at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, August 31
Dark days for the darkmen. The dearth of challenging new pods within the heavy metal subculture made this year's Ozzfest — the vast touring barometer of all things rockin' — mostly a hollow amalgam of retro sounds skillfully revisited, or aimless acts with more volume than vision. Forty-five thousand punters strong, the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion crowd was the biggest Ozzfest this year, but with such flaccid offerings, size really didn't matter.
The drawl-rock supergroup Down, featuring members of Pantera, COC and Eyehategod, left many in the crowd groping for reference points with its bluesy bayou sludge. Similarly old-school was Black Label Society, always a likely Ozzfest feature, since main man Zakk Wylde is also Ozzy's six-string sidekick. Dredging a channel somewhere between Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains, BLS delivered with furious, epic expertise. Ozzy himself has become a human jukebox, performing greatest hits from the era of many attendees' potty training, yet still the strongest tunes aired today. Wylde and former Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin reinterpreted the classics with paranormal dexterity, making Osbourne's set a solid finale.
Andrew W.K.'s midafternoon Zodiac Mindwarp-meets-Benny Hill hijinks should be restricted to frat parties, not imposed upon thousands. Adema are to Adidas-metal what Trixter were to cock-rock — manufactured come-latelies hoping to dart in before the door slams shut on this numbingly stale style. Tommy Lee, faced with replacing Drowning Pool after D.P.'s Dave Williams passed away midtour, fared little better. The epitome of rock & roll, Lee was nevertheless doomed to mediocrity by his limp material and only-in-the-shower voice. Rob Zombie's set was leaner than his prop-heavy, Vegas-style headlining shows, causing a regrettable spotlight shift to his songcraft and B-movie imagery, which have been treading water since his White Zombie days.
One of the day's few bright hopes, New Jersey emo-core heroes Glassjaw, were plonked on the second stage at 9:20 a.m., so all but the overnighters missed their jagged brilliance. POD leavened their stylistically mundane rap/rock crossover with an increasingly rare musicality; ultra-effected swaths of guitar and tribal grooves propelled these SoCal boys well beyond the median, and they were the first act to rouse the entire audience to their feet.
System of a Down are the most potent hard-rockers alive right now, denizens of a creative planet few rivals have even visited. SOAD exhibited effortless artistry and punishing precision, flagrantly disregarding songcraft traditions through their confrontational carnival-metal and achingly addictive harmonies. No one else ever sounded like this.
Considering the ubiquity of TV's The Osbournes, the Ozz in Ozzfest is increasingly Sharon. Painted as a mother figure to the metal legions, the matriarch has used her charm and brilliance to milk a cash cow fed with $10 beers, suffocating corporate sponsorship and traffic nightmares (though the Glen Helen gridlock was substantially alleviated this year). While the fest has become an admirably efficient metal monster (high-fidelity sound, sharp security, impossibly swift band turnarounds), the heart of the beast — the music — is starving for fresh blood.
The bands fell into two main categories: aggressive/demonic and loving/nurturing. Dominating the first category was Zakk Wylde and his Black Label Society: “When we kick Iraq's ass, they'll know the reason — rock and fucking roll,” the über-patriot roared. Rob Zombie, besides the larger-than-life head shots of famed movie monsters, brought his own baggage: excessive sarcasm, plus rips on his old White Zombie bandmates. He started “Thunderkiss '65,” then aborted. “I think we've all heard enough of that one,” he suggested, and nearly got booed off the stage.
In the loving/nurturing column, San Diego's POD are the mothers of the god-awful “Alive,” but that doesn't mean lead singer Sonny Sandoval's big heart won't melt you, especially when he invites fans onstage and parades around with a tyke on his shoulders. Andrew W.K.'s cuddly pop-metal stood out like a Cheap Trick fan at a Radiohead concert, but his chest-pounding, hair-whipping antics beat pseudo-angst every time. “I love all of you,” he gushed through a toothy grin, “and there's nothing you can do about it.” Bringing out Kelly Osbourne for a duet only helped his cause.
