Rize of the Fenix, set to drop May 15th, 2012, is cause for celebration as it marks the return of Tenacious D after a six year absence. Some fans understandably worried that the rock duo of Jack Black (lead vocals, acoustic guitar) and Kyle Gass (lead acoustic guitar, backing vocals) was no more following their disastrous big screen adventure The Pick of Destiny in 2006. The harshest critics claimed it was for the best, insisting that the D’s act had grown stale. While the movie certainly could’ve been more inventive, its soundtrack earned Gold certification from the RIAA. In other words, even while belly flopping at theaters, Tenacious D was still able to make an impact musically.
The new album opens with the title track, one of the most awesomely powerful epics the band has conceived to date. The longest tune on the album, “Rize of the Fenix” is a multi-part statement of purpose. It establishes the group as a force to be reckoned with once again, despite the hard knocks they took after their movie bombed. Dave Grohl pummels his drums as Black roars forth with perhaps his most inspired vocal ever. Gass contributes skillful guitar playing and expert harmony vocals. The song’s head-banging, fist-pumping magnificence sets the bar impossibly high–it arguably should’ve closed the album, as it serves as the record’s climax.
Luckily Tenacious D has more than a few tricks up its sleeve, resulting in a consistently entertaining and endearing album. Musically, their foundation is as strong as ever. As he has on each D album to date, Dave Grohl lays down a tough bedrock of punishing drums. Returning from The Pick of Destiny are John Konesky (electric guitar) and John Spiker (bass, keyboards). Comic sketches are kept to a relatively minimum. “Classical Teacher,” in which Black hires a guitar instructor for Gass, is the funniest of the two spoken-word bits. It’s an instant classic, easily living up to the brilliance of sketches such as “Inward Singing” and “Drive-Thru” from their 2001 self-titled debut.
“Roadie,” a tribute to one of the more under-appreciated employees of a rock band, achieves a sublime majesty. “Without me, there’d be no lights on the stage,” Black wails, embodying the sympathetic spirit of a beleaguered crew member, “But you don’t applaud for me.” Continuing the theme of the title track, “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage” elaborates on what happened to Black and Gass during the D’s hiatus.
“Deth Starr” is a genre-bending track that begins with dreamy, jazzy chords reminiscent of The Pick of Destiny’s “Papagenu (He’s My Sassafrass)” before switching abruptly to heavy rock. A trio of mini-songs precedes the album’s final listed track, “39,” which is its most ambitious composition after the title track. In a world-weary, Springsteenian growl, Black delivers an ode to a 39-year-old female companion. Despite a mid-song description of some strange (and hilarious) texting proclivities, it manages to be the heartfelt and oddly touching. This will likely be a showstopper in concert when the D hit the road next month.
The magic of Tenacious D is that, at their best, they are able to transcend the joke behind their very existence. Going all the way back to their short-lived HBO sitcom (available on The Complete Masterworks DVD), the humor stemmed from seeing two slovenly, overweight goofballs truly believing they were rock gods. But the real punch line was that their songs actually kicked major ass. Their melodies and chord changes frequently wander off course, turning formulaic cock rock into unpredictable delights. The mock-grandeur of songs such as “Tribute” and “Wonderboy” (both from the 2001 debut album) is so passionately executed, it becomes the real deal. Happily, Rize of the Fenix continues that tradition.
Hopefully we get more Tenacious D before another six years go by. Regardless of what the future holds, Rize of the Fenix is a splendid addition to their small but potent discography. Their tour begins May 23rd in Santa Barbara, CA, with many dates scheduled in the U.S. and Europe throughout the summer. Check the official Tenacious D website for more information.