RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: XX

(LEGACY/EPIC/SONY; 2012)

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If there is one thing that can be said about the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album, it is this: It is impressive. Impressive and awesome. Hmm… now, wait a minute. Let’s start over. There are two words that can describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Those words are impressive, awesome and comprehensive. Aawww, shoot! There are several words that can be used to describe the 20th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. Among those words are impressive, awesome, comprehensive and essential.

Enough of that, huh? I mean, nobody expects a Monty Pythonesque review of one of the seminal albums in the realm of rap-metal. Check that – Rage Against the Machine’s first record is THE seminal album of the then new genre of rap-metal. The politically charged lyrics of Zack de La Rocha and the unique guitar sound and phrasing of Tom Morello gave new meaning to the word “intense.” The imaginative yet rock-steady rhythm section of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Timmy C (Commerford) provide a bottom you could caulk boats with. Well, then! Using the four words in the previous paragraph, let’s take a look at this set, shall we?

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

Rage Against the Machine (uncredited photo)

First, impressive. This is where the music is discussed. From the opening track, “Bombtrack,” it is quite obvious that we are listening to something special. For a band with less than a year under their collective belts as a working unit, that is impressive! “Killing In the Name” follows. This is, quite literally, the track that put Rage on the map and in heavy rotation on alternative radio stations and MTV. This riff-heavy tune along with others like “Bullet In the Head,” “Wake Up,” and “Freedom” gives a nod to the band’s forefathers (stylistically, if not lyrically), Black Sabbath. Morello strangles sounds from his guitar that will have you checking the credits for the name of the guy playing the synthesizer. His rhythm work mimics the bass line (and vise versa), blurring the line between the two, much like the interaction between Tony Iommi and Terry “Geezer” Butler. Brad Wilk has a jazzy sensibility that belies the music’s style, much like – again – Sabbath’s Bill Ward. Of course, Zack de La Rocha, is like nothing before – a seething, venom-filled voclist who wears his convictions like a badge. When you add all of this up, what else can you call it but… impressive?

And, so, we move on to awesome. This is where we discuss the breadth (if not the size, which we’ll get to next) of the material here-enclosed. I think that the awesome aspects of this release can be best exemplified by a DVD feature. A camera was rolling as Rage Against the Machine made their public debut on October 23, 1991 on the campus of Cal State, North Ridge. As the band works into “Killing In the Name,” you can see a couple of people milling about; by the time they finish with the second song, “Take the Power Back,” the crowd is growing. As we realize that this group of individuals have been together for just a handful of months, the power and scope of what they’re doing is mind-boggling. Now, you aren’t gonna watch this video for innovative camera angles or production value. You get one camera that appears to be mounted somewhere close to the soundboard. You also get 20 year old technology, a video shot on analog tape. You will, however, watch for the historic significance of the performance, as well as the music, which is fully formed at a very early stage. Take some of the best cuts from the debut album, toss in a few lesser known tunes (“Darkness of Greed” and “Clear the Lane” from the English 12” of KILLING IN THE NAME; “Autologic,” a song from the group’s demo tape; “Hit the Deck,” which I can’t find on any other official release) and a Clash cover (“Clampdown”) and this 52-minute piece of video alone makes this package – if not indispensable – awesome!

Tom Morello (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Tom Morello (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Up next, we have comprehensive. At this point, we’re gonna talk about the packaging. First off, the “official” name of this reissue is XX, which is Super-Bowlese (or Wrestlemanian, if you rather) for TWENTY. Somewhat fitting for a 20th Anniversary issue, wouldn’t you agree? Now… here’s what you’re getting: One CD with original album (including the three track live bonus EP that was offered with some versions of the 1992 vinyl); another CD of demos, originally given away free at early, pre-record deal Rage shows; a DVD featuring a live show recorded in London on June 6, 2010 along with 12 videos spanning the band’s first eight years (4 of which are either unreleased or are officially available for the first time) and live material from a 1997 compilation; a second DVD which features video of the band’s first public performance in 1991 and 10 more live videos from 1992-94, recorded at various venues. If that’s not enough, you’ve got a vinyl copy of the album, complete with lyrics and that famous 1963 cover photo of the Buddhist Monk who immolated himself in Saigon to protest the Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. There’s also a 40 page booklet with plenty of pictures, lyrics and an essay by someone who knows a bit about the power of music and politics, Chuck D. Toss in a large 2-sided poster, a postcard and other ephemera and you definitely have something that is… comprehensive!

