Jump on the Grenade


What happened to guitar heroes? They’re all on remastering schedules. Angus Young, Mick Ronson, Leslie West—get ’em now in the digipacks.

Ziggy Stardust—the movie DVD—and Townshend at the Young Vic in the Who’s Next “Deluxe Edition” have more six-string TNT than any of this year’s “guitar” bands. For those kids, the lead guitarist doesn’t exist. Alles kaput—the guitarist as a means to dramatically elevate otherwise feeble material, e.g., Ronno’s self-injection into his mainman Bowie’s Brecht and cocktail-jazz fixation in “Time” isn’t in evidence. And it’s startling how effortlessly the geezers in the “new” Yardbirds, by use of the axe as dramatic foil to the beat, make a mockery of the under-30 rocker crowd’s much touted reverence for the retro. (Side note to followers of the demo-duo fad’s fun wrecking-ball sound: You shan’t want to miss the current repack of Groundhogs Live at Leeds ’71. They had a bass player, of course, but the guitar almost entirely buries him. The Kills’ new one hath no rage like Tony McPhee’s “Eccentric Man.”)

Anyway, sure, there’s still lots of guitar playing by young men. Too much, actually—all very heavy on the punky no-rhythm rhythm guitar. Tactical use of silence and the power chord as a barely controlled explosion, however, go missing. And the latter have everything to do with the creation of electric power, while the former has nothing to do with it.

It’s only natural, then, that as strict mimics of American fashion the Anzac Invasion would produce a handful of high-profile six-string duffers and cripples. You can tell the worst by reading weekender blurbs in the big dailies, where the impression has been cultivated that every last New Zealand rocker believes action springs from reading critic cant and parroting it back to listeners in choice of bad influences.

The Datsuns, recipients as much as deliverers of this horrible groupthink, I’m sure now find the States their Gallipoli, with momentary toeholds in New York and L.A. It’s a just outcome, since they’ve no real fire power —two guitarists who don’t amount to an average one, and a singer named Dolph whose contributions must be pumped with excitement by fuzztone.

Stuck with these liabilities, the band has only raw energy as a stopgap remedy, but even that’s not enough for the albatross of zero songs. “Fink for the Man” is a title to remember, that’s it—plus the sound of a very angry Marshall-stack-equipped squirrel. Call ’em a Bizarro world AC/DC, photo-ready “troublemakers” with their self-titled V2 album revealing not one good dirty short story, smart imprecation, or main instrument capable of inspiring you to remember the name of the guy playing it. (If the point of the anonymous naming strategy was to aid in this, it was entirely successful.)

On Six Twenty (Hollywood), the D4 choose Johnny Thunders as a muse. This is particularly telling once one realizes guitar magazines love to put dead, dying, or retired axemen on their covers, but that Thunders—even though he’s perhaps the deadest of all—never gets featured. D4 are completely tune-chopless, their compositional skills as rotten as Datsuns. So they resort to polishing small bits of fool’s gold, pried from long-mined-out veins of slag: Take the Heartbreakers’ “Pirate Love,” filler from an album of defiantly journeyman CBGB fare rendered notorious by an incompetent mastering job. Or Guitar Wolf’s “Invader Ace”: The D4 are found heavily engaged in tribute to a trio from Japanese-land whose catalog is fairly characterized as a humiliating effort to play American underground barfly rock poorly. And while D4 put a lot of effort into imitating people who imitated playing guitar, they could make a mildly fun 30-minute television rock band sitcom with Michael des Barres as father figure. Then it could be canceled after two episodes.

It’s a mystery why those from Down Under would ignore Angus Young, one of the masters of the form: laziness? Multiple voicings in A not punk enough? Or maybe because to approach Angus’s relentless rock heft you’re going to have do some work—soak up Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer’s Fleetwood Mac and Duane Eddy’s twangy guitar, learn it front to back, and then get a brainstorm on how great it would sound really electrocuted. (Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs would do in a pinch: As an Aussie circa “The Hoax Is Over,” Thorpe developed a merciless early-metal/ Terry Knight Grand Funk-like take on Gene Vincent rockabilly.) Do this, though, and I suppose you risk being shunned in the corporate underground. So keep using that six-string as a brooch and substituting the contraction “MF” for “motherfucker,” fellas.

