Not-So-Smooth Criminals: Alien Ant Farm
Kneecap-fracturing, pseudo-Satanic, Slipknot-esque anger-rock, this is not. Welcome, friends, to nu-metal. Once, long ago, metal bands staggered into your town to loot and pillage. Then something weird happened, and suddenly a whole bunch of geeks simultaneously discovered the powers of shredding guitars. Now we have groups like Alien Ant Farm, who neither scream their words nor smash their instruments, though they’re not above “spanking” their guitars to get a giggle from the fans. AAF greet their audience with an amiable, if calculated, “everybody have a-gud-day today?” and later concedes, “thanks fer digging the mellow stuff, guys— it’s our favorite stuff.” Their lyrics are tortured in a vague, expendable sort of way (“Collisions hurt and abrasions bleed / It’s hard to deal when all you do is feel”), and their lead singer finds inspiration not in Slayer, not in Black Sabbath, not even in Van Halen, but in…Edie Brickell (“it boggles my mind that she didn’t become megahuge,” Ant Dryden Mitchell recently told Rolling Stone).
This is hard music from soft people; dirty Rock for kids who want to horse around for a while and need some beats to which they might safely bounce and flail. What brownie points the Ants have received in their brief lifespan, they mostly owe to Michael Jackson. Perhaps you’ve recently heard the guys reap the fruits of the King’s labor in their chunky-guitar cover of “Smooth Criminal,” or seen the smart-ass video. It’s on MTV in the late afternoon, y’know, after school.
To be fair, the cover isn’t really all that bad. The band adds some interesting sneers to the original chorus of “whoos,” and heck, they even kept the falsetto. Moving to the rest of their catalogue, though, reveals a much-repeated combination of jittery rhythms and angsty vocals which express either whiny frustration or scrunch-faced resolve, and not much else. This is not the most innovative of musical styling. Nor does it provide the ears with endless fun. One need only listen to ANThology, the recent album that launched “Smooth Criminal” and the original single “Movies,” and know all one would ever need, or want, to know. (Except for the silly name, which deserves a quick explanation: Don’t worry, it’s just a stupid in-joke).
Fortunately, the Ants’ stage show does a decent job of keeping the audience distracted from the limited range and stunted quality of the actual songs. Singer Mitchell is the perfect spokesman for Geek Metal, looking to all the world like a nerd who played air guitar in grade school and somehow sprang to life under the lights. When he sings, he sways hunched-shouldered at the front of the stage like a child with a heavy backpack, letting words push their way forth from his poor twisted mouth. When he dances, he jerks his body back and forth with near-alarming abruptness, as if smacking his head between two invisible brick walls. All this is oddly charismatic. Bassist Tye Zamora and guitarist Terry Corso also provide some nice sight gags; Zamora’s overworked eyebrows and large-toothed triangular grin give him the look of a mischievous gnome, and Corso can go mighty quickly from looking Big and Dumb to spinning like a dervish around the little stage.
The personalities and antics of these three mobile musicians essentially carry the show, veritably providing all tangible elements of humor or rage that drape, satisfactorily enough, across the flimsy clothesline of the songs. The performers are full of energy, though where the energy is coming from is a bit unclear; not from the music itself, certainly, which early on blurs into a mush of pulsing sounds, none of which particularly complement each other. The entire show, consequently, feels literally out of sync. I knew we were done for when Mitchell started a little exercise routine right there on stage—“Everybody do jumping jacks! Calisthenics!”—during a song that wasn’t particularly upbeat. Still, responding eagerly to instructions, the twelve young men on the floor began to mosh happily.
The Ants have a couple of fun-enough tunes up their short sleeves. They have Michael Jackson in their back pocket, at least for a little while. And, decent guys that they are, they’re probably at less risk of self-destruction than their darker, more violent cousins in rock. What they don’t have is a very distinctive sound, or a very impressive show, or anything to indicate that better things are on the way.
It’s the rare fair-to-middling band that survives a jolt into the limelight. Will Alien Ant Farm be among the lucky ones? I’ve certainly been surprised before (Sugar Ray?), but with a name like Alien Ant Farm? Smells like Novelty to me.