Dave Grohl didn't make it easy for himself. Not long after Nirvana dissolved in April 1994, following Kurt Cobain's suicide, Grohl was offered the opportunity to back Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. For him, a Petty fan, that was a dream job. Though he would drum with them during a "Saturday Night Live" performance later that year, Grohl ultimately declined, to start over from scratch and do what he's still doing today: front a band.
At the time, that decision was probably daunting. Grohl had already spent some time in a Seattle studio recording a humble demo tape that would become Foo Fighters' debut, one for whose release rights major labels were already grappling. But the sizable shadow cast by Cobain and the weight of his legacy and death was immense. This week, coupled with Wasting Light, their seventh full-length, Foo Fighters have been screening their new, somewhat revisionist, sometimes 3-D retrospective documentary, Back and Forth. There's some great footage early on during what was Grohl's very first tour (opening for Mike Watt) with his brand new band. There, despite having never heard any of the yet-to-be-released Foo Fighters songs, young Nirvana fans were showing up early and in numbers. "Marigold!" they'd scream out between songs, in hopes of hearing the one Grohl-penned Nirvana tune there was. He never played it.
The idea of Grohl opening for anyone now seems just as ridiculous as him having to field requests for anything but one of the two dozen modern rock hits he's released since. But in Wasting Light, Grohl is attempting to come full circle. The plan was to go back to basics, in a few ways: 1) record the album to tape in Grohl's San Fernando Valley garage, 2) hire famed Nevermind producer Butch Vig to man the boards, 3) bring former Germs, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear back into the mix, 4) have founding Nirvana member and bassist Krist Novoselic down from Seattle to guest on some of the recordings. As Grohl says during Back and Forth, before recording began in earnest, "I love that we're going to make an album at home. It's going to sound like it was recorded in a house. I know it will."
It doesn't. In fact, said garage was built with the arena in mind, and as a result Wasting Light sounds just as mammoth and capable of knocking out teeth as anything Foo Fighters have recorded since the late 90s. That's more a product of force than hooks. As evidenced by the opening roar of "Bridge Burning" and "Rope" or metallic uppercuts of "White Limo", the new, three-guitar attack in place provides a wallop that wasn't there before. Vig is renowned for sugaring up recordings, but here, the aim seems solely about knocking down walls. Front to back, Wasting Light meets that cause with lean, workmanlike aplomb. Grohl's screams haven't registered this dangerously, gleefully shredded in years-- if he was hoping to exorcise some demons, it sounds as though he made that happen.
But Foo Fighters' long-standing foundation has been built on fist-pumpers. While Wasting Light features a host of worthy set-openers, few prove to be as sticky or memorable as any number of their previous singles. There just isn't a melody or hook to really amplify. Those songs here that hold tightly to Grohl's long perfected, quiet-LOUD formula and crescendos-- see: alt-rock lullabies "Arlandria" and "These Days", or the pop-punk door-to-ass closer "Walk"-- come closest to matching the energy of his best work. In theory, as a form of therapy, it still works. Former Hüsker Dü frontman and fellow 80s punker Bob Mould guests semi-audibly on the Zeppelin-like crunch of "Dear Rosemary" and then of course, there's Novoselic's turn on "I Should Have Known", where the latter's bass sounds as round and bowling ball-heavy as it did on Nirvana's "Sliver".
There's a scene not long into Back and Forth, when Grohl remembers, "People really resented me for starting this band, for making music they thought 'sounded just like Nirvana.' What? You mean loud rock guitars? Melodies? Cymbals crashing? Big-ass drums? Well, that's what I do." It's true. He always did. It's just that, this time out, it's his melodies that are missed most.— David Bevan, April 15, 2011
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