Ultimately, reproducing an icon like The Wall is a no-win situation: Perform the songs spot-on, and you lack creativity. Monkey with the material and you infuriate the faithful.
In 1982, a year after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark barnstormed across screens in U.S. movie houses, three kids from Mississippi began the monumental task of recreating the film they adored. The 12-year-olds lovingly cobbled together a shot-for-shot adaptation of the movie over the next seven years. The resulting film, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, has been praised for its inspiration and its creators for their resourcefulness. Fifteen years after completing their project, their love-letter resurfaced and the boys' story has since been tapped to be transformed into a big screen bio-pic.
Cleopatra Records and Billy Sherwood are a lot like those kids. Inspired by Pink Floyd's 1979 classic rock concept double-album, The Wall, a song-for-song recreation has been crafted and edited together by the tribute album label and the prog-rock producer. This adaptation, however, has some well-known names attached to it from the beginning. When you have Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) banging up against Fee Waybill (The Tubes) and Ronnie Montrose (Montrose), and John Wetton (Asia) mixing with Tommy Shaw (Styx), and Robby Krieger (The Doors) on the same disc as Chris Squire (Yes) and Steve Morse (Kansas), it's like a prog-rock/classic rock orgy. Throw in Jim Ladd and Malcolm McDowell, and it's hard to know what to make of all this. All in all, it's a very strange listen.
I went through an adolescent phase where The Wall spoke to me and seemed to hold incredible meaning and depth. I know every word, every note, every between song background snippet to The Wall -- like many, I suspect, who grew up listening to it. And that knowledge is what ultimately dooms Back Against the Wall, because no matter how closely you reproduce it, the target audience has an established idea about how it's supposed to sound.
On the tracks where Sherwood handles the lead, he takes on the vocal affectations of Pink Floyd singer/lyricist Roger Waters and the resemblance is frightening. Sherwood's love of the original material comes through in every note and every turn of the phrase. It's a somewhat disconcerting listen, though, because something does not compute. The listener is set up by the meticulous reproduction, only to be thrown off by the slight variations in vocal delivery or musical details.
Along with Sherwood's uncanny imitation, he also employs the exact same background and between-song voices. Again, the effect does more to mess with the listener's equilibrium than anything else, but it's all there -- every comment, every sound effect -- sometimes delivered in a slightly different cadence or pitch, but it's there nonetheless.
There are places where the artists consciously deviate from the original material -- Rick Wakeman's bizarre piano work on "Nobody Home", for instance, and Ronnie Montrose's changes to the solo of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" -- and the results are equally confounding. At the other end of the spectrum is McDowell's amazing lead vocal performance on "The Trial". This was a role he was born to play.
Ultimately, reproducing an icon like The Wall is a no-win situation. Perform the songs spot-on, and you lack creativity. Monkey with the material and put your own stamp on it, and you infuriate the faithful.
Practically a rite of passage, Pink Floyd's The Wall is an album that has somehow struck a chord with members of every generation of adolescent boys since it was first released. The Wall plays to the isolation and confusion of youth. I grew out of that period, but still listen to The Wall every now and again. Back Against the Wall seems like a reunion of guys who never outgrew that phase.