Saturday, November 22, 2014

Filmage: Descendents/ALL, all at once

Like all successful documentaries, Filmage is a work born out of both love and advocacy. In many ways, this is a straightforward rock doc dealing with two great American bands, Descendents and ALL, which you could, if you were so inclined, pigeonhole with the genre tag "punk." But in another sense, it's a probe into the strange, imbalanced symbiosis between these two bands, the way they're at once exactly the same entity and entirely different beasts.

If you don't know the basic facts, the saga is pretty simple. From roughly 1982 through 1987, Descendents, with a fluid lineup that always included drummer-mastermind Bill Stevenson, recorded several albums' worth of short, brilliant hardcore-meets-pure-pop, often driven by adolescent love/heartache but also at times bracingly bitter or audaciously silly. The musical spectrum was just as wide, ranging from timeless rock and roll to some sort of mutant DIY prog. The band's frontman, Milo Aukerman, wanted to pursue a career in biology, so he left the band several times, eventually on what seemed like a permanent basis. The remaining members kept right on going, changing their name to ALL (the name of the final early-era Descendents LP, as well as the band's insular, funny-serious belief system) recruiting a series of different singers, and touring incessantly and releasing new albums at a steady pace through the early aughts. At first, they performed the Descendents songs everyone wanted them to play, but eventually, they began focusing exclusively on ALL material.

Anyone who's seen Filmage, or paid attention to these bands over the years, knows the outcome of this story well. Basically, ALL never really "caught on" in the sense that the Descendents did. While Descendents were greeted with a hero's welcome when they returned in the mid-’90s with the stellar Everything Sucks LP, ALL just sort of hummed along, eventually finding themselves opening for forgettable Warped Tour bands on increasingly unfulfilling tours.

No need to be dramatic about it, but this imbalance is a shame. The ALL body of work is extraordinary, and together with the Descendents output, it forms one of the great American songbooks. The story is not complete without ALL: to my ears, the band's early work with Dave Smalley on vocals can come off a bit like a paler, blander Descendents, but once they brought Scott Reynolds on board around 1989, ALL become something truly distinct, equally as innovative as the band that spawned it. The emotions grew more mature and complex; the songs grew weirder and more outlandish; and the mix of songwriting personalities (at any given time, all four members of the group have contributed their own material) grew richer and more diverse. The arrival of the gorgeously grainy-voiced Chad Price on 1993's Breaking Things brought a more classic feel to the group; ALL began to sound more like a ferociously intense power-pop band than a group with hardcore roots. Later albums such as Mass Nerder and Problematic re-embraced "punk" aesthetics—shorter songs, speedier tempos—but combined them with hard-won, sometimes excruciatingly honest middle-age wisdom. The Descendents' output is timeless, magical, but it's only the first part of the story; you can't really understand these musicians' lifelong quest for what they call ALL—as I understand it, a quest for total honesty, total fun, total artistic incorruptibility, total friendship (basically, like, the precise reasons anyone should make any kind of art)—without, well, ALL.

Filmage asks us to consider this entire oeuvre as one thing, and for that—as well as for the fact that it's simply a very well-made and enjoyable chronicle of these incredible parallel careers, with the enigmatic and hugely endearing Bill Stevenson at the center—I salute everyone involved in the project. It deals with the whole Descendents vs. ALL question (and that rivalry is entirely a matter of audience reception, not a reflection of any internal dynamic) from every angle: We hear Milo discussing how frustrated he is that fans haven't embraced the ALL catalog with the fervor that they've greeted Descendents classics such as Milo Goes to College; we hear Dave Smalley talking about the impossible position he was thrust into, i.e., attempting to step into the shoes of a legendary frontman; we hear everyone from NOFX's Fat Mike to Descendents/ALL guitarist Stephen Egerton's own kids voicing their extreme preference for the Descendents over ALL; we hear Bill Stevenson not-defensively-but-maybe-a-little talking about how ALL's limited audience doesn't bother him in the slightest; and perhaps, most poignantly, we hear Scott Reynolds talking about attending a recent Descendents show and marveling at how the audience welcomed them as they would, say Van Halen. From a sympathetic insider perspective, he, Smalley and Price are such a key part of this story, but in the general view, they're mere footnotes.

