Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Danko Jones — Live At Wacken [Blu-ray/CD review]

Released on January 29th

For an artist that’s built his reputation extensively on his band’s high-energy shows, Danko Jones has made fans wait an agonizingly long time for an official release that properly captures the Danko Jones live music experience visually. The 2012 DVD release Bring On The Mountain offered an excellent visual history of the band that included career-spanning live clips, but their quality varied and didn’t convey the true nature of a Danko Jones show. Now 20 years after forming, Toronto’s Jones, co-founding bassist John ‘JC’ Calabrese, and newest drummer Rich Knox (the latest in a long line of great players that Jones has had behind the kit) finally release Live At Wacken on Blu-ray and DVD, packaged with a companion CD. For the purpose of this review, I’ll be focussing on the Blu-ray content since the CD contains the same audio.

Live At Wacken documents Jones’ August 2015 set at Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival, the world’s largest metal festival. Wacken regularly sells out its tens of thousands of tickets a year in advance before the band lineups are even announced. Jones is clearly amped to be playing for the third time at the festival, with numerous appreciative acknowledgements to his participating bands and the sizeable crowd. The minimal stage production befits the no-frills style of Jones’ music, which is a hybrid of punk, metal, hard rock, and a touch of the blues. The concert is well-shot and the sound is excellent, but audiophiles may be miffed at the lack of surround sound options — there’s surprisingly just a lone “Stereo” option here, aside from the “Stereo” option paired with Jones’ commentary track on the extras.

The trio efficiently burns through 18 songs in just 70 minutes, with a slight emphasis on tracks from that year’s earlier Fire Music album (the cowbell-heavy “Do You Wanna Rock” works especially well). The rest of the setlist is comprised of a nice scattering of some of the band’s strongest material and welcome obscurities, including “Sugar Chocolate” (the first track on Jones’ debut EP release), Born A Lion bonus track “The Rules”, and more recent nugget “Sugar High”. Heavier songs like “The Twisting Knife”, “Invisible”, “Gonna Be A Fight Tonight”, “Had Enough”, and perennial set closer “Bring On The Mountain (Become The Mountain)” cement the band’s qualifications to be playing on the festival’s True Metal Stage. “Bring On The Mountain” never fails to disappoint — I do miss the days, though, where Jones would beat himself up during its performances (he had to stop in 2006 after detaching a retina from one too many self-slaps to the face). The one weak spot in their setlist is the boringly repetitive “Legs” (that word is repeated about 50 times during the song), although it always gets a good laugh when the singer redundantly explains at its conclusion that “It’s a song about women’s legs”. The set’s slim running time raises a couple of questions, such as why this package omitted the one other song played that day (“Active Volcanoes”) and why some of Jones’ always entertaining between-song banter was edited out, as he reveals on the Blu-ray’s commentary track.

Blu-ray extras: a 50 minute featurette of Jones’ spoken word performance from 2012’s Wacken festival proved to be a real chore to get through. The studiously dressed Jones, a KISS fanatic, presents a mock conspiracy theory that original KISS drummer Peter Criss died in 1978 and the band has since been covering it up and paying homage to Criss with subtle tributes in their album cover art and via backward messages on their recordings. The audience in the tented structure offer occasional laughs at Jones’ bizarre premise, but mostly they just look confused. Things get even weirder (which I didn’t think was possible) when the tongue-in-cheek presentation concludes with a loopy video featuring a cheeseball rendition of “Beth” by Jones in KISS makeup and costume. It’s all highly surreal, but not enough to really be entertaining. Other extras include a solid 20 minute post-show interview, plus a fascinating full-length show commentary from Jones. The unique commentary delivers great insight into topics such as what it’s like commanding a stage in front of an estimated crowd of 40,000 to 70,000 people, setlist choices, and the creative process behind certain songs. One of the most illuminating anecdotes revealed something I’d wondered about for years and never heard an explanation for — why all of Jones’ drummers use radically stripped-down kits without any rack toms, which is a real rarity in heavy music. The answer? It’s just a band signature that's consistent with Jones’ “simplicity ethos”.

