Sucker For Punishment: Go to Hell

Like many other metal fans, I’m a longtime admirer of the crew at Banger Films, who in the past decade have raised the bar when it comes to documenting the metal scene with the seriousness of anthropologists and the artistry of filmmakers. From Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, to Global Metal, to Iron Maiden: Flight 666, to Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, to the Metal Evolution TV series, Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen have shown tremendous improvement as filmmakers, and when Dunn talked last year about their new Alice Cooper documentary, it was clear Super Duper Alice Cooper would be their boldest effort to date. After all, when you ditch all “talking head” clips and tell a 90-minute story using only narration and archival footage, you’re going to have to step up your game.
That strictly archival approach has forced the team – which now also includes co-director Reginald Harkema – to be a lot more creative in how it tells a story than ever before. Cleverly billed as a “doc opera”, the film fittingly presents the story of Alice Cooper’s rise, fall, and rise again from 1964 to 1986 with a sense of theatricality, luridness, humor, and flamboyance. Using John Barrymore’s 1920 silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a parallel throughout, the Banger boys put a new twist and shed new light on a familiar rock storyline, aided tremendously by Alice’s compelling and honest narration, which he has since wryly described as “a deposition.”

A fault of many metal documentaries is the willingness to leave no stone unturned when it comes to detail – after all, metal fans are proudly obsessive – but the smartest thing Super Duper Alice Cooper does is skip all the minutiae, keeping the storyline tight and flowing well, making it an entertaining film for all rather than a metalhead-pandering flick. It’s not about dwelling on every piddly fact, it’s telling a story in the most compelling way possible. As a great man once said, it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. So no, you’re not going to get in-depth looks at the creation of classic albums, no documentation of the success of “Poison”, nor a glimpse at present-day Alice. That’d be a three-hour slog that only die-hards would enjoy. Plus, Alice is narrating the damn thing, so viewers know he’s alive and well, for crying out loud.

Climaxing with his Halloween 1986 comeback in Detroit, it might not have marked the end of his career by any stretch – in fact it was a rebirth –  but it’s a fitting conclusion to an engrossing story arc, one that saw he and his Phoenix high school friends form a band to be like the Beatles, become exiles in Los Angeles, meet Frank Zappa, find a home in Detroit, kill a chicken in Toronto, become an overnight sensation, redefine rock ‘n’ roll theater, fall into an abyss of alcohol and cocaine, and emerge clean, sober, and triumphant.

It’s a huge creative leap for Banger Films, but better yet, it takes a plotline folks who have seen Behind the Music are familiar with and constructs a highly entertaining, exceptionally made film that matches the subject’s personality perfectly. It screens across the United States starting tonight, and believe me, it’s a can’t-miss. Check here to find a theater new you.

Meanwhile, it’s a crazily busy week for new metal releases, including one or two that will contend for my year-end list:

Aborted, The Necrotic Manifesto (Century Media): It’s easy to take a band like Aborted for granted. After all, all the Belgian band does is crank out album after album with regularity, carrying on without a beat despite a seemingly constant rotation of supporting musicians under frontman Sven de Caluwé. And although this latest album is more of the same unrelenting, slick, gratingly loud Century Media death metal, these are some of the catchiest songs I’ve heard from these guys in a long time. Better yet, de Caluwé puts in as flamboyant a performance from a death growler as anyone could hope for, his versatility and charisma a perfect fit with the equally dynamic arrangements. I don’t know if it’s because of the two new guitarists, but this album is a very pleasant surprise.

Anti-Mortem, New Southern (Nuclear Blast): Billed as Southern rock, these Oklahomans come across as a watered-down blend of Black Label Society and Godsmack. Someone give these kids a Skynyrd or Allman Brothers record. Hell, I’ll even settle for Molly Hatchet. New American rock couldn’t be more hopeless at the moment.

Archspire, The Lucid Collective (Season Of Mist): When a young technical death metal band scores a worldwide deal with heavy hitter Season of Mist, you know there must be something about it worth getting excited about. Indeed, this Vancouver band offer a unique take on the sound, as if putting a more vibrant West Coast spin on a tried-and-true, Quebec-bred form of metal. Derived heavily from Augury, Neuraxis, and Beneath the Massacre, Archspire’s music is dense and technically dazzling, but smartly doesn’t lose itself in all the proggy self-indulgence, each song allowing enough room for sly little hooks to emerge. Highlighted by “Fathom Infinite Death” and the instrumental “Kairos Chamber”, this album leaves a tremendous first impression.

