Consumed by a desire to recapture its former glory, modern rock has started choking on its own sour hokum. Hip-hop and pop bury their stars

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Bile of Goods

Modern rockers rise aboveor sink belowtheir producers' machinations.

Consumed by a desire to recapture its former glory, modern rock has started choking on its own sour hokum. Hip-hop and pop bury their stars alive in a perpetual quest for the new, but if you wanna be a rock radio programmer, try taxidermy school. In response to the genre's obvious flaws (trite melodies and forced-grimace facades, to name two), bands and A&R departments continually counter with cosmetic cover-ups and embalmments in a failed attempt to rile audiences with a long-dead beast (cough rap-rock cough). A sample five o'clock rock block yields only one emotionfuryand it's a deadening one at that.

Somewhere along the line, modern rock started mistaking subtlety for weakness and waves of guitars and drum loops for palpable emotionapparently these dudes' pain is so deep that only 128 tracks will do. But nine times out of 10, it isn't the bands who make these assumptions. Modern rock has become as much a producers' medium as hip-hop or techno, and the style's oppressive, multitracked assault and hokey sheen can be traced directly to one man. Andy Wallace is mod-rock's Dr. Dre; his mixes have become rock's de facto status quo, from his work on Nirvana's Nevermind to more recent titles by Disturbed, Foo Fighters, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine, and System of a Down. This sound has been appropriated, with varied results, by a handful of other mod-rock production heavyweights: Howard Benson (Cold, P.O.D., Crazy Town), GGGarth (Trapt, Chevelle), Don Gilmore (Revis, Good Charlotte, Linkin Park), and Ross Robinson (Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot). Among them, these five men run nearly every major-label signing through the same ProTooled gauntlet. No wonder modern rock sounds so uniform.

TAKE TRAPT (Warner Bros.) the debut album from one of 2003's most successful bands. A quartet of ex-football players from Southern California, Trapt's huge, Jock Jams-destined single, "Headstrong," signifies hard but rings hollow. "Back off/I'll take you on/Headstrong/I'll take on anyone," deep-throated singer Chris Brown blusters; his delivery would be hilarious if it wasn't so god-awful. Elsewhere on the disc, Brown gargles, "You see right through me/I don't know who I am/ You're the only one who sees that" ("Made of Glass"). Oh, we see who you are, all right, Chris: You're the man behind one of the year's worst albums!

Not far behind is Places for Breathing (Epic), the debut album from Revis, a quintet of twentysomethings from Carbondale, Ill. Revis' first single, "Caught in the Rain," is an overblown aggro-anthem with layer upon layer of studio magic that still can't conceal a shoddy melody. Blame the latter on the band itself, who don't have much going for them talent- or songwritingwise. The former can be placed squarely on the shoulders of designated drivers Wallace and Gilmore, as usual. The disc's final pair of tracks, both minor-key power ballads reminiscent of Alice in Chains, are more promising. Then again, it's hard to fuck up something so derivative.

But sometimes I love a band in a uniform. Just as limitations in technology and resources turned some artists into innovators, rock radio's insatiable demand for hyperaggressive pop- metal that grades melodies into sparser and sharper shards mutated Chicago's Chevelle from a bleh indie actSteve Albini recorded their debut discinto something far more revelatory. Brothers Joe, Pete, and Sam Loeffler signed to Epic for their second album, the new Wonder What's Next. But something unexpected occurred: Now that the band is on a major label, they've actually become more adventurous. As a result, Chevelle resemble not their nu-metal brethren but Shudder to Think, a '90s Dischord band who also jumped to Epic.

"Send the Pain Below," Chevelle's current No. 1 Billboard single, approximates the sound of Shudder to Think's blindingly original 1994 album, Pony Express Record. Both bands share a disdain for familiar chord progressions, vocals heavy on melisma (that over-singing style that American Idol contestants love so much), and a near-total divorce between the vocal and instrumental melodies. For Shudder, this meant heady experimentation, but Chevelle tether the arty impulses to a poppy anchor: huge chords and lots of wailing. And holy shitit works! Only three cuts from Wonder What's Next go whole hog with the sound ("Send the Pain Below," "Closure," and "Forfeit"all great), but it's more than enough to set Chevelle apart from most mod-rock mediocrity.

ANOTHER OF THE chosen few is Jacksonville's Cold. Year of the Spider (Geffen), Cold's third album, is riff-rock with a new-wave tinge. "Rain Song" bites New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle," and a haunting synth hum underscores the standout "Suffocate." Frontman Scooter Ward's Vocodered vocals rule Spider, prowling "Cure My Tragedy (A Letter to God)" with a sinister, desperate howl, and leading the excellent, Nirvana-gone-industrial single "Stupid Girl." The disc's production is way too busy, as you'd expect. But most of the time, Cold's songs are strong enough to withstand the kitchen-sink approach.

Which, simply put, is what it'll take for modern rock to right itselfan emphasis on songwriting, not production. It's an obvious point, but just as indie rock ruts itself with an amateurish aesthetic, modern rock's dourness is similarly limiting. The bands who thrive in this settingDeftones, System of a Down, Linkin Park, Cold, Chevelletreat the genre's stilted venom as but one tool to work with. Nearly everyone else fails because they can't see past their suburban rageand worse, don't want to. But let's not worry about it too much: Those folks will be living with their folks again faster than you can say Candlebox.

Chevelle play Ozzfest at White River Amphitheater, Auburn, at 9 a.m. Sat., July 12, with Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, Disturbed, Marilyn Manson, Cradle of Filth, Voivod, and more. $49.50-$79.50 adv.

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