Saying a band has a gimmick can border on insulting. It implies the music isn’t the draw. Take away the masks, pyro, dildos, and makeup, there’s nothing worth noticing. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but at the same time, a band’s gimmick can be an honest extension of the performers. Something that enhances the show as well as draws in a crowd. To that end, here are ten bands (in no particular order) from various ends of the heavy rock spectrum and the gimmicks which help them stand out.
For many, Gwar would be an obvious choice, and at risk of heresy, though they should be celebrated in any history of gimmicks, I think one group rises above them. For all their success, Gwar always belonged to a niche. Their marvelous music never appealed far beyond the sideshow. However, costumed rockers Lordi did, a fact proven by them winning the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. Although their gimmick is clearly derived from Gwar and Kiss, Lordi commands respect for having gotten the majority of Europe to vote for their victory.
The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual affair where European nations compete for musical supremacy. Televised since 1956, winning this popular contest means more than mere bragging rights. That’s why it’s a noteworthy achievement for the Finnish metal band Lordi to have soared to triumph in 2006 with their song “Hard Rock Hallelujah.” The first win not only for a heavy metal act but Finland as well, Lordi rode their accomplishment to worldwide fame and fortune.
This band is a mind-bending mix of metal elements. To call them any one genre would be a terrible insult to the complexity of their music. It’s an amalgamation of multiple styles from black metal banshee vocals to electronic aspects alongside symphonic death metal. Furthermore, there’s a tongue in cheek quality to the band that borders on meta parody. Though all this could be considered gimmick enough already, the most significant catcher is clearly the presence of John Goblikon.
Whether on stage or the star of Nekrogoblikon’s many hilarious videos, John is as much a part of the band as Eddie of Iron Maiden fame. More than a mere mascot, John Goblikon provides a strangely accessible quality. His green skin, talons, and pointed ears may seem monstrous, but his portrayal is reminiscent of every awkward misfit who found a musical fold that embraces outcasts. If nothing else, not a lot of bands have mascots, let alone ones with their own YouTube talk show.
On paper, Bantha Rider is pure stoner doom. Their music is a heavy session of thunderous fuzzy instrumentals that feels like a speedier version of Sleep. However, they employ a gimmick that’s hard to pass up. Hailing from Poland, Bantha Rider derive album and song titles from the Star Wars universe.
In my case, that piqued curiosity enough to give the album Binary Sunset Massacre a chance. Amazing cover art by Krzysiek Lesiński sealed the deal, and from the first guitar crunch, the whole thing hooked me. While the content alone commands attention, there’s a certain curiosity as to how a song called “Rancor’s Delight” is going to sound. That said, every listener is going to conjure their own mental scene since there are no lyrics to influence thoughts. In other words, the Star Wars stuff may grab attention, but the music is what really holds it.
I got to see The Hamburglars live by accident. I happened to be in a bar—centuries ago, before the plague—and I saw several guys walking around all dressed as The Hamburglar. (That’s a character from old McDonald’s commercials who stole hamburgers. He wore a distinct outfit, the old prison striped uniform in addition to a slouch hat, mask, and a cape.) So, four Hamburglars got on stage and performed what can only be called punk rock. Yet, the lyrics kept confusing me until I realized, the lead singer not only dressed as the Hamburglar he used the robble, robble nonsense the infamous burger thief spoke.
Bands like Okilly Dokilly deserve praise for their Ned Flanders oriented hardcore, but their music doesn’t rise to the same genius as The Hamburglars. The latter not only found an eye-catching gimmick but opened a backdoor for lyrical content. Case in point, the video for “Damnburglar” featured above. Turning a corporate sales gimmick into a ridiculous rock display, well, it doesn’t get more punk than that.
When it comes to gimmicks it’s no surprise metal eventually evolved a pirate subgenre. Boozy outlaws sailing the high seas to cause chaos and party—welcome to the metal show. Although Alestorm didn’t invent this particular ploy—Running Wild owns that distinction—the Scottish band definitely gave the concept new life. More than mere pirate metal, the beauty of this band is an obvious playfulness. They take the music seriously, but not so much so there’s no room for merriment. As such, Alestorm utilizes their gimmick for laughs as well as headbanging tunes.
With all due respect to metal’s myriad forms of doom and gloom, pirate metal is fun. It may seem goofy, but it’s no more ridiculous than a grown man with goat horns claiming to be a demon. That gives Alestorm the freedom to be less than serious making them a wonderful addition to any party playlist. Not to mention, it’s possibly the easiest subgenre to explain.
