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Poetry in Deadly Motion: A Conversation with Brendon Small of Dethklok

As "Dethalbum IV" and "Army Of The Doomstar" make their rounds across the world, we sit down with the mind behind Metalocalypse to dive into each work's creation.

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Photograph by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

Text by Luis (@HeaviestOfArt), Photographs by Ekaterina Gorbacheva ( at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium on April 21, 2o24:

The Mutilation On A Spring Night Tour — a momentous display of masterful musicianship and audiovisual immersion — came to an end earlier this month after bringing Nekrogoblikon, DragonForce, and Dethklok to North American stages keen for a tantalizing experience. At the forefront of it all was a Dethklok spearheading anthems from across the virtual band's discography all the while a comprehensive mix of film, lighting direction, and stage effects enraptured the many in attendance. For founder Brendon Small, it was as intended — a full circle moment that allowed him the opportunity to recreate a pivotal moment capable of influencing. Though the enthusiasm would suggest that a majority of those present were familiar with the Metalocalypse series and the Dethklok discography entirely, those who weren't were faced with a collision of towering death metal sound and cinematography that does more than excite at present moment, but encourages a deeper engagement. That's very much by design, and with Dethklok still high off the heels of releasing Dethalbum IV (2023) and Army Of The Doomstar (2023), we sat down with Brendon to expand on it all.

The conversation, which took place just prior to the band's April 21st performance at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium, spanned all ends of Brendon's creative spectrum from working with Arthur Tang and Antonio Canobbio on cover illustration to the significance of effective compositing and intentional color selection. As you read through, enjoy an array of photographs shot through a cinematic anamorphic lens by our own Ekaterina Gorbacheva during the band's performance that night.


Brendon, I'm glad we can check in before tonight's show and expand a bit more on this tour and "Dethalbum IV", which is of course the driving force behind your contemporary creative cycle. When you're putting an album or film together, you're in a certain mindset, centered on drafting a new audiovisual Dethklok narrative that becomes something else entirely upon presenting it on a live stage. Is there a sense of detachment or catharsis maybe upon seeing this happen? Metalocalypse is comprehensive and requires a great deal of investment to make it the full-fledged project that it is.

Brendon Small: Interesting question. When I'm in the mindset of writing an album, more specifically a Dethklok album, I don't really consider myself writing. I like to think that Dethklok's writing it and they're telling me what to do. There are songs that are funny, there are songs that are focused on world building, and there are songs that are connected to the movie. My job is to make sure that we can put these songs up on their feet. It's always going to be a different process from one project to the next because we have to take all these studio overdubs, all these fun, glossy things that we throw onto tracks, and try to make them all work in a practical situation. Not only that, there's a whole visual addendum as well.

The tour is called "Mutilation On A Spring Night", which is a reference to the song "Mutilation On A Saturday Night", which to me is a song about breaking out of the pandemic in one way or another. It's about causing chaos and destruction and fucking everything up — the core of what heavy metal is about. It's about blowing off as much steam as you possibly can and getting outside of yourself. It's about being around people and just exercising the right to be chaotic in a fun live experience kind of way, so getting to put that up on its feet is a really fun one. Other songs on the new record, like "Aortic Desecration" and "SOS", are kind of derivative from the movie, so we have a place to start with that creatively.

In order for this all to work, at least to my own standards and the standards of the people that work with me in making the show and the movie, I need all of it to stand on its own. I need for the music to be able to stand on its own. Even if you don't know the show or anything, I want you to enjoy it. The same goes for the live experience. Even if you don't know the show or the music, our plan is to entertain you as hard as we possibly can. I want to make it feel like you're at an amusement park ride, like at Universal Studios where there are so many different elements working together to make it immersive. If I can create something with that same appeal, if I could put a band at the center of say Space Mountain, then it would be a really cool experience that you'd probably remember and be hypnotized by. It's all about the audience and and putting them through the experience.

Absolutely, and immersion is truly where Dethklok excels. You and the rest of the band essentially play a live soundtrack in the shadows of the film above, which hits audiences from all angles. Given that Dethklok is not a band in the traditional sense, is it freeing to operate with no predetermined expectations other than that of your own creative ambitions?

I'll tell you something. In terms of creativity and depth, I don't think I can conform or stop evolving. I think it's a band's job to kind of keep their DNA and keep mutating along with time and space, keep on shape shifting to accommodate whatever is modern at the time while maintaining integrity. By that I mean accommodating to modern production techniques, modern kinds of moments in songs. With Dethklok, I feel like I've always needed to keep up with what was happening in modern metals. If you listen to the first record, "The Dethalbum" (2007), you can hear that it has influences from other modern metal bands. "Dethalbum IV" is no different, so I wanted to keep that alive. I couldn't stop it from being what it needed to be because it happened naturally. When I was working on it, I couldn't help but realize that it sounded so much like Dethklok while also sounding like an evolution of Dethklok at the same time. Whatever it is, I can't put the brakes on it. It's just taking over and I'm not going to stop it at this point.

