Revisiting The War Of Art by American Head Charge

Cast your mind back to 2002. In the world of heavy, guitar-based music, the freaks were in charge. Nu-metal’s rise had thrust the alternative forward and made it mainstream.

By the early ’00s we were left with some baggy jeans, a surplus of hair gel and black nail polish, and a glut of third-generation, bottom-feeder bands trying to grab a fast buck before the genre fizzled out.

By then, bands had become weird for the sake of it. Dope looked great on a poster but sounded terrible on record. Pure Rubbish at least gave you warning with their name. Mushroomhead got themselves press by claiming Slipknot stole their idea.

Or, like Dry Kill Logic, they were just straight-up crap.

The thing is, though, as easy as it is to look back at these bands now and scoff, back then I lapped them up. I was 16 for 50 of 2002’s 52 weeks; weird was what I wanted.

However, contrary little shit that I was, I wanted different weirdos to everyone else. That’s where American Head Charge came in.

Even in a scene where being freakish was expected, Head Charge stood out. Aesthetically and on record they pushed the envelope (pun intended) more than their contemporaries, and I loved them.

I missed most of their set supporting Slipknot in February 2002 because, ironically, I was stood outside flyering for them, unaware that the advertised running order had changed. I made up for it a few months later by catching an incendiary performance at that summer’s Ozzfest one-dayer at Castle Donington.

By then, I knew their then most recent album, The War Of Art, front-to-back. 17 years later, my lust for the strange has calmed, but Head Charge’s major label debut still remains a firm favourite.

While I only discovered it in 2002, The War Of Art had actually been released at the end of August the previous year. Signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label off the back of a recommendation from System Of A Down bassist Shavo Odadjian, Head Charge did their time at the infamous Houdini Mansion in LA and the result was this album.

Critically, it drew plenty of acclaim. Allmusic labelled the group “one of the most intelligent, interesting and compelling metal bands to surface”. Metal Observer praised its power and intensity. Kerrang! gave it four Ks. Heck, even the NME gave it a seal of approval.

But the terrorist attacks of September 11th did to The War Of Art what it did to many other metal albums of the time: buried it and turned it into a cult classic, hence the reaction of most people in 2019 when you mention the name American Head Charge.

“Oh, I remember them. They had that pretty good album,” they parp before wrongly calling it The Art Of War, pondering briefly whatever happened to that band and then looking elsewhere for another scrap of nostalgia.

That’s always bugged me. From the first time I heard this album, I’ve always felt it was on another level. It was unique, timeless, interesting and, simply, bloody brilliant. And, it was nothing like what their peers were up to.

Sure, American Head Charge looked like a nu-metal band. But you’d struggle to say they sounded like one.

Revisiting it in 2019 I don’t think I’d change a single part of that description. Its quality still shines through. In many ways, it sounds more at home today than it did at the time.

Obviously, they’d struggle to get away with putting out a 16-track (yes, 16!) album as a major label debut these days, but trying to find fat to trim from The War Of Art’s 68-minute run-time is a tricky task. ‘Effigy 23’ and ‘Fall’ could probably be lost without any tears being shed, but that’s about it.

At the core of this album is a smorgasbord of elements that, mixed together, gave this band its identity: chainsaw, industrial guitars riffing in tandem with pounding drums, offset with weird samples and electronics and capped with a rip-roaring vocal performance from Cameron Heacock – or Martin Cock as he was known then – that was full of aggression, hooks and melody.

Chances are you’ll remember this album’s big hit ‘Just So You Know’, a song that encompasses everything great about this band, all the riffs, aggression, hooks, electronics and nods to something more progressive.

Yet it’s far from the best song on this record. ‘Pushing The Envelope’, ‘Reach And Touch’ and ‘All Wrapped Up’ are just as vital now as they were 18 years ago, while the cherry on top of the cake is ‘Seamless’, a disgusting and brilliant anthem for the ages capped off with its sampled robot stuttering out the word ‘machine’ – like ‘Mantra’, only 17 years before Bring Me the Horizon got there.

There’s an argument to be made for this album having far more influence than you might give it credit for. Fans of Code Orange’s glitching electronics will have a field day with this record, and if The Defiled try to claim they aren’t huge fans of Head Charge then they are downright liars.

There’s so much variety to enjoy here too. The way this band rides the marching rhythm of ‘Song For The Suspect’ is fist-poundingly joyous, the breakdown of ‘Never Get Caught’ relentless. The piano-laden closer of ‘Nothing Gets Nothing’ underlines the scope, ambition and talent behind this album.

Sadly, it was ambition that was never fully realised. Instead, the story of American Head Charge post-2002 is one of unfulfilled potential and missed opportunities, drink, drugs and death.

In 2005, they returned with The Feeding – another wholly excellent record – only to be derailed by the death of their guitarist Bryan Ottoson that same year. Can’t Stop The Machine, a DVD/CD combo, followed in 2007, before they disbanded in 2009 placing the blame on Heacock’s lack of input to the creative process.

They surfaced again on the live circuit in 2011, released an EP the following year and unleashed another cracking album, Tango Umbrella, in 2016.

Founding bassist Chad Hanks passed away in November 2017 after being diagnosed with a terminal illness and, at the time of writing, the biggest recent story involving the band is Heacock’s arrest for having a bunch of stolen guitars in his car.

But, don’t let any of that put you off The War Of Art or put it in a box of half-decent, mildly interesting turn of the millennium albums. This record was and continues to be an absolute gem.

Few bands looked so of their time and yet sounded so ahead of it as American Head Charge on The War Of Art. Revisiting it has reminded me that some of those early ’00s freaks did have some substance to back up their style.

American Head Charge certainly had it. They used it to create a classic.

The War Of Art came out on American Recordings in 2001.

Dave Musson on InstagramDave Musson on Twitter
Dave Musson
Editor