Album Review: Tenacious D – “Rize Of The Fenix”

By Matt Albers

            There are bands, and then there are movements. Some acts, for whatever unique reason(s), attract a fan base that becomes so strong and dedicated that it goes beyond a simple music following, but reaches further aspects of entertainment. Tenacious D is a prime example of music project that has known no bounds of creativity and humor. Beginning as a project between fellow actors and singer/songwriters Jack Black and Kyle Gass which became an HBO program in the late 1990s, Tenacious D would quickly become a phenomenon after the release of their 2001 self-titled debut. Not long after, through touring and support of this first recording, Tenacious D eventually spawned a feature film in 2006, Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny, which also included a corresponding full-length sophomore album that served as the film’s soundtrack.

With the five-year gap between the two separate full-length releases due to the many various other projects and commitments of both members, there was little surprise that their third album, Rize Of The Fenix, would be released another five or so years after The Pick Of Destiny. Both Black and Gass had revealed plans to record a third album years prior to the its eventual May 2012 release. With any release so long after its predecessor, high anticipation and excitement is to be expected. But also with this understandable anticipation, comes the possibility of a strong difference in impact for the band, from a perspective from both appeal and overall creativity.

It would be pointless to debate or critique the musicianship and songwriting of Tenacious D, not only on Rize Of The Fenix, but any of their recordings. Listen to any song by Tenacious D and it’s no secret that Black and Gass both have true musical talent and creativity. Both are trained guitarists and singers, but Black’s strengths lie in leading the duo through his vocals (even with his silly, exaggerated sound effects) while Gass shows off his much more extensive guitar skills. Of course other instruments and performances were also provided by equally talented musicians throughout their career, most notably Dave Grohl on drums.

The songwriting on Rize Of The Fenix might actually be the strongest that Tenacious D has ever released, and this lies primarily in the diversity of styles and themes that each individual song has. Tenacious D has always played with the different tones and styles stemming from classic rock, hard rock, heavy metal, and acoustic folk, but ach song’s individual theme and influence on Rize Of The Fenix make them much more singular. “The Ballad Of Hollywood Jack And The Rage Kage” is a narrative that is eerily similar to Bob Dylan. “Senorita” is not surprisingly in the style of Mexican mariachi or traditional Spanish music. “39” seems to conjure up the feel of a ballad in the vein of Bob Seeger, and the exactly one-minute long “To Be The Best” is a tribute to 80’s do-it-yourself montage songs, rivaling the impact of “Eye Of The Tiger.” Even the album’s title track appears to have an epic Rush-styled influence.

As unsurprisingly strong as the music is on Rize Of The Fenix, this element is nowhere near as important a factor for a Tenacious D album as the lyrics and humor. While the songwriting on the album may be the strongest that the duo has ever produced, the same cannot be said for the lyrics. This could once again because of such a long gap between Rize Of The Fenix and Tenacious D’s previous album, perhaps also with the members’ other projects preoccupying their creative direction for the project, but most of the songs and interlude skits – especially toward the beginning of the album – do not seem as originally humorous as their past two albums. This is not to say that they are not funny; the silly but adult humor, filled with profanity and dick and fart jokes that Tenacious D is known for are indeed there throughout the album. There is also a noticeable absence of marijuana or drug-themed humor on this album as compared to the past two. But just as the musical style of each song is singular, so are the jokes that each song displays. This results in either almost instant hilarity, or head-scratching confusion, usually accompanied by at least a smirk or chuckle.

The humor on Tenacious D’s past two albums seemed much more solid and instantly funny for very different reasons. While the self-titled debut album offered a blank slate for the band to express and offer their humor and talent. The Pick Of Destiny had a narrative flow and direction throughout that accompanied the movie, enhancing the experience and offering itself. Rize Of The Fenix seems to try to take the same route as the self-titled debut, but with less of an impact. Any of the aforementioned possible factors could have contributed to this; i.e. the time gap between releases, members’ preoccupation with other projects. However, there are two silver linings to the album’s humor not being outstanding as the last two releases. The first is that it offers the listener a chance to appreciate the songwriting and musicianship on their own, leading them to possibly becoming catchy and fun to sing along to. The second is that, fortunately, over multiple listens, the humor becomes more familiar to why fans enjoy Tenacious D. So, even if a listener forgot what to expect after an extended absence, going back to the album again and again will most likely remind them.

Rize Of The Fenix is available as a standard CD or in an exclusive deluxe edition which features two bonus tracks and a DVD of music videos, promotional footage and additional bits that add to and enhance the album’s experience. Any fan worth their salt and worthy of the might awesome that is “The D” would do best to steer toward this package. While Rize Of The Fenix may be the weakest overall Tenacious D album in terms of humor, that’s like saying which type of desert or piece of fine art is least desireable; a less popular Picasso that is still a Picasso, and you may find that your least favorite pie or ice cream flavor is probably still delicious. In other words, despite the album maybe being overall lackluster, it’s still entertaining, especially for fans.

Jack Black and Kyle Gass seem to commit to Tenacious D when they know they can create something worthwhile, and ultimately, Rize Of The Fenix is no exception. If the humor this duo has to offer is your thing, chances are you will never be disappointed. And picking up this album should no doubt get St. Louisans excited for their return to the city in over ten years, since they played and hosted Pointfest in 2002…that is, if you were lucky enough to buy a ticket for their July 23 show at The Pageant before it sold out in less than 24 hours.

Final Score: 3.75 out of 5 (B+/A-)

Reccomended If You Like: Flight Of The Conchords, Psychostick, Stephen Lynch, Steel Panther, “Weird Al” Yankovic

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