So I thank Filmage for confronting this issue honestly, for unifying two hemispheres that never should've been separate in the first place. It all comes from one source, grows out of the brain and heart of this peculiar, ultra-driven genius Bill Stevenson. He did what we all dream of doing: visualizing our own personal ALL as an adolescent, realizing that vision and carrying it through our entire lives. This is a fountain-of-youth story, no question. You pick your passion, or it picks you, and you go all in with it, and it keeps you alive. Descendents persist, selling out enormous shows and headlining huge festivals; ALL persists, sometimes co-billing with Descendents or playing their own more modest headlining gigs. Everyone screams along to Descendents songs; a select group of ALL faithful screams along to ALL songs. It's not some sort of tragedy, this tale; it's just sort of, like, what happened. But, crucially, the reception didn't dictate the path; that is to say, ALL kept right on going, making incredible music, questing for ALL. The evidence is there, in the form of a meaty, wonder-filled discography; hopefully, Filmage sends us back in the direction we should always be headed, toward the music.

The ALL records I would recommend most highly are, in chronological order, Allroy's Revenge, Allroy Saves, Breaking Things and Mass Nerder. I treasure this music every bit as much as I treasure the Descendents' output. Here, off the top of my head, are ten of my favorite ALL songs:


Learn more about Filmage here. Here's the trailer: 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In praise of the big: Antemasque's stellar debut

Here, via Wondering Sound, are my thoughts on the new self-titled debut by Antemasque, one of my favorite records of 2014.

As a child of the ’90s, I grew up in a time of big, weird, bombastic, accessible rock music. Metal, alternative, rap-rock, what have you. The subgenre wasn't as important as the high level of quality and the unabashed polish of the presentation. I grew up loving records like Clutch's self-titled 1995 LP, Quicksand's Slip, Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire, Jawbox's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, Helmet's Betty. Big, splashy, major-label records made by innovative bands with (for the most part) what was then thought of as indie cred. To me, there was nothing more exciting than the mingling of idiosyncrasy and massiveness. These records sounded and felt huge. I cherished my Dischord and Touch and Go albums, too, of course, but I found the replayability of the albums above, and others like them, to be unusually high. I wanted them on all the time.

When I first heard the Mars Volta's De-Loused in the Comatorium, it struck me as the early-aughts version of the kind of record I'm talking about above. It was a huge record, with crystal-clear production and heart-punching hooks. But it was clearly also the product of a weird, personal, insular vision. I didn't know At the Drive-In's work well at the time, but in hindsight, De-Loused was very much aligned in spirit with a record like Slip or Betty—the work of kids with one foot in punk/hardcore and one foot in, for lack of a better term, Big Rock. Like Walter Schreifels or Page Hamilton or J. Robbins or the Clutch dudes, the Mars Volta's Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala wanted to retain their identity while expanding their scope and reach. It's a tricky balancing act, but when a band really pulls it off, the results can be magical and timeless. On De-Loused, the Mars Volta pulled it off. That record is a classic. Like several of the others listed above, it still sounds absolutely explosive and fresh to me today.

The Mars Volta's subsequent output didn't click with me in the same way. When I heard Frances the Mute, the follow-up to De-Loused, I was disappointed to find a more diffuse and, to my ears, pretentious presentation. The rock, the hugeness, the fun was more elusive; the tedious neoprog sprawl seemed to dominate. (I'm absolutely not disparaging prog or neoprog here; I'm just saying that I preferred the obviously proggish but much more immediate Mars Volta of De-Loused to the more self-consciously arty one of Frances.) I gradually lost track of a band that had once seemed to me like a great hope of smart, eccentric mainstream rock. I heard bits and pieces of the later Mars Volta records, but nothing that really drew me in.

Flash forward to this summer. Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala had reconciled after the Mars Volta's messy split, and they were teasing a new project. A few singles emerged, and they sounded good to me. I kept an eye out for the full album, and got ahold of it after the band posted it to Bandcamp momentarily. Antemasque hooked me instantly. I felt that rush of immediacy that I'd been looking for since De-Loused, since all those ’90s records I mentioned above. I knew very quickly that this was one of those huge records, a definitive statement by dudes with arty impulses but the good sense to streamline their output, to craft a record that you can just crank up and feel, really live with. Antemasque simply flows, and explodes, and kicks major amounts of ass. Like De-Loused—although Antemasque is a very different, more straightforwardly rock-oriented band than Mars Volta—this album is a blast.

While preparing for my write-up, I caught up on all the Mars Volta and At the Drive-In I didn't know. I found great tracks nestled everywhere in the discography, from the earliest ATDI ("Star Slight" and "Initiation," from their first LP, Acrobatic Tenement, blew my mind with their scrappy, passionate emo-ness) to the latest MV (I found myself gravitating to their final album, Noctourniquet—maybe the most un-rocking, un–De-Loused-like of their records).