System of a Down were the nabobs of nurture. System's wildly disparate personalities — from the bug-eyed mugging of bassist Shavo Odadjian to the whirling-dervish ecstasy of vocalist Serj Tankian — complement the band's blend of Armenian/Balkan/world styles and contemporary riffage. “In a world given over to the self, there is only one truth that unites us,” pleaded Tankian, “the universal truth of love.” Noble sentiments, clearly wasted on the average Ozzfest pig.
Add a third category: the clowns. Lovable dufus Tommy Lee brought showmanship to an all-time low with his Titty Cam, and the females were more than happy to get a few seconds of softcore fame on the giant screen. Phil Anselmo's side project, Down, might as well have been a cannabis tribute band. “To all you people who take the time and effort to grow your own weed, thank you very much. And to those who grow the hydroponic kind, thank you very, very, very much.”
There were few dampeners on the day's hedonistic spirit. “I got good news from the home front,” Ozzy enthused. “Sharon's kicking this cancer's ass.” At set's end, not even personal problems could keep the Iron Man from flashing his own butt cheeks, as if to show us the target the missus generally prefers.
at House of Blues, August 26
The venue's packed; the bars are deserted — testimony to Something Corporate's ballooning adolescent fan base. (The band members themselves are barely of drinking age.) This endearing Orange County quintet is an anomaly, bouncing between contemplative easy listening and optimistic SoCal pop-punk, equal parts Billy Joel and Blink-182. Built around piano-prodigy front man Andrew McMahon, S.C. offer supertuneful, girl-inspired romps, buffed up with spanky grooves and chugging guitars. The eccentrically disheveled McMahon considers his piano a prop rather than an obstacle, vaulting onto and off it between bouts of gonzoid escape across the stage, his in-the-moment enthusiasm offsetting guitarist William Tell's self-conscious catalog-model posturing and the headbanging, Camaro-loving chic of bassist Clutch.
Drawing from this summer's debut album, Leaving Through the Window, and the earlier Audioboxer EP, S.C. plunder a seemingly bottomless melodic vein with the wet-dream gusto of college-age guys getting off before a full house of their peers. Though they reproduce their recordings faithfully, it's this unrestrained glee that lifts an S.C. live show beyond their studio efforts, and despite an overprocessed mix, which puts a pane of glass between band and crowd, they culture an enviable connection with their audience. The minihit “If You C Jordan” remains the Corporate flagship, its sheer pop majesty and sneering verses italicized by McMahon's impassioned delivery, yet the band has plenty of gas in the songwriting tank, as the pumping melancholy of “Hurricane” and the shameless, tear-jerking pomp of “Cavanaugh Park” demonstrate.
On paper, Something Corporate are a fan fantasy — songcraft of Elton John-Elvis Costello proportions caffeinated by hormone-subservient frat-boy energy — and with a little trimming and stylistic single-mindedness, that's exactly what they'll become. Tonight they earn multiple encores but are allowed none — it's a school night, after all. (Paul Rogers)
at El Rey, September 8
Emerging and quickly diverging from the English punk scene circa 1976, Wire have off and on through the years built their very own quasi-minimalist-punk-art aesthetic, which has seen them veer from the speedy monochrome bursts of their debut classic, Pink Flag, to more expansive sound fields on Chairs Missing and 154 and into electronically tinged, tense but dancelike works such as The Ideal Copy and other more recent discs exploring ambient/remix and process-music schemes. These pieces all had something different and important to say, yet some of us were taken aback and overjoyed upon hearing Wire's new Read & Burn-01 and -02 on their own Pink Flag label, two stunning sets of superdefined fury recalling the earlier slamming starkness of Pink Flag. At this particular point in time, for some reason, Wire's decision to play hard and fast feels so right.