Autopsy, Tourniquets, Hacksaws and Graves (Peaceville): This week seems to be all about the death metal, doesn’t it? And typically, the genre’s elder statesmen still do it better than most half their age, as Autopsy proves beyond a shadow od a foubt on its thirds post-reunion album. True, it’s more of the same from Chris Reifert and the guys, plenty of filth, savagery, and splatter-flick violence, but not only is it a better, more consistent effort than Macabre Eternal and The Headless Ritual, but a track like the goth-infused “The Howling Dead” shows they’re capable of plenty of cool new ideas.

Curimus, Artificial Revolution (Freezing Penguin/Svart): When I listen to a band on Svart Records, I want something a lot stranger and more original sounding than an American-sounding thrash knock-off with no personality whatsoever. Come on.

Dead In The Manger, Transience (20 Buck Spin): For three and a half minutes this band had me. This album by the supposedly anonymous band starts off in gorgeous fashion with a haunting instrumental track that hints at gothic doom, but it’s all a red herring as the rest of the EP quickly devolves into rote, uninteresting black metal, going from graceful to rigid in mere seconds. Coming from a label as reliable as 20 Buck Spin, this is a real disappointment.

Death, Leprosy (Relapse): The extensive reissuing of death’s back catalog continues, this time with its much-loved second album. By 1988 Chuck Schuldiner had laid the groundwork for his band’s sound on Scream Bloody Gore, and Leprosy turned out to be more of the same. What it lacked in innovation, however, was a sense for the first time that this was a band rather than a project. Aided by musicians Rick Rozz, Terry Butler, and Dave Andrews, not to mention some hugely improved production courtesy Tampa’s soon-to-be-famous Morrisound Recording, Leprosy is slicker and leaner, its lack of primitivism made up for by the improved musical sensibility in Schuldiner’s songwriting. Just listen to the ornate melodies that surface in “Born Dead” or the sneaky hooks of “Pull the Plug”, for instance, both of which foreshadow what he’d explore more deeply on future albums. Accompanying this finely remastered album is a bonus disc of rehearsal recordings, making for yet another first-class re-release by the best death metal band that ever was.

Devil You Know, The Beauty Of Destruction (Nuclear Blast): As overrated as I think Killswitch Engage is, upon hearing Howard Jones’s new project it’s clear that he’s nothing without Adam Dutkiewicz. The man needs a songwriter, because this tepid groove metal is not working.

Edguy, Space Police: Defenders Of The Crown (Nuclear Blast): I’ve always loved Edguy. When they’re at their best, the Germans walk that line between power metal flamboyance and cartoonish fun perfectly, with some enormously catchy songs to boot. And indeed, there are a few keepers on this latest album (the surprisingly un-cartoonish “Do Me Like a Caveman”, the likeable “Love Tyger”) Tobias Sammet can’t quite measure up to stronger works like 2004’s Hellfire Club and 2006’s Rocket Ride. Plus that note-for-note cover of “Rock Me Amadeus” is a waste of time. Call this a near-miss.

Floor, Oblation (Season Of Mist): Personally I prefer Torche’s more streamlined, nuanced approach to Floor’s simpler style, but when Steve Brooks is making new music, you can hardly complain. Whatever band name he’s working under, he remains a masterful songwriter, and this new album by the reunited Floor not only shows just how unique it was from the start, but it also sees Brooks putting a little Torche influence on the new material. One band influences another, and now vice versa. How meta, as the kids say. Either way, songs like “Rocinante”, “Find Away”, and “Love Comes Crushing” are a few keepers on a wonderful little record.

Fu Manchu, Gigantoid (At the Dojo): Five years between albums is far too long, but if anything, it made me miss Fu Manchu more. They haven’t changed one lick of their sound at all, Scott Hill still singing in his monotone, SoCal drawl, the songs faithfully and reliably trudging the same stoner rock territory as ever, a little speed here, a little doom there. You know exactly how this is all going to sound, you can see those choruses coming from a mile away, and it couldn’t feel more comfortable and good. Welcome back, guys.