Rating: B

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2013 review of Danko Jones' Rock And Roll Is Black And Blue album

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Megadeth — Dystopia [album review]

Released on January 22nd

Megadeth has always tackled dark subject matter in their songs, so a loosely structured concept album about a bleak dystopian future isn’t quite the creative leap that it might be for other bands. Hell, their very name is taken from a politician’s made-up word to describe nuclear annihilation (minus an “a”...for that metal touch). On new album Dystopia, Megadeth frontman/singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine delivers pretty much start-to-finish lyrical doom and gloom — “Fatal Illusion”, “Death From Within”, “Bullet To The Brain”, “Conquer Or Die”, “Lying In State”, and “Last Dying Wish” are just a few of the sunny titles conjured up for the group’s 15th studio album. That apocalyptic outlook was no doubt informed by Mustaine’s extremely cynical view of politicians (including crackpot birther beliefs and accusations that President Obama was behind the 2012 Colorado movie theatre mass shooting), as well as the particularly difficult 2014 that Megadeth experienced. That year saw Mustaine’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother-in-law go missing for weeks before being found dead, bassist Dave Ellefson’s brother passing away, a highly public dispute with an Australian concert promoter that lead to cancelled shows, drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick quitting the band within hours of each other, and more cancelled shows due to complications from Mustaine’s previous back surgery.

The revolving door of Megadeth musicians finds Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler and guitar whiz Kiko Loureiro (from Brazilian band Angra) as the newest members of the group. Who knows how long they’ll be able to weather Mustaine’s legendarily volatile personality. For now, however, they prove to be a great addition to the mix, based on Dystopia’s highly impressive results. Loureiro and Mustaine work very efficiently off each other trading shredding guitar leads, as does the Ellefson/Adler rhythm section. Burners like “Lying In State”, “The Threat Is Real”, and “Fatal Illusion” (featuring a fantastically nimble solo bass line from Ellefson) are Megadeth at their thrashiest best. The title track, “Death From Within”, “Bullet To The Brain”, and “Post American World” dial down the tempos (which tend to change more than a few times in many of Dystopia’s songs) without sacrificing much heaviness. “Look Who’s Talking” and “Last Dying Wish” provide a brief respite from Mustaine’s love-it-or-hate-it singing voice with equally sneering spoken lyrics à la So Far, So Good...So What!’s “In My Darkest Hour” and Countdown To Extinction’s “Sweating Bullets”. The ambitious six minute “Poisonous Shadows” instills a symphonic element that was no doubt inspired by Mustaine’s 2014 collaboration with the San Diego Symphony and also features a guitar intro that appears to be a reworking of Countdown To Extinction’s “Foreclosure Of A Dream” intro. Instrumental “Conquer Or Die” gives Loureiro an opportunity to show off his profound classical guitar skills before the rest of the band comes in, although Dystopia wouldn’t have been weakened if the track had been omitted. An inspired cover of hardcore punk band Fear’s “Foreign Policy” closes the album and serves as a bit of callback to Mustaine’s one-off side project MD.45, which he did with Fear frontman Lee Ving back in 1996.

The best line I’ve read about Dystopia was from a Boston Globe writer who came up with the clever “riffing is their business...and business is good” (a reference to Megadeth’s debut album title for the uninitiated). Is it ever. Their latest release is loaded with great headbanging riffs and an intensity that was sorely missing from their last release, 2013’s disappointing Super Collider. Unlike that album, Dystopia completely jettisons aspirations of radio play and amps up the aggressiveness and anger that suits MegaDave and his cohorts exceedingly well this time around. The weakest component is the inconsistent narrative consisting of themes like solidarity among the downtrodden, failed states, authoritarian rule, American jingoism, and xenophobic paranoia (that inconsistency is further exemplified by a song like “Death From Within”, which is about Greek mythology’s Trojan War). Dystopia shines in spite of its thematic deficiencies, representing one of Megadeth’s best efforts since their 80s peak.

Rating: A-

Related Mediaboy Musings posts: my January 2010 review of Megadeth’s Endgame album and my February 2012 review of their Th1rt3en album