[21 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the Canadian metal community there’s been considerable buzz around veteran band Anvil and their documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil for the past couple years, but nobody could have predicted the incredible events of 2009. Steady word of mouth and rapturous critical praise has led to mainstream audiences embracing the life-affirming film, the band has been featured in glossy magazines that have little to do with music, they now share the same management with Slayer, the Sacha Gervasi-directed documentary is sure to get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, and for many of us who grew up with the band, the capper was easily their surreal but joyous performance of their 1982 fist-bangin’ anthem “Metal on Metal” live on The Tonight Show. It’s strange how popular culture works, and you can’t blame Anvil for milking it for all it’s worth.
The film justifiably mentions just how cutting edge Anvil were in their early days, classics like Metal on Metal and 1983’s Forged in Fire bridging the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and thrash metal, but in painting a sympathetic portrait of the band Gervasi tends to gloss over the fact that Anvil’s career free-fall was precipitated in large part by some awfully mediocre, and sometimes just plain awful music. Ever since their much-hyped 1987 album Strength of Steel, a record that had them sounding painfully passé while the rest of the metal genre was experiencing unprecedented artistic growth (if you remember “Mad Dog”, you’ll know what I’m talking about), it was a continual slide downhill. It was cool to see founding members Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner continue to stubbornly plug away as the years and decades went by, but there was a reason they were playing to sparse crowds in awful venues: this once-great band was perilously close to becoming a complete self-parody, if they weren’t already.
Throughout the documentary, we keep hearing snippets of new songs as Anvil struggle to finish their thirteenth album with Metal on Metal producer Chris Tsangarides, but never in their entirety. Although it’s kind of frustrating to be unable to tell whether or not the new tunes are any good, it’s a very shrewd move by Gervasi, as our curiosity is definitely whetted by the time we walk out of the theater. Even if some of us couldn’t care less about the form of music Anvil plays, we still want to hear the product they worked so damned hard and mortgaged everything on to finish.
In another well-timed move, VH1 Classic Records has taken on the aptly titled, originally self-released This is Thirteen and distributed it to outlets across North America just in time for the film’s DVD release, and as it turns out, while the album isn’t perfect, it’s in its own humble way a bit of a triumph. Tsangarides’ presence pays off immediately, his slick, hard-hitting style obliterating the band’s poorly-recorded recent work, but in the end, it’s the songs that win us over. The title track is prototypical doom metal, Kudlow’s Sabbath-esque riff lurching away, his highly identifiable vocals in fine form, the swirling bridge (“Cast a spell from the wave of a wand”) a brief glimpse of classic Anvil, hearkening back to the glory days. Kudlow’s staccato riffing meshes well with Reiner’s fluid drum fills on “Bombs Away”, while “Ready to Fight” sees the band clearly in their element delivering a simple, fun metal rave-up. For all the uninspired records, Reiner has always been a terrific drummer, displaying a natural swing that few metal percussionists are ever capable of and he leads the charge on such tracks as “Axe to Grind”, “Should’ A Would’ A Could’ A”, and “Burning Bridges”.
As is often the case with a band trying to recapture that old spark, Anvil bite off a little more than they can chew, the album going on about 15 minutes too long, songs like “Big Business”, “Worry”, and “Game Over” seeing Kudlow overreaching in the lyrics department. That said, it’s great to see these guys swinging for the fences. Their passion is palpable, and the album is exuberant, well-produced, and fun. The film might be getting all the accolades, but as far as Kudlow and Reiner are concerned, the music’s the most important thing, and with This is Thirteen they’ve emerged with their heads held high.