screen that depicts Dethklok. Animated skits between songs keep the audience rapt while the human band hydrates, tunes and gears up for the next onslaught.
"If you've never been to a metal show before, whether or not you like metal, go to one," said Small, a self-professed music geek who counts Paul McCartney and the Shins as favorite acts. "There's a tangible energy in the room, and it's kind of a frightening energy, where anything could happen. It really has this cool dangerous feel about it.
"Metal shows seem dangerous, but to me more dangerous shows are, like, a Jimmy Buffett concert, when some drunk looks at his girlfriend wrong and ends up punching her teeth out. ...The second you walk into a metal show, it's kind of like you're in the club. You bought your ticket, you're supporting the bands, and therefore you're all right."
After a short test tour of colleges last fall, the live Dethklok experience has morphed into a cultural and almost familial event this go-round, with consistent sellouts and a notable chunk of nonmetal fans in attendance. Because the cartoon is really about the dynamics of an abnormal and detached family unit - much like "Family Guy" or "The Simpsons," just more graphic and, well, metal - it's brought heavy music to people who wouldn't have normally given a whit.
But even so, without metal's recent surge in popularity, there would have been no "Metalocalypse," Small said.
"That's the only reason 'Metalocalypse' exists: because of how inspired I was about what's going on in metal now," he said. "Statistically, metal is the fastest-growing genre of music. It just took a little nap in America for a decade or so."