Check out a shorter version of this review that ran in the print edition of the Valley Advocate here.
Release date: 11/10/14
The Foo Fighters’ eighth studio album is more than just another rock record. Instead, “Sonic Highways” is one of the most ambitious musical projects in recent memory.
Where to begin? For starters, how many bands celebrating their 20th anniversary as a group would choose to challenge themselves this much?
Eight tracks recorded in eight different cities nationwide. This is the concept behind “Sonic Highways.” Oh, and did I mention the members of the Foo Fighters picked up instruments and put pen to pad with cameras rolling every step of the way?
Band leader Dave Grohl, building on the successful directing stint of his debut film “Sound City,” is the architect of the “Sonic Highways” project, once again pairing music and documentary, only on a much larger scale.
In an interview with Billboard, Grohl said, “After making ‘Sound City,’ I realized that the pairing of music and documentary works well because the stories give substance and depth to the song, which makes for a stronger emotional connection. So I thought, ‘I want to do this again, but instead of just walking into a studio and telling its story, I want to travel across America and tell its story.’”
Such a conceit ended up spawning more than just a record and a film. In fact, with so much material at his disposal, Grohl became the helmsmen of a whole television series. Partnering with HBO, the former Nirvana drummer created “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways,” a documentary series following the travels of Grohl and fellow Foo members – Chris Shiflett (guitar), Nate Mendel (bass), Taylor Hawkins (drums) and Pat Smear (guitar) – as the band ventures to renowned recording studios in Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans and more, to write songs, interview and jam with local music legends, and document the whole process on film and on record.
Stop number one for the Foo Fighters’ series, which premiered on HBO October 17, was Chicago, which inspired “Sonic Highways” bruising opening number “Something From Nothing,” recorded by the band at Electrical Audio studios under the watchful eye of alternative rock iconoclast Steve Albini. Featuring Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, the song evolves from a finger-picked intro to a near-metal blowout that also includes references to blues heroes Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy.
Foo Fighters debuted “Something From Nothing” during the group’s weeklong residency on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in October, even appearing with Nielsen during the week’s finale performance.
Watch Foo Fighters perform “Something From Nothing” with Rick Nielsen on “Late Show with David Letterman” here:
Track two, “The Feast and the Famine” is an homage to Grohl’s punk influenced youth in and around Washington, D.C. Lyrics this time include mentions of hardcore pioneers the Bad Brains and one of Grohl’s former bands Scream, whose album “Still Screaming” was released by the Washington, D.C. indie label Dischord Records in 1983.
Musically, “The Feast and the Famine” uses stop-start riffs and Hawkins’ propulsive drumming to craft a soundscape that feels like a rallying cry despite Grohl’s repeated questions
“Where is that P.M.A.?” Grohl sings. “Where is the monument? To the dreams we forget?”
The P.M.A. mentioned in the above question stands for “Positive Mental Attitude,” a mental state espoused by the Bad Brains in the song “Attitude” on the band’s self-titled debut album and written about by American author Napoleon Hill. Though Hill first wrote about P.M.A. in his 1937 book “Think and Grow Rich,” the adoption of the term by the D.C. hardcore community in the ‘80s had a galvanizing effect on the local music scene during the “Revolution Summer” of 1985.
The effects of that summer still linger as noted by Grohl himself in the “Sonic Highways” episode devoted to Washington, D.C.
“The experiences I've had in this city, from the age of 14-years-old, set this foundation for the rest of my life as a musician,” Grohl says in the episode. “The community, the support, the love that was here in the D.C. music scene has carried over into what I do now. The way that Foo Fighters work now, we’re like a family, and we try to treat everyone that way.”
Since “Sonic Highways” is being released before the HBO series bearing its name wraps up on December 5, background information on the rest of the record’s track listing will have to be a surprise for fans. But after listening to the album, there appears to be much to look forward to.
Watch the trailer for Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways here:
Of particular note are tracks like “What Did I Do? / God As My Witness.” Split into two halves, the song transitions from a classic rock raver beat to a statelier tempo complete with rising and falling chord progressions and majestic guitar solo. By the time the track begins to fade out near the six minute mark, one can even imagine an orchestral arrangement of the latter half being used as a wedding processional.
“What Did I Do? / God As My Witness” is also indicative of the second half of “Sonic Highways.” Grohl and company stretch out more on the record’s latter tunes with the final two songs both breaking six minutes. The finale even clocks in at over seven. Whether this epic-like approach is due to some particular inspiration that welled up in the city each track was recorded in or was sparked by some other factor, there’s no denying the end results.
Some credit needs to be given to producer Butch Vig, who trekked with Foo Fighters across the country. Vig performed yeoman’s work recording each song the band wrote in a different city, different studio, and often with various other musicians throwing in different licks and contributions. Surprisingly, for a record with such far-reaching roots, “Sonic Highways” plays like a complete whole, and possesses enough small touches to necessitate many repeat listens. In no small part are such accomplishments due to Vig’s steadying presence behind the mixing board. He’s practically an honorary Foo Fighter at this point, having also produced the group’s previous release “Wasting Light,” and is becoming a defining part of the band’s growing sound.
Any album that can merge the influence and appearance of artists as diverse as Cheap Trick, Bad Brains, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and more, deserves a fitting closing number. And “Sonic Highways” pays off with “I Am a River,” which is believed to have been recorded in New York City. Building off the closing notes of the preceding track “Subterranean,” the song slowly intensifies around Grohl’s engaging vocal. Walls of guitar meet and climb higher with trebly notes straining to be heard over Hawkins’ drum assault. The ruckus is met by orchestral swells for the final minute lending stringed grace to the title refrain, whose simple words are repeated almost all the way to the track’s sudden conclusion.
If “Sonic Highways” and its accompanying documentary series are indeed meant as “a love letter to the history of American music,” as Dave Grohl claims, the pair equate to a cherished message. Listeners shouldn’t tuck such a treasure away in a box. The words shared should be sung aloud and enjoyed for years to come.
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