I think Rodríguez-López and Cedric Bixler-Zavala are geniuses (especially when working together), and have been pretty much since they began collaborating. But making a truly great record is about more than genius. It's about crafting something that truly engages all the way through. Concision is one method. It's the one these artists have chosen on Antemasque, and it works beautifully. I saw Antemasque live the other night, and the show was everything I hoped it would be—fun, concise (Rodríguez-López's spellbinding guitar-heroics and Bixler-Zavala's magnetic stage presence—these two really are our generation's Page/Plant—saved a couple fairly lengthy jams from tedium), energetic as hell. It was about the songs, and this band has a lot of great ones.

I'm not going to refer objectively to a return to form, because that implies that mid-to-late period Mars Volta was somehow a mistake. Clearly the band didn't think it was, so in a sense, it wasn't. But to this listener, Antemasque does represent the point at which I jump back on the bandwagon. I'm all in with these guys again, and it feels wonderful. I hope they keep making more massive, molten masterpieces like Antemasque. Let's hear it for the big.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Blood so real: Samhain live / Danzig devotion

For me, Samhain was always the weird, shadowy middle chapter of the Glenn Danzig saga. There's an immediacy to basically the entire Misfits discography, and to the cream of the Danzig one (essentially albums one through four, plus odds and ends afterward), that seemed to skip over Samhain. I've often come across passionate Misfits and/or Danzig fans who haven't heard a note of, say, the classic November-Coming-Fire.

So to me, it was a strange and intriguing decision for Glenn to bring Samhain back out on the road this year, for an appearance at Riot Fest and a subsequent mini tour, which I saw at Best Buy Theater last night. A few years back, I attended a show billed as Danzig Legacy, in which Glenn and assorted sidemen played three short sets focusing on each of his bands in turn. In some ways, the Samhain portion was the most intriguing—both because the songs are less iconic than the Misfits and Danzig classics, and because the lineup (unlike that of the Danzig segment, which featured no vintage-era members, or the Misfits one, which featured only guitarist Doyle) included two actual old-school Samhain-ers, Steve Zing and London May, trading off on bass and drums.

Last night's set was a chance to focus exclusively on Samhain, and I have to hand it to Glenn for keeping the parameters tight. The band played only three Misfits songs, and two of those ("Horror Business," a.k.a. "Horror Biz," and "All Hell Breaks Loose," a.k.a. "All Hell") showed up in their subtly but effectively rearranged Samhain versions; the third, "Halloween II," always sounded like a Samhain song to begin with, so it fit right in. Having not met a whole lot of die-hard Samhain fans in my peer group, I was surprised to see how passionate the crowd response was. People were singing along to every word of even the obscure Initium songs, like "Macabre" and "The Shift," and the pit was raging more or less the whole show.

The experience of seeing Glenn Danzig live in 2014 is complicated. I've seen him several times in recent years, so I knew what to expect, but last night, his age, and his bitter, out-of-touch demeanor hit home even more. To put it mildly, his onstage persona, which I gather is not too different from his offstage one, is not a pleasant one. He's developed an obsessive loathing for fans filming his shows on their phones, and he has a habit of aggressively calling out specific members of the crowd. There were several distracting instances of same last night, as well as an utterly absurd episode where a roadie apparently handed Danzig an out-of-tune guitar (Danzig played some sparse rhythm guitar on the strangely uplifting Initium closer "Archangel") and Danzig proceeded to make a laughingstock of the poor guy in front of the whole crowd. (I don't recall the entire rant, but he definitely employed the term "Einstein" in the classic sarcastic-’80s-jock way, and said something like "What is this, Ethiopia?" when the same roadie forgot to set up a mic stand for him.) There was also this classic rhetorical question posed to the audience: "Does anyone else out there fucking hate hipsters?" I could go on, but you get the point.

The odd thing is that another bit of banter was one of the most endearing moments of the set. You always hear artists give these "Thanks for your support—it means a lot" speeches near the ends of shows, but the one Danzig gave last night was one of the most sincere-seeming I've ever heard. In so many words, he thanked the audience for supporting him all these years (keep in mind that Glenn Danzig is 59, and has been performing since the late ’70s), and made the point that fan loyalty is the driving force behind underground art forms like punk and metal. Again, we've heard all this before, but Glenn Danzig is someone who has lived this dream basically his entire life, willing three bands into worldwide icon-hood (and inspiring countless others) through the force of his own vision, conviction and, it must be said, talent. You can't do that without a passionate and devoted fan base.