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Anamorphic Shot by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

When I think about the records I listened to growing up, and even now, they evoked my musical and visual imagination. Songs that I would listen to from King Diamond to Guitar Hero songs, like "Surfing With The Alien" by Joe Satriani, were so important to me because every single one of those songs really sound like a story, a whole landscape. Even when there's no vocals, just music, there's a story to be told. When I listen to classical music, I get that same kind of feeling. Different composers imagine landscapes and emotional centers that drive their poetry. I'm thinking about that stuff all the time while not actually trying not to think about it and just letting it happen. It happens subconsciously and it's a crazy balance because you're both forcing it to happen and trying to let it happen at the same time.

When we get on stage, I'm thinking about a lot of different elements to create that same feeling that inspired me so much. What is it between the band, between this video wall behind us, and between the lights of our lighting director that will bring this to life? What accentuating moments and accentuating color palettes are we adding here? What haze, smoke, and fog are we adding to the surroundings to complement the element of us just being shadows on stage? I think of us as the generators of the music, not the actual band but more of a pit band on stage with Dethklok themselves. What makes this whole thing feel so exciting is the synergy between picture and sound, every downbeat coinciding with a cut, or every crazy drum part being visually programmed and edited to a video part. I think I strayed pretty far from the question, so I'm sorry.

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Anamorphic Shot by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

No apologies needed whatsoever. You actually expanded on the enthusiasm that drives this all greatly, and it's the perfect segue into a following point that I'd like to discuss regarding the band's visual identity. How would you describe the collaborative process of working with Arthur Tang? "Dethalbum IV" is of course not the first time you work with Arthur seeing as he did the "Army Of The Doomstar" poster and more, but it's obvious you both have a strong mutual understanding.

Yeah, Arthur ran it home while Antonio Canobbio, who worked on every record cover, helped sculpt out the concept. All we needed was a strong concept and from there, we had the permission to start going crazy. For this particular concept, we had an idea related to the movie in many ways, this idea being the worst possible outcome for the characters in the movie. To me, the concept was Metalocalypse being deadly sick, everything is bleak, everything is awful, everything got fucked up, so here's a shrine to our fallen heroes. We wanted to portray the death of Dethklok, just have them in sculpt formation and consider it to be the "big finish". If you zoom in closely, you can see there's an altar there with dead bodies everywhere. It's totally gruesome, but it's also grandiose and magnificent and evil. Arthur captured that perfectly.

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Cover Artwork by Antonio Canobbio

Arthur Tang is probably one of the most irritatingly talented people I've ever worked with, and I've worked with really, really talented people, especially in the art field. Arthur is a virtuoso. He's not only great at understanding color, he understands architecture backgrounds and the beauty of natural and organic elements, like trees, skies, and rock formations. He's also just really great with character drawings and beautiful, gorgeous kind of renderings of characters, too. Having him be a part of this movie and its poster, and this album cover, was an honor.

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"Army Of The Doomstar" (2023) Poster Artwork by Arthur Tang

If you look at the picture of the star, it's a big stained glass kind of prophecy. All the information about the movie is in there and you will only really realize until after the movie is over that we told you the whole story in this stained glass kind of prophecy. Arthur did that ceiling. When we were talking about the poster and the album and got to the point of discussing color, he would just surprise me every single time. How can we incorporate colors that represent the band and push it to the degree of color use that the movie was pushing into? All those elements coalesced strongly. I mean, it's the greatest thing about heavy metal. Every band has gotten really good at becoming their own marketer. With everything from Slayer to King Diamond, there's this wonderful kind of macabre sensation that you feel by looking at a record and listening to it at the same time. The color palette and look of the record really needs to coincide with the experience of listening to it. I don't know if it's synesthesia where you kind of experience colors, but I do remember the album cover when I'm listening to music. I can't help but see the Silver Surfer when I'm talking about Joe Satriani. Going back to King Diamond, I immediately see those violet, purple, and blue hues from "Them". I always like being intentional and creative about our color use, so for "Dethalbum IV", Arthur and I agreed upon the green kind of gloomy atmosphere. It felt evil, you know?

