Every year, at its annual HFStival, the Washington-Baltimore area modern rock station WHFS offers what program director Robert Benjamin describes as "a snapshot of what's big with alternative rock." And every year, a certain number of bands on the bill ring no bells whatsoever with pop-oriented music fans.
But the lineup for tomorrow's HFStival will seem stranger than ever to those whose only frame of reference is the Top 40. Granted, there are some bands on the bill almost any rock fan will know. Stone Temple Pilots, for example, have been radio staples since 1993, when "Plush" established the group as a more pop-friendly exponent of Pearl Jam's grunge approach. Likewise, Third Eye Blind became familiar to both radio listeners and MTViewers after "Semi Charmed Life" became one of the biggest rock hits of 1997.
As for Rage Against the Machine, which is headlining the show, Benjamin doesn't exaggerate when he describes the group as "the greatest live band in the world." Rage pretty much stole the show at last year's Woodstock festival and has been playing to packed houses across the country, despite the fact that its current album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," has yet to produce anything even remotely resembling a hit single.
But the rest of the HFStival lineup will leave mainstream pop fans scratching their heads in bewilderment. Godsmack? Slipknot? Cypress Hill? Staind? The Deftones? Filter? Nine Days? Kittie?
Who are these guys?
Some, such as Nine Days and the Deftones, are buzz bands on the verge of breaking big -- acts whose names may not mean anything now but who in nine months likely will be MTV favorites. Nine Days' "Absolutely (Story of a Girl)" is already in the Top-10 of Billboard's Modern Rock chart, while Deftones fans are already champing at the bit for the band's new album, "White Pony" -- even though it isn't due in stores until early June.
Catching bands just before they break big is something of an HFStival tradition, Benjamin says. "I was just looking at a list of everybody who's played this [festival] since 1991, and what they have in common is that every year there are a lot of bands that are breaking right at that moment," he says. Among those who played the show before becoming big hits are Luscious Jackson, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Third Eye Blind, who made their HFStival debut on the second stage in '97.
But some of the seemingly "unknown" acts on this year's bill are actually well-established -- even if their names mean nothing to mainstream pop fans. Godsmack, for instance, has sold more than 2 million copies of its self-titled debut, and Slipknot's self-titled debut has been platinum for months, while Staind's first album, "Dysfunction," has spent almost a year on the Billboard album charts.
Clearly, these are bands with big followings. So how come they haven't crossed the average pop fan's radar?
Frankly, it's because the music these acts make is too loud and aggressive for mainstream media. It isn't just that the singers rage and the guitars roar; there's also a fair amount of profanity and unpleasant ideas in their tunes. Even the song titles -- "Eyeless," "Knife Party," "Time Bomb," "Cancer," "Prosthetics" -- seem off-putting.
Although their music wouldn't quite count as metal, it's definitely too heavy for the Top 40, or even MTV much of the time. As such, the only people who know these bands are those who have seen them in concert.
Nonetheless, these bands have obviously struck a chord with the alternative music fans that make up the WHFS audience. As in the past, the concert sold out in the blink of an eye, with some 90,000 tickets going in just 47 minutes. Not bad for a bunch of bands that seem to spit in the eye of "pop" music.
Then again, that may be part of the appeal, says Brad Tolinski, the editor of Guitar World magazine. As he sees it, these bands speak to those young fans who are not particularly enamored of the squeaky clean teen pop of Backstreet Boys and their ilk.
"Just as the teeny-bop girls are becoming a real power in the marketplace, it shouldn't be surprising that young boys would become a big power in the marketplace as well," he says. "And the one thing that always appeals to young guys is heavy music. I think the male equivalent of the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and Britney Spears is probably Korn, Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine. It's almost as simple as that."
Almost, but not quite.
There's another factor at work, Tolinski says: "We seem to be in party mode. Times are good, and I think people are gravitating toward party music."
Most sounds previously associated with alternative music -- the introspective mopery of grunge, for instance, or the self-conscious seriousness of bands such as Radio-head or R.E.M. -- don't quite fit this party hearty way of life. "It's all about the moshing and the power of the sound," Tolinski says. "This is party music in the sense that you can dance to it. You can groove to it."
Of course, the rise of heavy-sounding bands such as Godsmack and Slipknot doesn't mean that alternative music as we knew it is dead. Rather, says WHFS' Benjamin, it's just continuing to mutate. "The music changes a little bit, but I think the spirit is always the same," he says.
When: Tomorrow, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Where: FedEx Field, Landover
Tickets: Sold out