"Metal was getting heavier and heavier again. I had this idea..." How Metalocalypse finally brought heavy metal back to the TV screen

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Back in the 1980s, metal was recognisable enough to be the subject of all manner of comic ribbing. Spinal Tap and Bad News lovingly spoofed the genre with a level of detail that metal fans appreciated, but were broad enough to appeal to people who would rather saw off their own ears than listen to Iron Maiden or Motörhead. At the turn of the decade we had Bill & Ted, while the 90s gave us Wayne’s World and Beavis And Butt-Head. But as metal drifted further away from the centre of the cultural mainstream, representation of the scene – funny or otherwise – became scarce. Enter writer, comedian and metal fan Brendon Small, who would go on to co-create Metalocalypse, the cult animated show that put metal back on the map, TV-wise, in the 2000s.

“I was inspired by Spinal Tap, Bad News and Beavis And Butt-Head”, Brendon tells Hammer. "But then it just felt like it changed. We didn’t even see [MTV’s] Headbangers Ball on television anymore, it was a worrying time. Guitars were getting less heavy and they even started taking solos away! Can you imagine?! I didn't know why that audience wasn't getting served anymore."

Brendon had graduated from Boston's Berklee College Of Music in 1997 while also taking a series of comedy courses at the college's sister campus, Emerson. After feeling disconnected from the metal scene during his time at college, he came out of his self-imposed musical exile and discovered a whole new school of bands. 

"I started going to gigs again, to Arch Enemy and Cannibal Corpse," he says. "it was post-9/11 and it was a weird time. But I could just see that metal was getting heavier and heavier again. I had this idea to combine everything I loved."

As the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal came to prominence, the sound and sound of classic, brutal metal was back in vogue, and, once again, ripe for parody. This led Brandon and co-creator Tommy Blacha to come up with Metalocalypse, a show centred around fictional death metal band Dethklok - a band who were like The Beatles, only, "a thousand times more dangerous and a billion times more stupid."

"we had seen the humour of the old rock band on their last legs, so we knew we had to go the other way," says Brendon. "Make them just unbelievably popular, the seventh largest economy on the planet, make it so that entire countries could collapse if they don't release their new album."

The show premiered in August 2006 on Adult Swim, the grown-up spinoff of Cartoon Network. It soon became essential viewing for metal fans and musicians alike, putting metal back in the culture mix in the 2000s.

"It was obvious that we loved metal and were celebrating it," says Brendon of the show's success. "You don't dive so deep into it if you don't love it. I think people could tell that it came from a place of pure adoration."

“The amount of times I’ve been at a show and someone in a band has come up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe you got us so right!’” he continues. “The truth is none of the characters were based specifically on anyone. Apart from [vocalist] Nathan Explosion – he was the combination of Conan The Barbarian and [Cannibal Corpse frontman] George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher.”

The show’s popularity led to a stream of real-life metal musicians and actors voicing characters on the show, something that Brendon remains proud of.

“There was a day when Corpsegrinder and Mark Hamill recorded at the same time,” recalls Brendon. “The guy from Cannibal Corpse and Luke Skywalker! That was something.”

Brendon himself played and created much of the music for Dethklok as he wanted to get brutal metal spot-on, a situation he describes as “terrifying”. When he launched a real-life Dethklok tour in 2007, he enlisted a bunch of top-tier musicians to back him up, including ex-Steve Vai bassist Bryan Beller, former Frank Zappa/current Devin Townsend guitarist Mike Keneally, and, most impressively, Death/Strapping Young Lad/Testament drum legend Gene Hoglan.

“I had a great band,” he nods. “We needed one to legitimise it. People loved it, because we were so brutal, but we were funny too, and I don’t think they knew you could be both. Gene was incredible, he’s one of the best drummers of all time, it was an honour.”

It was during those dates that Brendon saw the fans Metalocalypse had first-hand.

“I’d go outside to look at the line before a show,” he tells us. “You’d see people in Slayer shirts next to people in South Park shirts. That was our audience to a tee.”

Dethklok released three studio albums of original material between 2007 and 2012. Metalocalypse itself was cancelled the following year, after four seasons and one special. Today, Brandon still isn’t sure why it was canned.

“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Brendon says. “It’s like when a girl just stops calling and you don’t know if you’ve broken up or not. But listen, I’d ticked so much off my bucket list: I’ve worked with Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell; toured with Mastodon; had King Diamond, Dave Grohl, James Hetfield, Steve Vai on my show... I couldn’t be bitter.”

Except the story isn’t over. Metalocalypse is being rebooted for another generation with the release of a new full-length movie, Metalocalypse: Army Of The Doomstar and a fourth Dethklok album, Dethalbum IV. According to Brendon, this brings the Dethklok story to an end.

“I’ve tied this particular knot up, but I do have other ideas,” he says, intriguingly.

As for the legacy of Metalocalypse, it’s a simple one in Brendon’s mind.

“Not everyone has a cool brother or a cool neighbour that can turn them on to cool music,” he says. “We were that gateway into heavy music for so many. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses, invading your home with brutal music! If that’s the legacy, I’m so grateful for it. We proved that audience that wasn’t being served did exist."

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.