(Photo by Fergus Kelly)
Much like their set two years ago at the same venue, Wire used their seemingly brief time onstage Sunday to state their position with directness and force, and that's typically ironic, as this music was rather like being sledgehammered with ambiguity. The veteran foursome (singer/guitarist Colin Newman, guitar manipulator Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis, drummer Robert Grey) approached their outbursts as studies in compressed, complicated sonority; when unleashed against Newman's rancorish rants (his yobby voice always comes off wry), the chunka-chunka and squall and ping of the band's twin guitars seared into the brain and scrubbed the body clean. Live, the Wire sound is characterized as much as anything by a superbly satisfying, metronomic snare-drum thwack laid coolly down by Grey (you remember his former surname, Gotobed); smack-dab in El Rey's sweet spot, right in front of the mixing board, the effect was neck-wrenching excitement itself.
They played like a strong, young beat band, didn't skimp on the body-rock, but more interesting was to witness a beat band with such a keen comprehension of form and content: By fiercely focusing on a deliberately narrow tonal range, Wire emphasized again — as they've done to such great effect especially on their later-period recordings — that the real power in their material has everything to do with what they leave out. I did say Wire's set was short (and not sweet), but it might've just seemed that way. In any case, one left feeling that the band had sufficiently demonstrated its points, and had in fact squeezed a lot into their time upon the stage. (John Payne)
at the Troubadour, September 3
For two songs The Used were a band beyond themselves, a crab too big for any shell. They played without intelligence but with a passion impossible to criticize. They were little kids, swinging at every ball. The crowd rushed the field. For two songs I was all “that's my boy” to indifferent strangers. After all, The Used were cultured in the same petri dish as me, the rough-and-tumble streets of Utah. Which in the end only means this: I wouldn't touch them without latex gloves.
Make no mistake, this is a band without intelligence, without relevance, without, in the end, passion for anything but themselves. They have nothing to offer but enthusiasm. The lyrics are tepid “I survived the streets, now I'm positive” nonsense. They scream a lot, and when I hear screaming I admit I get excited — I wonder who's been hurt. But even the fury rapidly resolves itself into contrivance. After two songs I wished they'd just ride off on their Harleys and leave me alone. They sounded furious about . . . Jell-O. Worse, their cheap '80s sensibility is being foisted upon the public as indie rock, well-angled music, one of the sparks dusting our desolate fields, promising flame.
I still believe in an aesthetic of desperation, still believe that there are bands out there smashing their heads into the wall not to sell records, but because they fucking hate walls. But The Used do not belong on the same page as these kittens. They don't belong on the same page as countless unsigned Utah demons. Give me the Wolves; at least they sound hungry. I'd rather listen to the Downer's sonic watercolors than The Used's cheap flannel pretension. They're just another corporate golem sent out to subdue the enemies of staid cookie-cutter rock. I want to send them back to the riverbank, find whatever magical word has animated them and erase it forever. (Russel Swensen)
at House of Blues, September 5
Every few months we find ourselves on the brink of another British invasion, but, alas, it never quite seems to happen. Whether it's that limey arrogance or the overabundance of melancholy musings the Brits have been championing lately, America doesn't stay enamored with English bands for too long, not even critical darlings like Radiohead or current ballad boys Coldplay. London's Gene probably won't be the band to actually change anything, but their bittersweet bites are some of the best of the U.K. pop crop, and their stage show is anything but downbeat or self-absorbed.
Following a strong opening set from local riff-riders Run Run Run, who spewed out smoky clouds of Spacemen 3-style rock, Gene took over House of Blues with a bevy of poignant pop tunes about how love can really fuck you up, but instead of feeling dreary or pissy, the band offered a dramatic, heartfelt performance full of movement and blissful melodies. Black-clad, shaved-skulled singer Martin Rossiter gyrated and made grandiose hand movements and basically rocked out more than you'd expect from listening to the pretty indie rock of Gene's latest release, Libertine. Rossiter's thrashing about prompted the guy next to us to dub him “the poor man's Robbie Williams,” but the singer is used to being compared to a far more revered Englishman back in his neck of the woods — Morrissey.
Gene's blend of tight, bright guitars and lazy yet perfectly executed croons about heartbreak are undeniably Smiths-like. The difference? Morrissey loves irony and ambiguity, while Rossiter's totally forthright. When he sings “Let Me Move On,” you know that's bloody well what he wants to do. (Lina Lecaro)