Metal and melody in perfect harmony

Major labels tune in song-driven rockers

Hard rock has rediscovered a secret weapon that it had forgotten to put in its arsenal: good old-fashioned melody.

The heavier side of pop music has been through hyped fads and hybrids for nearly a decade, as the major labels have attempted to twist metal with funk, rap, industrial rhythms and even techno.

While some of these fusions have been successful, there’s a current slate of baby bands playing hard rock the way it used to be done — with melody, big guitars, a commanding front man with a solid voice and the occasional well-placed scream.

“The marketplace is more about straight-ahead rock bands — pure American metal that has always existed but is now a niche,” says Scott Greer, VP of worldwide marketing for Sony Music’s Epic Records.

“Nu metal (the overly aggressive version of hard rock) needs to redefine itself as something that’s not contrived.”

Summertime is often hard rock’s season — the package tours are on the road, superstars of the genre are playing stadiums, and new bands can open shows for vet acts. It’s also the time when the hard rock/heavy metal audience — males 16-25 — has free time and a few bucks to spend on entertainment.

On this year’s traveling Ozzfest, Warners act Disturbed, a straight-up hard rock/heavy metal band that takes some cues from Judas Priest and Soundgarden, appears to have the brightest future of any of the mainstage acts.

The band’s sophomore album “Believe” has sold more than 1.2 million copies. Fellow Ozzfest band Chevelle has sold 874,000 units of its Epic debut “Wonder What’s Next” in 11 months.

“Rock is returning to a place where it’s universal,” notes Cyndee Maxwell, who tracks rock radio airplay for Radio and Records. “It’s moving across several formats, showing up in advertising and getting back into film and television.”

Epic is among the labels making an early move in this direction, pinning high hopes for Revis and Vendetta Red.

Sale of Revis’s “Places for Breathing” rose the week ending July 6 to 7,500 after steadily selling about 6,000 copies per week; it’s cume is 52,000. While those are OK numbers, the first single, “Caught in the Rain,” has reached top 10 at rock and top 20 alternative radio airplay.

Having toured with Pearl Jam, they’ll be on the Nintendo-sponsored tour featuring Evanescence beginning in early August, which should help push the album toward the 100,000 mark.

Vendetta Red sold 10,600 units in its first week and 6,500 in round two.

Lava Records’ Smile Empty Soul, which toured with Trapt while their “Bottom of a Bottle” was getting strong play at alternative rock radio, is selling 5,000-6,000 copies per week and it, too, saw sales increase — up to 6,4000 — the week ending July 6.

Meanwhile, Arista is positioning the second album from Adema as a more straight-ahead effort. And Geffen is banking on S.T.U.N. (Scream Toward the Uprising of Non-Conformity), which is playing the Vans Warped Tour in the wake of the June 24 release of its debut, “Evolution of Energy.”

All the acts arrive with reputations for captivating live shows.

“With Smile Empty Soul, we could tell the band was real because of the way the kids responded,” says Andy Karp, Lava’s A&R exec who signed the Santa Clarita, Calif., band. “They treated the guys like rock stars before they were rock stars. And being on tour with Trapt was exactly the right audience. It’s important to keep bands on the road who can convert people into fans.”

The thoughts of Karp, who sees an acceptance that didn’t exist before in radio for these new metal acts, are echoed throughout the hard rock community.

Vendetta Red, which emerged from the New York hardcore scene, has done 200 shows since being signed more than 18 months ago and has been to the U.K. five times.

Unlike pop, rap and R&B acts, which need strong sales upon release to be classified as hits, all genres of rock need time to develop. It can sometimes be the third or fourth single from an album that makes a record a hit or generates enough buzz to warrant recording a follow-up album.

Execs from several labels agree that with budget constraints being what they are, the best-spent money in hard rock, punk and heavy metal is — again with the old-fashioned idea — establishing the acts in concert.

Bands that play well onstage, they reason, earn respect.

And when the A&R execs who sign these young bands rattle off established acts by way of comparison — U2, Fugazi, Coldplay, Radiohead, the Clash, Jane’s Addiction — it’s clear labels want to associate themselves with acts that that have the potential to earn respect.

Nobody seems to be looking for the next Motley Crue.

More than respect, though, the majors are still hunting for a band that can sell hard rock the way Creed does for the indie label Wind-up. And indie acts, more so than a decade ago, are ready for their close-ups.

“Over the past couple of years,” says Pete Giberga, senior director, A&R, Epic, “independent labels have developed acts because it was so difficult to get on a major label. They started their own scene and labels, and five or six of them have thrived. The result is a diverse assortment of acts, an increased fan base, and because the majors have not stepped in, people have not been overexposed.

“You can go to a festival and see 60 bands that are selling up to 50,000 records on their own.”

Before signing one, though, he adds, “you have to ask, ‘Can they sell a million?’ ”

A second option is to fit onto a soundtrack.

The STP-GNR supergroup Velvet Revolver has one track on “The Hulk” soundtrack, “Set Me Free,” and after being the most-added song at rock radio in its first week of release, it has settled into heavy rotation. Similarly, the Nickelback/Kid Rock collaboration on Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” — from “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” — has been showing strong across the board at rock radio.

The album of “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” due July 22 on Hollywood Records, will boast an unreleased Saliva track, a Filter tune and a Paul Oakenfold remix of P.O.D.’s “Satellite.” Roadrunner Records will release on Aug. 5 an all-hard rock soundtrack to “Freddy Vs. Jason”; Slipknot, Sepultura and Type O Negative are among the acts featured.

More than anything, film execs love melody.

“It’s necessary to have efficient, melodic music,” says Kathy Nelson, president of film music for Universal Music and Universal Pictures who brought “Set Me Free” to the “Hulk” filmmakers.

“You don’t play the song very long — 20 seconds, 30 seconds — it can be the memorable hook or background noise. If I’m spending the money on recording or clearance, I want people to make the connection” and be able to identify the act.

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