Revisiting Dave Grohl's "Probot"
Genre: Heavy Metal, Thrash Metal, Crossover
Release: Southern Lord Records, 2004
Tracks: 12 / Run Time: 52:51
One of the best metal records of the early 2000s came from a most unexpected source—former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters guitarist/vocalist Dave Grohl. When word of the Probot project first began to circulate within the metal underground, some headbangers were skeptical. After all, Nirvana spearheaded the grunge-rock movement that was blamed for the "death" of heavy metal in popular culture. Therefore it seemed inconceivable to many that a member of that band could even like metal, much less record an entire album of it!
However, Dave Grohl is an underground-rock nerd at heart, with a deep love for obnoxious music of all stripes. Prior to his stint in Nirvana, he'd spent years playing in various Washington, DC area punk and hardcore bands and was a massive fan of '80s thrash and heavy metal.
The seeds that became Probot were first planted in 1999, when the Foo Fighters released There Is Nothing Left To Lose, a softer, more melodic album than usual. Dave said that it's one of his favorite Foo Fighters albums, but it also gave him an itch to create something heavy again.
Starting strictly as a just-for-fun project, Dave began recording random guitar riffs and basic song arrangements in his home studio, inspired by the thrash, hardcore and crossover acts of his youth. He then began reaching out to some of his favorite vocalists from that golden era, inviting them to collaborate with him on the tracks. It took a few years of sending tapes back and forth, but in 2004 the beast was finally ready to be unleashed. In order to maintain the proper "underground" metal vibe that was so important to a project like this, the self-titled Probot album was not released by RCA Records, the major label home of the Foo Fighters, but via the tiny indie Southern Lord Records, home to black/death/doom noise mongers like Khanate, Goatsnake, and Thorr's Hammer. Reaction from the underground scene was nearly unanimous. Probot was a home run!
"Shake Your Blood" with Lemmy
With its mix of different vocalists and styles, Probot quickly invokes warm, fuzzy memories of early '80s metal compilation albums like the Metal Massacre series. The disc opens on an appropriately hellish note with the grinding "Centuries of Sin," snarled by Conrad "Cronos" Lant of Venom, who has clearly not lost his demonic touch. The thrash assault continues on "Red War," with Max Cavalera of Sepultura and Soulfly fame screaming out a religious and political screed that resembles a lost cut from Sep's Chaos A.D.
"Shake Your Blood," featuring Lemmy on vocals and bass, is probably the best-known Probot track, and it successfully captures Motörhead's classic heavy-boogie vibe. (Fun fact: the music video for this track featured Grohl, Lemmy, and guitarist Scott "Wino" Weinrich surrounded by scantily-clad women from the "Suicide Girls" web site. Grohl has called the video shoot "the best band I was ever in for one day.")
Things turn towards hardcore on "Access Babylon," with Mike Dean of Corrosion of Conformity (who easily taps back into his band's old Animosity-era vibe despite C.O.C.'s mid-career turn toward Southern rock) and the punchy "Silent Spring" (one of my favorite tracks on this CD), a tale of environmental devastation fronted by Kurt Brecht of crossover kings D.R.I. Lee Dorrian from doom lords Cathedral steps up to offer his grave-dirt voice on the grim "Ice Cold Man," which leads into Wino's soaring, spaced out highlight, "The Emerald Law" (fantastic guitar work on this song!).
"Big Sky" with Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost is the album's lone disappointment. His vocals are smothered in electronic effects which make him sound like a robotic Rob Zombie, and perhaps most disappointingly, he never favors us with one of his trademark "UNNNGH!" or "HEY-Y-Y!" death grunts!
Fortunately, things turn around quickly thanks to "Dictatosaurus," with Denis "Snake" Belanger of Canuck nutters VoiVod on vox, which could be a lost B-side from the Vod's Killing Technology. (Trivia: Belanger's bandmate/drummer Michel "Away" Langevin, an accomplished graphic designer who creates all of VoiVod's artwork, also provided Probot's creepy-cool album cover.)
The album closes out with a double-shot of sinister ministers. "My Tortured Soul" features Eric Wagner of the legendary Trouble on vocals and its slow groove recalls Trouble's doom epics Psalm 9 or The Skull. King Diamond caps things off with the properly spooky "Sweet Dreams," which hearkens back to the early Mercyful Fate works. Don't hit "stop" yet when King fades away, though, because after a few minutes of silence you'll discover a hidden track (remember when CDs used to have those?) called "I Am The Warlock," with none other than actor/musician Jack Black (!) on vocals, clearly indulging in his wildest Black Sabbath fantasies.
"Silent Spring" with Kurt Brecht of D.R.I.
Summing It Up
Probot was a rousing success when it was released in 2004, quickly becoming the biggest selling release in Southern Lord Records' history. More than fifteen years later, it still sounds great. If you grew up in the '80s listening to and worshipping everything on the Combat, Metal Blade, or Roadrunner Records stables, you NEED to own this record, even if you don't care for Dave's work with Nirvana or the Foo Fighters.
In my book, Mr. Grohl deserves major props for stepping out of his safe, corporate radio-rock cocoon for a little while and using his celebrity to shine some light on some deserving underground music heroes. In short, Probot is one of the best one-off "side project" albums ever made.
© 2020 Keith Abt