Lord Mantis, Death Mask (Profound Lore): With each new album Lord Mantis not only gets better and better at creating a very unique hybrid of underground extreme metal, but they’re becoming true experts at trolling the metal crowd. This third full-length goes all out, in disturbing fashion: Jef Whitehead’s jarring and controversial artwork made a few people more than a little upset at his image of a mutilated transgender person, and even worse, bassist/vocalist Charlie Fell ventures into very dangerous territory, spewing a line like, “I am the raping n**ger.” It’s ugly, obscene, malevolent – and let’s face it, just plain racist – and makes listeners unsure if this is all serious or just a put-on. Go beyond the shock value, though, and you’ll find the real cleverness of this record, for musically it’s a colossal leap for the band. Fell and his mates are so convincing that you can’t help but follow them into this rabbit hole of misanthropy and horror, and they way they and producer Sanford Parker incorporate a martial, industrial influence lends the music even more mystery and depth than before. As for the aforementioned lyrics, it’s up to the listener to decide whether or not Fell and Lord Mantis have gone too far. Stream the album via Bandcamp.

Portrait, Crossroads (Metal Blade): There was a point six years ago where I considered Portrait to be easily better than In Solitude. But back then, they actually were, their loyal Mercyful Fate imitation feeling more complete than their Swedish compatriots’ slowly evolving sound. Today, they continue to carry on with the same gimmick while In Solitude has grown into something a lot more original, and as a result have now been lapped. I clearly bet on the wrong horse. At any rate, the follow-up to 2011’s very good Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae is out, and once again it’s content to complacently mimic Fate, which is all well and good, but this record doesn’t stick as well, the songs lacking immediacy, and worse Per Lengstedt’s singing sounds weaker than on the previous two records, and oddly buried deep in the mix. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a retro formula and pulling it off convincingly. Portrait has done it very well in the past, but here it feels like they’ve slipped into a serious rut.

Salem’s Pot, …lurar ut dig på prärien (EasyRider): Sporting a really stupid weed joke that only the weed-addled will snigger at, it’s easy to guess what these DSwedes sound like. While Salem’s Pot carts out the same old hazy stoner/doom that Bongripper and Electric Wizard do, there’s something about this three-track record that sets it apart. First, it’s one hell of an atmospheric record, as you can envision clouds of pungent smoke amidst these lugubrious grooves. Secondly, the art direction is just fantastic. And most importantly, there’s an attention to detail in the songwriting that you wouldn’t expect from a band like this. The pace is measured, but the payoffs are always there, waiting to be unearthed, from the sprawling “Creep Purple” to the space rock of “Nothing Hill”. This thing is so good, it’s even easy to excuse all the bad puns.

Saxon, St. George’s Day Sacrifice – Live In Manchester (UDR): The old NWOBHM geezers never disappoint in a live setting, and this new recording of a show from a year ago proves it yet again with a two-hour, 21-song performance. As good as the new material and deep cuts sound early on, typically the set really kicks off later on as classic after classic – “Dallas 1 PM”, “747”, “Wheels of Steel”, “Denim and Leather”, and on and on – the band sounding as potent as ever.

Whitechapel, Our Endless War (Metal Blade): It’s strange that considering how little patience I have for deathcore, Whitechapel always make my ears perk up. Just a little. They don’t do anything particularly new or creative, they just make the music moderately listenable, which coming from me is very high praise. If you’re going to make music that’s made for the mosh pit, at least make it so that you can remember how the songs go after first hearing them. To their credit, these guys do so in consistent fashion.

WOLD, Postsocial (Profound Lore): Pariahs in their home province of Saskatchewan yet capable of pulling off an inexplicable sold-out show in front of Brooklyn scenesters, WOLD continually make you wonder if this is indeed art, or one gigantic piss-take. I tend to fall into the former category, as the duo has a real knack for burying their work in the densest, most clattering noise possible, yet maintaining some sense of structure and musicality, made all the more interesting by Fortress Crookedjaw’s lyrics.  Although Postsocial doesn’t have the same bracing impact as 2006’s revelatory Screech Owl did – sorry guys, you might call it “Sapphire Sect of Tubal Cain”, but it still sounds as monotonous as a rickety furnace – it’s nevertheless a good follow-up to the 2011 return-to-form Freermasonry, the kind of art made for people who want to be challenged rather than be spoon-fed conventionality.

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