But the emasculation is not restricted to garage-band mimic land. AFI‘s Sing the Sorrow (DreamWorks) is inspirational for those in the same upper-middle-class demographic as 12-year-old kids who can’t decide between Misfits-lite punk rock or sissy-pop through the years of struggle, so they split the difference with modest black apparel and volume. Not one blessed rock musician of gravity steps forward on Sing, although the bass player can be relied upon to start songs with those great one- or two-note riffs, the kind you can play even if every finger has been removed from the hand except the index and third. AFI are punk loyalists to the bone, not phonies—believers in the worth of mediocrity evenly shared by the teamplayers. In this way, AFI avoid the impolite stink of lead guitar, and one is freed to review the lyrics—which are printed in the jacket—if the loving praise of “I’ll fall asleep for you” somehow passed by unnoticed on first listen.

Like me, you may have been puzzled by the industry-wide enthusiasm for AFI. “Jump on the Grenade” phenomenon, pure and simple—privates enthusiastically covering the bomb; selfless sacrifice for the greater good of the corporate entertainment publishing unit. (All of this applies pretty much equally to Atreyu and Good Charlotte, too.)

. . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead bring a lot of progressive and arty guitar subtlety to The Secret of Elena’s Tomb (Interscope). The band’s semi-tunes get slower and slower as the recording proceeds; it’s the way the act clues fans in to the importance of them. And judging from the evidence, the perfect Trail of Dead number would be one in which the guitarists slowly drift off into the arms of Morpheus as the end of the song nears, the dying drone of the instrument slowly overtaken by the soft snores of bandmembers. You think they could manage it for the next one? And that bassist is just like the fellow in AFI, superb with a two-note intro, coming to the rescue on “Crowning of a Heart” when no else has any idea what to play.

But if it’s humor you desire with your guitar music, it’s impossible to surpass the tyrannical metalzine-spurt of the sales sticker for Devin Townsend’s Strapping Young Lad. “Like sticking your head in the jet nozzle of a Stealth bomber . . . like a Muhammed Ali punch to the stomach . . . the sound of a riot . . . language comes cheap with SYL . . . the Tartoor should be beaten with a shoe . . . ” OK, so I made the last one up, but realistically, it fits.

SYL (Century Media) is a three-card monte, higgledly-piggledy technical admixture of loud abrasives and screaming, used to cover up the inability of the head guy to write one goddamn riff on guitar that you won’t forget after five seconds. It’s best to think of Strapping Young Lad records as corrupt tea taxes applied to the world of indie-metal, a cost that must be borne to produce other acts cheaply. One endures the records and subsequent charity tour slots knowing they come with one blessing in disguise—they’re separated by years of absence.

Admittedly, this doesn’t leave much to actually like. That’s when one goes for idiosyncratic pleasures.

Joe Stump knew his Guitar Dominance (Leviathan) was toast 10 years ago, the moment he released it from his “Room Nine From Outer Space.” Seattle had obsoleted him, but now he can laugh at his picture—frilly shirt and froufrou waistcoat, proudly displaying his Yngwie J. Malmsteen signature guitar—and figure it’s worth resurrecting, if only as a text for a guitar-school course. You can sell it to the students.

Second only to the Great Kat in isolating speed, Stump plows through one metal instro after another, cramming more Bill & Ted’s Wild Stallyns riff-and-noodle into single numbers than the D4 or the Datsuns manage in toto. His “Breakneck Boogie” makes him the Bugs Henderson of music perfessors; it’s every bit as intimidating to me (I mean it! I’m not winking!) as “Texas Ballbreaker Boogie” and “Cripple-Gnat Bounce.”

Gallery of Mites employ an opposing strategy. Instead of one guitarist who sounds like four, they use five to do the chores of one. It’s a technique that really allows the tambourine in “Exploded View” and “Headless Body, Topless Bar” to come into its own. Bugs on the Bluefish (Meteor City) is crafted for the “Iron Rainbows Over the International Dateline” crowd: those in pilgrimage to the shrine for Lester Bangs, Hawkwind revivals, or surplus reels of the Funhouse sessions.

AFI play Roseland, May 8.

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