Rage Against the Machine (Max Whittaker-Getty Images)

Rage Against the Machine (photo credit: MAX WHITTAKER-GETTY IMAGES)

Finally, we get to essential. Well… that’s an easy one. The original 10-track album alone is an essential piece to any music collection. Add to that all of the extras discussed above and a gloriously remastered sound for that original release and you have one of this (or any) year’s essential music purchases. By the way, if you’re not into all of that extra stuff (or if you don’t wanna shell out $100 for the full monty), there are two “smaller” versions of this release: one that features just the 2 CDs and a bonus DVD with six videos from the larger package and one that offers just the first CD (the original album and three bonus tracks).


JUDAS PRIEST: SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE (SPECIAL 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION)

(LEGACY/SONY; 2012)

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Until quite recently, I owned very few Judas Priest albums: SAD WINGS OF DESTINY and SIN AFTER SIN epitomizes the Priest for me… both are excellent; the unfortunate debut, ROCKA ROLLA, which was given to me as a gift; the killer live album, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST. Somewhere along the way I picked up PRIEST… LIVE, which was a little bit of okay. Then… nothing until 1997’s JUGULATOR, which introduced the world to Rob Halford’s replacement, Tim “Ripper” Owens… not a bad album, really, though it got the short shrift from Priest fans. The “Ripper” era band also produced a live set called ’98 LIVE MELTDOWN.

Now, of course, with Halford back and with the record labels reissuing just about anything, a couple of 30th Anniversary editions have cropped up, BRITISH STEEL and, more recently, this album, SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE. I think Priest fell out of favor for me with the album HELL BENT FOR LEATHER (or KILLING MACHINE, everywhere but in the States). Didn’t like the cover (either one, actually) and didn’t like the song “Hell Bent For Leather.” I did, as mentioned, come back for the UNLEASHED IN THE EAST album, but, by then, the band had veered further into the realms of MTV pop for me (yeah… I know… sacrilege! The very same crap that made Priest superstars made me wanna puke!). But I digress… kinda. I will get to the point of this review, which is the double disc SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE reissue (a CD with extra live tracks and a DVD of a live set from the ensuing tour), somewhere around the next paragraph.

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

Judas Priest (uncredited photo)

And, so… here we are, 30 years later with an album that is beloved by every metal-head on the planet… except me. But, I have done my due diligence and listened to the thing again so I could be objective. And, you know what? It ain’t as bad as I thought back then. It ain’t no SAD WINGS… and definitely ain’t on a par with SIN AFTER SIN, but I can listen to most of it today without becoming nauseous. Tracks like “Bloodstone,” “Pain and Pleasure,” “Devil’s Child” and the title song hold up fairly well after 30 years, while the big hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” still sounds like New Kids On the Block to me. The “ballads,” “(Take These) Chains,” “Fever,” and the aforementioned “Pain and Pleasure,” are exactly what you’d expect from a heavy metal band during the early ’80s. Actually, under the steady hands of the Priest, they’re a tick or two above the generic “power ballads” of the day.

Halford’s vocal acrobatics hadn’t lost their edge (still haven’t today, as far as I can tell); the riffage and dual leads of guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton are sharp throughout and the rhythm section of drummer Dave Holland and bassist Ian Hill – while not spectacular – are rock solid. The production, by Tom Allom, is crisp and very much of the time: a big drum sound and everything shined to perfection. Of course, even my favorite mid-’70s Priest albums were very well produced, eschewing the muddied sound that befell many metal records of that time, so the above statement isn’t a negative, just a fact.