Taking a page from the Spinal Tap playbook, there’s Brazil’s own Massacration. Around 2005 this group hit the metal scene with the release of Gates of Metal Fried Chicken of Death. However, their fictional origin has them forming in 1976. Rather than the conception of comedians, Massacration’s ten-minute mockumentary reveals veritable rock gods spawned from petty criminal origins who rose to Olympian heights of heavy metal excellence and renown.
The brainchild of Brazilian humorists Hermes & Renato, Massacration pokes fun at the clichés heavy metal is too well known for. Still, much like Spinal Tap, sarcasm seems to’ve sharpened their stylization. The musicians managed to produce some surprisingly quality songs like “Metal is the Law”. And as far as gimmicks go, making a mockumentary to sell a fake history deserves an A for effort.
Eat the Turnbuckle
The opening to this band’s video “Falls Count Anywhere” contains the quote, “You wanted the best, well, you’re getting the f**king worst.” I desperately need that quote as a tattoo, t-shirt, or carved into my bathroom mirror. Roaring out of Philadelphia, Eat the Turnbuckle may seem to some like no more than hardcore thrash peppered with a dash of death metal. Lyrics centered on wrestling themes set them apart from the pack, but stage antics move Eat the Turnbuckle into a whole other realm.
The band is notorious for performing violent acts on stage. They routinely demolish one another with an assortment of hardcore wrestling stunts. From breaking fluorescent lightbulbs on bandmates to binding them with barbed wire, these musicians literally put their blood into performances. This is the gory glory of a car wreck that sings about its own accident, something impossible to look away from. And name one other band that can be classified as sports entertainment rock and roll. It’s metal and a wrestling match all rolled into one.
Finnish group Hevisaurus rocks two gimmicks simultaneously. The first and most obvious is that their music is aimed at children. The second is that the performers are decked out in dino costumes. Metal is a hard enough genre to perform live without the added difficulty of being encumbered by full cosplay. Yet, guitarist Riffi Raffi still shreds, while Komppi Momppi stays in the pocket.
In 2010, their record Hirmuliskojen Yö (Night of the Dinosaurs) became the second highest selling album in Finland as well as earned the Finnish version of a Grammy. The success of the band on the whole led to a film in 2014, and I can personally attest to it being kind of adorable. If nothing else, Hevisaurus took a heavy genre and made it friendly without making it dull.
Japanese noise band Hanatarash is the offspring of Yamataka Eye. Noise as a musical style is gimmick enough, though I’m sure practitioners would prefer calling it art. The genre relies on unconventional instrumentation, distorted sounds that border on deafening white noise, and myriad other cacophonies most people wouldn’t regard as music. It’s an aural onslaught the antithesis of melody and harmony.
Not content with the avant-garde nature of noise, Hanatarash deployed extreme, for lack of a better term, performance art to kick their shows up a notch. Oddly enough, it’s hard to call their antics captivating. That’s because, as one example, the lead singer drove a backhoe on stage during a show. Most audiences won’t stick around when the venue is literally being demolished around them. However, it’s impossible to ever stop talking about it, especially if one happened to be there.
What began as a webcomic trve kvlt documentary blossomed into a genuine black metal band. Belzebubs initially stemmed from an Inktober sketch by creator J.P. Ahonen. Working out of Tampere, Finland, the freelance illustrator and comic book artist created Belzebubs, a mockumentary of sorts about a black metal family. The story is essentially a humorous take on the clichés of the heavy metal subgenre, combining them with genuinely relatable jokes and scenarios.
In 2019, however, the webcomic grew into a real band releasing their first album Pantheon of the Nightside Gods. Unlike other fictional bands, Belzebubs keeps the humor in their videos and comic. This is authentic face melting black metal, and while animated bands aren’t necessarily a new gimmick, Dethklok and the Gorillaz pioneered that path, Belzebubs is poised to take things to another tier. They currently have an IndieGogo to help complete production of a 360-degree hexperience. Essentially, a virtual concert featuring animated versions of the band superimposed over live musicians. If it works, it can only inspire further evolution.
The myriad ways performers have brought theatricality to heavy metal as well as other genres is vast. Frankly, genre in and of itself is a kind of gimmick. Still, no list could ever exhaust the number of sights to behold. So, if there’s anything you think belongs here, feel free to add it to the comments below.