Some people write off color palette as a marketing thing element, but I agree that it does play a significant role, even if subconsciously in the eyes (and ears) of the audience. Certain colors have certain connotations. They evoke emotions and particular themes within the record. The Black Dahlia Murder is intentional about centering each album around a color in that same way.

Definitely, and like with Black Dahlia, I'd say it even goes a little bit deeper for us. The conversations we had with Arthur revolved around asking ourselves: What is the color palette story? Where do we start and where do we finish? What does each color represent to us? That green color represents the ultimate evil in our lore, so that's why it's there, to evoke the most ultimate evil that we can evoke. That's what the thought process was. There's a timeline throughout the film of colors just shifting from the very beginning to the end. We start with a stark and bleak kind of autumn world and it keeps on changing to become more vibrant and organic while getting darker and more fucked up at the same time. It gets to be more evil and more grotesque through a mixture of dreamy and nightmarish colors that support each sequence.

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Anamorphic Shot by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

It's those elements that sometimes go unnoticed, but to the engaged viewer, it reflects the strong investment that gets placed into every sequence of the film, and the album of course. It's all intersectional, and like Gorillaz, you're in a league of your own when it comes to world building through an intertwining of animation, music, and narrative. Where is the common ground between everything found? Everything stands on its own, but also comes together quite well.

It all really intersects in the compositing part when we take our background, our characters in the foreground, the actual atmospheres, and we kind of glue them all together. Bryan (Wieder), the Compositing Supervisor, has got a really great sense of color and he and I would sit there and just move our color wheel back and forth to try and zero in on something that works for the both of us. It's in this part of the process that we take the colors that we do have and and see how much we can make them come alive. It's where we start adding all these really great elements, like live elements that we get from shooting live activities and getting familiar with different lenses, such as anamorphic lenses.

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Anamorphic Shot by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

It's about using space well and trying to really set up shots, which you realize is so much easier in live action. What I'm trying to do here is recreate the prompts that got me to go and get live action shots. That's what the movie was, and that's what the album cover is to. There are certain simple elements that I tried to make sure are always there alongside the more complex elements, and compositing really helps bring it all together. On top of compositing, we have color correction where we get to accentuate and stray from making something totally monochromatic by adding in extra elements of color that showcase the colors that we do have and can contradict them in some ways. That's an important part.

This all comes from being a kid and seeing something like "The Empire Strikes Back" with its John Williams score, seeing Cloud City and Hoth for the first time. It comes from seeing the swamp environments and Dagobah, hearing that gorgeous score and being transported without having to listen to it on headphones or whatever. It's one of the most gorgeous dreams you've ever seen and for me, it's one of the most beautiful movies of all time. Movies like that or like "Flash Gordon" with Queen's music that use cloud tank effects in the background are amazing to look. They have skies that are glowing and beautiful with its vivid clouds. We use that exact same technique in animation. We actually did this live action ink tank kind of experiment for the clouds in "Army Of The Doomstar". Movies like "Fantasia" where you have classical music and gorgeous animation coming together are also great inspiration here. The "Heavy Metal" movie is a great example with its violence, nudity, and Black Sabbath soundtrack, which is pretty badass. All this kind of stuff is where I came from as a kid, just enjoying being hypnotized by these amazing bodies of work. That's where I'm trying to go back to with Metalocalypse. Can I make someone else feel the way that I felt when I saw this stuff? Is there any way that's possible? That's the idea.

You achieve that in your own unique way, I'd say. Dethklok has lasted as long as it has, with the level of engagement it has because of how you've been able to breathe new life into this living, breathing body of work. It's funny you mention working with anamorphic lenses, which coincidentally, we plan on using to shoot your show in Riverside.

About that, I didn't know Kate (Gorbacheva) until not long ago that we met at a separate event at Musicians Institute. We started talking about anamorphic lenses there and she mentioned that she would be shooting the show using one, which I thought was perfect. Anamorphic lenses add another kind of layer of gorgeousness on top of everything else. The wonderful kind of imperfections of an anamorphic lens really make something more exciting because right now, even in digital photography, I see movies where every single shot is perfectly lit and everything's perfectly in focus. You're looking at it in like 8K quality in the movie theater. Again, this is too clear, this is too perfect, There's nothing interesting about a clean, well lit shot. I love the imperfections. My favorite films and photography is about asking the viewer a question and the viewer leaning in and looking for the answer. I apply that same idea to our live show. I strive for that engagement and I really hope that comes across throughout this tour.


Dethalbum IV and Army Of The Doomstar are available now (Listen/View). Dive through an anamorphic photo gallery from the band's performance in Riverside below.

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Cover Artwork by Arthur Tang and Antonio Canobbio

Dethklok Photo Gallery


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