Mentally Disturbed

If metal is dead, or at least staggered by a sucking chest wound, somebody forgot to tell Dan Donegan and his Disturbed buds from Chicago.

Sure, there are signs that the genre, the boundaries of which have been stretched and torn over the past 20 years like no other, is due for more changes. The so-called pop metal or nü-metal collage is near or at its peak, following the major-label record companies' standard three-year-window-of-opportunity rule. It's destined to be tossed aside like so much useless grunge sometime later this year or perhaps in the first quarter of 2004.

That's because those same companies, which catered to the under-25 segment of the record-buying public until the ungrateful little pricks began burning their own discs and thumbing their noses at $17 CDs, have strapped themselves in for a full-throttle about-face. Now that the Big Five labels accidentally stumbled onto the fact that the over-35 crowd is scooping up CDs by the likes of Norah Jones and Coldplay in record numbers, age trumps youth. And even though many nü-metal bands include enhanced videos, hookups for free ring tones and even video games on their CDs to entice the kids, there's no chance that the rip-'n'-burn trend will magically dissipate. (If the labels were really smart, they'd include the phone number of that hot chick in math class…)

Little wonder that Donegan, guitarist and co-founder of Disturbed, says it's unfortunate that his band, which plays that heavier yet accessible brand of metal championed by the likes of Godsmack, often gets associated with the nü-metal crowd. He's as sick of that clique as the labels are of trying to sell CDs to them.

"I have a hard time respecting bands that can't write their own songs, or if they do, it's just like something else written last week," he says. "Our lyrics are there to make you think. And I really don't like to be lumped into that nü-metal category; I mean, we don't rap, use turntables or seven-string detuned guitars.

"It gets pretty obvious if we end up playing one of those radio-sponsored shows, like if we're on the bill with No Doubt or Incubus. We just don't fit together. We're that group of people with that slightly different upbringing that makes other people feel uncomfortable."

Certainly the images in the video for "Prayer" from Disturbed's latest album, Believe, made MTV censors squirm. Only viewers who pull in satellite specialty channels or subscribe to Canada's MuchMusic can see the video, which shows parts of a building in Los Angeles crumbling during an earthquake.

"It's an earthquake, and it's very clear that it's taking place in L.A.," Donegan says. "There's no airplane flying into a building, and it's not New York. We weren't going to change the video, so that was all there was to it. See what I mean? Everything in this business is still a battle for bands like us."

But at least Disturbed isn't fighting that battle with empty pockets anymore; its debut album, The Sickness, sold three million copies. And now its every move is plastered all over the guitar geek and metal magazines, like the December 2002 issue of Guitar World, in which Donegan and vocalist David Draiman are bound in chains and ropes under the watchful eye of a bodacious babe with a machine-gun belt where her Miss Boca Raton Wet T-shirt Contest banner used to be.

"Believe me, we appreciate everything that has happened for us. But we paid our dues," Donegan says.

He started chipping in on those dues while growing up in Chicago's south-side suburbs, where life imitated Wayne's World (and vice versa). There, Donegan, bassist Fuzz and drummer Mike Wengren played in several bands together with names that would change weekly.

"The big bars in the city pretty much had blacklisted metal bands," Donegan recalls. "The only groups that were allowed into that circuit were Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt and anybody else that was alt-rock. We weren't considered part of the clique."

At home, Donegan was thought to have no future. He spent all his free time playing his guitar and listening to Ozzy, Metallica and Zeppelin records, and a little later, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. He suffered the usual "don't play that thing so loud," "get a job" and "you better have a plan B, because you won't play music forever" sermons at home.

Donegan was more concerned with finding a singer who had his shit together. "We had gone through all our friends and neighbors, so we ran an ad in the paper, and screened the calls. David Draiman and I hit it off on the phone, and when he came down, he didn't want to just run through some covers. He told us to play our songs so he could just improvise something."

Nearly seven years later, Donegan and Draiman still pretty much follow that same pattern. As was the case with Sickness, when it came time to create the music for Believe, Donegan created the basic riffs, recorded some tracks with the band and gave it to the singer to, well, improvise over. It's not as easy as it may seem, considering the more intricate, faster-paced riffs on the new record, which also features helter-skelter time signatures to go along with the bass-drum jackhammers.

"David's getting pretty good at handling what I can throw at him. After being out on the road for two years, his range has expanded and he has better dynamics," Donegan says of Draiman, who has come quite a way from his signature monkey-boy noises on the first record. This time, he even has relevant things to say.

When the Scuds flew during the first Gulf war, Draiman, raised an Orthodox Jew in an über-strict upbringing, feared for his brother and other relatives living in Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and now Gulf War II, has only intensified his apprehensions.

In "Liberate," Draiman closes with something close to his heart: "Out of Zion shall come forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Nation shall not raise sword against nation, and they shall not learn war anymore, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Bet those major-label suits wish He would say something similar about the sin that is CD-burning.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr