In a jean vest with no shirt and bright red wrestling shoes, Valient Himself—the fearless, bearded and wild-eyed leader of Chapel Hill-via-Venus hard rock maniacs Valient Thorr—races to the supermarket on an emergency beer run. His main concern is the legion of parched, patient friends and fans (called "Thorriors") who've come out to a Chapel Hill farmhouse on a Thursday afternoon. The band is making its video for "Double Crossed," the first single from its fifth and latest album, Stranger.
"Double Crossed" is Valient Thorr—guitarists Eidan and Sadat Thorr, bassist Dr. Professor Nitewolf Strangees, drummer Lucian Thorr and, of course, Valient Himself—very much in their element. A punky but metal-proficient political manifesto chant-along, "Double Crossed" takes aim at the crooked money men and scheisty investors responsible for our economic ruins. The complaint, though, comes in fun, spy movie-treasonous terms.
The video is "a tribute to a lot of old music videos," meaning the on-the-fly, goofball videos of MTV in its youthful, sincere days. On the way back to the shoot, cases of beer rattling in the backseat, Himself explains that the video is meant to invoke the silly anarchy of Twisted Sister and a rather obscure 1984 movie, The Wild Life. "It's a fuckin' terrible movie, but it's got a really awesome scene where they break down a wall." For this prattling, philosophizing frontman, the fuckin' terrible part matters much more than the really awesome part.
Himself makes a sharp turn into the driveway. There are twice as many cars as when he left a few minutes ago. "This is awesome," he exclaims. Cases of beer cradled under both arms, he returns to a backyard of bandmates and excited extras—metalheads, hardcore kids, a dude in a homemade loincloth and a couple of guys dressed as glammy mall punks. In the video, they play an insufferably lame band. Valient Thorr kills them.
Though it was formed in Chapel Hill in 2001, Valient Thorr traces its own origins back to the planet Venus. With a worldview that falls somewhere between the rousing, call-to-arms shout-rock of the MC5 and the utopian space philosophy of Sun Ra, the group's 2003 debut, Stranded On Earth, was a self-released, strangely danceable party-rock record, filled with spoken-word rants detailing the group's mythology: They crashed on Earth "many, many years ago" and chose to stick around and help all us foible-filled, violence-prone earthlings get our shit together.
Constant, borderline-obsessive touring and pentecostal live performances built the group's reputation. Their second album, Total Universe Man, arrived in 2005 on Volcom Entertainment. For Total Universe Man, their first proper album in most respects, the band retained the spoken-word but cosmological rambles but dropped the oddball dance rhythms, puffing their sound into the Maiden-heavy, punk-leavened, math rock-touched bombast that still defines them. For 2007's Legend of the World, the expansion continued, moving the motivational speaker songwriting to the side for sci-fi-tinged political songs. Legend of the World, for instance, begins with "Exit Strategy" and features pointed references to the "war on terror" and a "Texas man."
"We find significance in art [that] stays relevant," Himself explained about an hour before that epic beer run, "and to stay relevant I think you have to stay current. I think you have to know what's going on."
Their most furious album, 2008's Immortalizer, did just that. "Tomorrow Police" was an apocalyptic, AC/DC-esque anti-authority anthem full of government spies, curfews and flying Segways out to get you. There's a great moment where Himself—usually a gritty, comic-book poetic lyricist—completely eschews rhyme scheme and structure to drive home the song's point: "They said, the jails were overcrowded/ So they started killin' dudes on the spot!" Valient Thorr had moved from preaching higher Venusian values to an involved, maniacal, political act, transcending their closed-circuit, world-building tendencies for visceral explosions of anger and insight. It's like the band resigned itself to being stuck here on Earth and decided it might as well start commenting on this stuff directly. It was now their home, too.
Like all of Valient Thorr's music, their fifth LP, Stranger, is political, but this time around, it tells "one viable story," Himself admits. He's hesitant to dissect the whole thing, but he mentions Iraq War veterans returning to a terrible economy, the smart-dumb post-'Nam flick First Blood and the ever-widening gap between "the super, super, über rich" and the lower class. "People who came home and felt strange in their own land," he finally delivers with confidence, "that's sorta what this is about."
Indeed, Stranger has a nomadic, doesn't-fit-anywhere, John Rambo feeling. It's full of wonky concepts, like the horror movie take on PTSD, "Night Terrors" or the plastic surgery doomsday visions of "Future Humans." And it ventures into places where it isn't necessarily welcome, with the acoustic outro on "Woman in the Woods" or the breakup song "Habituary." It's less metal than Immortalizer, as sprawling and bat-shit crazy as Stranded on Earth and more focused than any of their previous work.
Himself cites The Wire as a point of comparison for this raucous, often goofy but ultimately dead-serious political statement, and though that may seem strange, it is apt. Like that show, which approached "the system" piece by piece, Stranger introduces a plethora of voices and scenes of America in 2010 and sends them through Valient Himself's comic book-collecting, sci-fi-loving worldview.
A sense of collaboration more engrained than on previous albums helped broaden that worldview. "All the dudes wrote lyrics. All the dudes are singing," Himself exclaims, growing more excited and a bit shocked at the record they developed. Thematically too, they discussed how Stranger may be interpreted by listeners. "We tried to think about what people would think about when they listened."
In an attempt to "create a dialogue" and avoid easy answers, they shifted songs' approaches to complicate their narrative. This is best exemplified in a trilogy of songs that directly address wealth, corporations and responsibility. "Gillionaire" (a title that may or may not be a Final Fantasy reference) dresses down the soul-crushing materialism that's led to the recession. In a throaty yelp, Himself asks, "What do you got when you got it all?" and then answers with "Nothing!" Several songs later, on "Double Crossed," this Gillionaire character cheats the American people. Then there's "Vision Quest," wherein the double-crossing Gillionaire (both songs are lyrically name-checked by Himself to underline the obvious conceptual ties) gets double-crossed and realizes he's a pawn, too. So he gets existential and goes off on some '70s movie road trip to find himself. It's a strange albeit crucial twist to the narrative, suggesting a sliver of understanding for even the most loathsome of characters.
Despite that small dash of sympathy for the Gillionaire, Stranger is a pulpy, trippy tour across our troubled country, casting the listener in the wandering Stranger role, with each song presenting another absurd and depressing sight to experience. But it isn't necessarily the bummer political record its thematics might suggest. Valient Thorr's imaginative music is inspiring. It's go-for-broke hard rock that's willing to get political on its own blue-collar yet interstellar terms.