I'm proud to call myself a member of same. At this point, I've been obsessed with Danzig's body of work for more than two decades. For a few years during my adolescence, I plastered one entire wall of my bedroom with Danzig/Misfits/Samhain memorabilia. (Another friend and I competed to see who could construct the grandest Danzig Wall, as we called it.) The music of these projects has never lost its resonance for me, and to me, it's some of the best-made—and most soulful, intense, dark, tough, sensual, smart, atmospheric, idiosyncratic and sheerly enjoyable—rock I've ever heard. In recent years, I've seen my teenage idol turned into a caricature—with the Henry and Glenn comic, the infamous backstage punch-out, the kitty-litter pic, the admittedly hysterical bricks anecdote—and I'll admit that I'm a little defensive about it. But when you see the man onstage, willingly giving detractors all the ammo they need to ridicule him, you realize that defending Glenn Danzig as a guy is a losing battle.

What I will do, though, is defend Glenn Danzig as an artist and, just as importantly, entertainer. The Misfits songbook is straight-up Beatles-worthy in its density of brilliance per capita. We're talking about buckets' worth of perfect songs—true anthems. The first four Danzig records are almost as good in terms of sheer swagger and baddassery and vibe cultivation. And the Samhain catalog is a creepy, esoteric wonder unto itself. You see Glenn Danzig perform these songs—not talk between songs, or otherwise make an ass of himself, but actually perform them—and you feel how much he wants you, the audience member, to feel, to embrace the liberating power of dark, punishing, violent and—paradoxically, but maybe not at all—fun music.

"All Murder, All Guts, All Fun," one of the most rousing songs Samhain played last night, says it all. Yes, Danzig's all about the tough-guy posturing—the snarls, the air-punching. But what he really is, is an entertainer in a classic escapist-minded mode. He dreamed up a character, that of "Glenn Danzig," and has spent his life embodying it to the fullest. When he's in the midst of that embodiment, performing a brilliant punk song like the urgent "Let the Day Begin" (last night's set closer) or the gothy "Black Dream," or a stirring proto-Danzig (i.e., the band) dirge like "To Walk the Night," he is 100% believable. You go along with him on this possibly cartoonish, but ultimately transporting and empowering journey. In short, you believe. Or at least I do.

The spell might break as soon as a song ends, but for those several minutes, you're in that alternate world that he's created—one that's not just sonic but also visual. The band took the stage splattered in fake blood à la the Initium cover, and at one point Danzig made a comment to the effect of "How many other bands would come out here and put on all this blood for you?" This is the man who told his audience way back when, "I want your skulls." (I saw a band cover "Skulls" on Halloween, and it united the entire audience in Danzig worship; like I said, classic songs.) And the sentiment feels reciprocal: I want your skulls, essentially your loyalty, and I'll give you back total commitment in my performance. At certain moments during the show, I saw Danzig wipe fake blood out of his eyes and lapse momentarily into an "I'm too old for this shit" slouch. But then he'd snap right back into the sneering, the headbanging, the giving of himself unto the fans, the keeping of the faith, the embodiment of his own shock-rock anti-hero-hood. (And I should say that the rest of the band—Zing, May and Baroness guitarist Peter Adams—all abetted the Danzig vision with total commitment. I believe that they believe.)

Glenn Danzig appears to me to be, despite all his bitter lashings-out, a man in love with what he does, what he's created, and what he brings out in those who share that love for what he does. I wouldn't want to be him, but I respect the sacrifice he's made—essentially, apparently, trading his own, like, development as a decent human being for the blessing/curse of metamorphosing into the ultimate fantasy character. Like a pro wrestler, or something? Perhaps, but pro wrestlers don't write transporting, immortal, impossible-not-to-sing-along-to songs like "Unholy Passion." And they don't put on shows as galvanizing and true and passionate as the one I saw last night.

Yes, I came away from the show, as any sensible thinking person would, recounting Danzig's various between- or intersong absurdities with my friend. But in my heart, I knew that I still believed. It takes a little effort, but really not that much at all, to separate the myth from the man—to set your feelings about the latter aside out of respect for your love for the former. That's what art, and just as importantly, entertainment, are all about. Glenn Danzig is a master entertainer, in part because he is a master artist. He has made so many things that resonate so widely: songs, yes, but also an entire worldview, a collection of imagery, a persona, a unified space where the emotions he has worshiped all his life—basically evil, violence, passion, anguish, lust, what have you—can rise to the surface and boil over in this kind of communal exorcism. It's the same principle behind a great horror movie, but in the case of the Danzig brand, and specifically a concert over which he presides, it's a real group ceremony. Superficially, I don't feel like I have much in common with the average Danzig fan, but the goosebumps I frequently found myself getting during last night's show let me know that I'm going to be a member of this brother-/sisterhood for the rest of my life.

"And that blood's so real," Glenn Danzig sings in "Bloodfeast," one of my favorite Misfits songs, "Because I just can't fake it." I know exactly what he means, and I take him at his word.