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Judas Priest (publicity photo)

Of course, what would an “Anniversary Edition” be without extras? Why… certainly nothing special (although there are some instances where even WITH the bonus material, the product is still nothing special). To fill out the original album’s less than 40 minute length, the CD has been expanded by six tracks, 5 live and 1 that I can only assume was recorded for use on the album or for a single B-side (I can’t find any information about that one anywhere!). The five live songs are SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE tunes that really add nothing to the originals, per se. I guess, from my perspective, the really cool thing about them is that they were recorded on September 10, 1982 (which happened to be my 24th birthday) at the San Antonio Civic Center (which just happens to be my home address… oops! That’s not right! What I meant to say is, “which just happens to be nowhere near where I was on that day”). The final cut is a ballady thing called “Prisoner of Your Eyes.” It’s kinda okay, but if it is an outtake, I can understand why: nothing spectacular or even particularly special. If it had turned up as a B-side somewhere, I don’t think people would have burned their copy of the record, but it may not have been played as often as some other minor Priest songs.

The second disc (aw, c’mon… you knew there’d be a second disc, right? I mean… there’s always a second disc!) is a DVD of the band’s full appearance at the Us Festival on May 29,1983. You remember the Us Fests, don’t you? Two holiday weekends of peace, love and drunken revelry that was supposed to bring the world together for a big ol’ bear-hug and a sloppy wet kiss to say, “I love ya, man!” So… anyway, the things were filmed by people who had no idea how to film a rock show. Throughout this performance, we get shots of Ian Hill’s back as Glenn Tipton shreds an awesome solo; then it’s off to a picture of Tipton’s guitar neck while KK Downing is soloing like a madman on the other end of the stage. And let’s not forget shots with the security guards blotting out everyone on stage or the crazy panning while they try to locate Halford as he comes onstage. Shouldn’t they have had production notes about such things? As far as the boys, themselves, there’s enough shiny spandex and studded leather to make Vince Neil and a whole herd of cows envious!

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

Rob Halford and Friend, Us Festival 1983 (uncredited photo)

But enough about dubious wardrobe choices and the amateur-in-training visual aspects of the thing, how does it sound? Hmm… not perfect, but not bad. Not bad, at all. Halford proves early on that he owns one of the greatest voices in music (pick a genre, any genre) and, as mentioned regarding the studio recordings, Downing and Tipton play together and off each other superbly. Hill and Dave Holland may be boring to watch – especially the latter – but they keep the rest of the boys moving with a solid bottom-end. Set-wise, we understandably get a hefty dose of the then-current SCREAMING… album, a couple of my favorite Priest tunes (“Victim of Changes” and “Metal Gods”), two of the best covers I’ve ever heard (“Diamonds and Rust” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”) and all of their NKOTB tracks (“Heading Out To the Highway,” “Breaking the Law,” “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”). In a curious occurrence (maybe just to cement my New Kids digs), Rob Halford actually morphs into Madonna during “ …Another Thing… “ as he strikes one ridiculous pose after another. Even with all of the little (or medium-big) complaints, I did fairly enjoy watching one of the biggest metal bands of any era at the height of their popularity and, arguably, at the top of their game. If you’ve gotta own one CD version of SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE, make it this one!


THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

(WARNER VIDEO, 2012)

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I have a confession to make: I wasn’t thrilled about BATMAN BEGINS. So much so, in fact, that I never even deemed it worthy of my time to watch it! I think it may have been the title. Maybe, I just didn’t want another BATMAN AND ROBIN (I still have nightmares over George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s costume nipples… and often wonder why Alicia Silverstone’s costume was nipple-free). Could be that the truth lies more with me being more of a Marvel guy. Whatever the reason, I have avoided it until now. And, whatever that reason may be, it has also caused me to avoid – plague-like – SUPERMAN RETURNS (apparently, the only thing that one had going for it was a completely nipple-less costume!).

