As leader of Houston-area metal band Dead Horse in the late eighties and early nineties, Michael Haaga fed on the aggression and attitude that's typical of the genre, and continued in that vein through a stint with Superjoint Ritual with Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo. Then he did something unexpected. Most metal masters create increasingly self-indulgent, hackneyed, pointless songs as they grow older, but Haaga didn't. With The Plus And Minus Show
, he sheds his dark image. Rather than crafting dark, droning rock, he creates blustery pop songs that suggest classics by The Beach Boys and The Beatles, as reimagined by modern acts like The Shins and the Flaming Lips.
On "Looking Beyond", one of the The Plus and Minus Show's poppiest tracks, Haaga sings, "Stupid are the symptoms of all of us / hell is just a place that they conjured up / to scare you inside, to make you believe in it / God is just the moment before you're gone / heaven's just a place they conjured up / to secure you inside, make you believe in them / and war is just the reason behind it all." Jeez. Although metal's musical trappings are absent from these tracks, Haaga continues to focus on the genre's traditional subjects: God, the Devil, life and death. Wisely, he also pre-emptively silences the metalheads who might chide him for taking his music in such a radically different direction. In "If And When", he sings, "So put your heart into it / your life ain't through it... you gotta stop livin' in yesterday... do what all kids do / take a shot / follow your heart." Sure, it's simplistic, but it's tough to argue with the sentiment.
The Plus And Minus Show isn't all low-key material. On "Serious", the album's piano-based pseudo-ballad, Haaga sings about falling in love ("We drift like water / breathe like blood / say hello like snow / turning rain to laughter"). Then the song explodes in an all-out pop assault, complete with a screaming guitar solo -- enjoy it, metal fans! -- and melodic harmonies. It's an unexpected ending to an impressive song, and proves that Haaga hasn't lost his edge.
It's a pleasant surprise to hear a musician who refuses to be kept in a dusty museum case, tied to a stale genre. On "If And When", Haaga gets pensive: "I wonder what the world would think of my song." If it's as good as the material on The Plus And Minus Show, Michael, the world is gonna love it.