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

Okay, while I’m feeling confessional, I’ll also tell you that the only reason that I went to see THE DARK KNIGHT (at a real, live drive-in, no less!) was because my niece and nephew wanted to see it and I wanted them to enjoy the drive-in experience at least once in their lives. By then, of course, everyone was talking about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker and Academy Award in the same sentence. Even though Mister Ledger was dead, I knew that even a “pity Oscar” was out of the question for an actor in a “super-hero” flick. A lot of people were even going so far as to say that he absolutely personified the Joker. When friends and acquaintances heard that I’d (finally) seen the film, all I heard was, “What did you think of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Wasn’t he awesome?” To which I replied, “That wasn’t the Joker! Sure, he played a really great psychotic murderer, but that character wasn’t the Joker.” On this point, I was adamant. Why? Comic book tradition and origin stories: The origin story given for this guy wasn’t the origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. It was a story that would make almost anybody criminally insane and homicidal. It simply wasn’t what made the Joker who he was. I didn’t seem to mind that the origin of Two-Face was actually closer to the Joker’s than his true origin. But, I digress!

Next, of course, came the trilogy’s climax, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What can I say? The Bane character never thrilled me and… Anne Hathaway as Catwoman? No thanks! Not interested! Plus… the thing was like 27 hours long or something. But, then along came Christmas in the year of our Lord 2012. With it came THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY COLLECTOR’S GIFT SET and a really sweet price for all three movies. I’m a sucker for a good deal, so…

Anyway, this is where the kicking of my own butt begins! BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t BATMAN AND ROBIN, PART DEUX. Batman’s origin story wasn’t exactly like the comics, but it was close enough. Christian Bale made an okay Batman and a great Bruce Wayne and iconic characters from Batman lore were treated with respect to their importance to the mythos (particularly Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow). Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as the Wayne family butler, Alfred, were almost spot on and both performances were definite highlights. Even at two hours and 20 minutes,I was pleased with the movie overall.

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

Bale’s throaty take on Batman begins to deteriorate in THE DARK KNIGHT and I just wanna give the guy a lozenge! That’s a minor complaint, but one that takes on larger proportions in the final film. Heath Ledger shows up early on and, after much consideration, I must say that – origin story aside – he really does make an excellent Joker! Aaron Eckhardt is dutifully solid as hot-shot District Attorney Harvey Dent and dutifully tragic as Two-Face… an acting job that, unfortunately, gets lost amid the manic performance of Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan gets even darker here than he did in BATMAN BEGINS, a portent of things to come (and a fitting homage to writer/artist Frank Miller, whose 1986 comic book mini-series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is the basis for Nolan’s vision on this trilogy). This movie takes the Batman to a very dark and violent place… and I like it!

Clocking in at just over three hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes place ten years after the last movie and sees Bruce Wayne in retirement (or, more precisely, his alter-ego is in retirement) and a Gotham City in desperate need of a hero. Bane (played by Tom Hardy and almost incomprehensible beneath that mask) is brought in to taunt the Batman out of retirement so he can kill him and assure victory for organized crime. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers (I’m sure that there are still people out there who haven’t seen these movies) but, let’s just say that hilarity DOES NOT ensue! Christian Bale’s Batman is even less understandable than in the last flick, but we muddle through. His Bruce Wayne is still good, though. Caine and Oldman are still rock solid as Alfred and (now) Commissioner Gordon, but… Holy Bat-Crap, Adam West! Anne Hathaway is… oh, just to be nice, I’ll merely call her horrible as Catwoman/Selina Kyle! Her take on this iconic villain even makes that turd with Halle Berry look good! Ra’s Al Ghul is back (and a major part of the storyline), but Ken Watanabe has been replaced in the role by Liam Neeson. Toss a coin to decide who delivered the better Ra’s. This finale definitely ups the violence factor, but also adds more of a comic book feel, which I, as true comic geek, certainly appreciate.

The whole thing is nicely packaged and, at right at eight hours of content (not counting special bonus material), a great value. Plus… the fact that the movies are fantastic doesn’t hurt.