Release Date: Nov 10, 2014
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Grunge, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Hard Rock, Post-Grunge
Foo FightersSonic Highways(RCA)Rating: 4. 5 out of 5 stars With 2011’s Wasting Light – which united Dave Grohl and notoriously heavy hit-making producer Butch Vig for the first time since the recording of Nirvana’s Nevermind 20 years prior – the Foo Fighters began to audibly resemble a much bigger band. Now, with eighth studio album Sonic Highways, they bring to mind the trappings of a sprawling musical army, capable of recruiting nearly any player – regardless of stature – to their ranks.
Walking into an album with a concept as complex and lofty as that of Foo Fighters’ latest, ‘Sonic Highways’, was always going to be tough. Yet somehow, some way - and maybe it’s just because they’re Foo Fighters - they pull it off. Not only is their eighth album to date going to be released as a regular, run-of-the-mill album, it has its own eight-episode HBO television series as a companion.
Somewhere along the line (I’d peg it around 2005) the Foo Fighters became A-level standard bearers of loud rock. Blood-pumping, fist-clenching, life-affirming rock, the Foos have long since perfected their ability to craft and deliver it, though the trade-off in hindsight has been an increasing generic character. The Foo Fighters are now essentially the AC/DC of alternative rock.
Nobody ever would've thought the Foo Fighters were gearing up for a hiatus following the vibrant 2011 LP Wasting Light, but the group announced just that in 2012. It was a short-lived break, but during that time-off, lead Foo Dave Grohl filmed an ode to the classic Los Angeles recording studio Sound City, which in turn inspired the group's 2014 album, Sonic Highways. Constructed as an aural travelog through the great rock & roll cities of America -- a journey that was documented on an accompanying HBO mini-series of the same name -- Sonic Highways picks up the thread left dangling from Sound City: Real to Reel; it celebrates not the coiled fury of underground rock exploding into the mainstream, the way the '90s-happy Wasting Light did, but rather the classic rock that unites the U.
In honor of their 20th anniversary as a band, the Foo Fighters decided to celebrate by reassessing their songwriting process. Traveling to musical meccas across America—Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York City—rock’s loudest, merriest pranksters met with local legends to discover how each region’s music affected its identity. The Foos waited until their last day of tracking each city to write the lyrics, soaking up every cultural influence until the last possible chance.
After 2011’s chart-topping ‘Wasting Light’ reaffirmed Foo Fighters’ status as one of the planet’s biggest bands after four years away, Dave Grohl realised that he had “licence to get weird” on its follow-up. “If we wanted,” he told Billboard in May, “we could make some crazy, bleak Radiohead record and freak everyone out. Then I thought, ‘Fuck that.’” Quelle surprise, you might say: whereas Grohl’s previous band were iconoclasts who tried to tear down the golden calf of classic rock-ism, the Foos have always seemed happy to embrace it.
It's been 20 years since Dave Grohl headed into a Seattle studio and recorded some songs he'd written during his time behind the kit in Nirvana. At the time, Foo Fighters were less a band than an informal solo project. But over the next few years, the guitars got bigger, the hooks grew to stadium scale – and an act that could have been just another one-off à la Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds has become quite possibly today's most vital living, breathing rock & roll band.
Meh. Another Foo Fighters record. Seven albums under their belts and stacks of fantastic moments, sure. But does anyone really need another Foo Fighters record, only three years after the last one? They unquestionably remain one of the biggest bands on the planet as recent surprise gigs as The Holy Shits confirmed, with frenzied fans clamouring for the few tickets available at the tiny venues once the clandestine manoeuvre was revealed.
Alt-folk visionary Sufjan Stevens famously failed in his attempt to record an album about every American state. Foo Fighters’ eighth album, accompanied by an HBO documentary, achieves its rather more modest ambition: eight songs inspired by and recorded in eight US cities. Not much musical influence seems to have rubbed off along the way: at a stretch, there’s a faintly Nashville-derived twang to the opening riff of Congregation.
Dave Grohl wanted to serve up a movable feast for his new Foo Fighters album. He recorded its 10 songs in as many great American cities. The goal, apparently, was to soak up the influences and inflections of places from Chicago to Seattle to New York. Grohl tied the album’s recording to a currently running HBO documentary of the same name, which he directed.
Foo Fighters have now been Dave Grohl’s chief concern for 20 years. The first 10 were spent minting the band’s platinum-plated modern-rock sound, and the subsequent decade was spent trying to remold it… only to have it settle back into its predictable color and shape. Indeed, it’s hard to distinguish one Foo Fighters album from another, since they all draw from the same well of arena-punk fist-pumpers, gentle comedown ballads, and arm-swaying sing-alongs that fall somewhere in between; as their Greatest Hits compilation made all too clear, a Foos song from 2007 sounds an awful lot like one from 1997.
Dave et al. have really pulled out all the stops in the making of Sonic Highways. The band spent months crisscrossing the US of A, recording each track in a different city of musical significance, leaching minerals from the cornerstones of American rock and hosting a prominent guest or two in the process. The album even arrived on the heels of an accompanying TV series – a travelogue documenting the recording process - but despite such an epic excursion and arduous architecture, the influence of the cities respective heritages is, all in all, pretty minimal on the album’s tracks, and the result is a Foos album that lacks its own identity, perhaps as a result of trying too hard to give it one.
Dave Grohl's unbridled enthusiasm for the magic and the power of rock'n'roll is a wondrous and thoroughly infectious thing to behold. It was there as he gleefully pounded the hell out of his drum kit in Nirvana, and it can make a stadium full of Foo Fighters fans feel like each and every one of them is Grohl's BFF. Lately, that energy has served Grohl's foray into roc doc filmmaking: Both Sound City and the first few episodes of his HBO show/recording project, Sonic Highways, have given viewers remarkable insight into the recording process and the people who make that happen.
The story of Sonic Highways is both admirable and flawed in its conception. Foo Fighters, now nearing 20 years into their career as a rock band, decide to push themselves in new directions, traveling to eight American cities, recording with local legends in famed studios, leaving Dave Grohl to wait until the last minute to write the lyrics for each song, so as to be inspired by the surroundings, the experience. Foo Fighters wanted to make things new again, but something was lost along the way — their identity.
Those horrified by the thought of seeing “Foo Fighters” and “high concept” in the same sentence might want to look away now: for their eighth album, Foo Fighters have gone high concept. Sonic Highways sees Dave Grohl’s band set up shop in eight different US cities in order to write a song in each, then film the results for an HBO series of the same name. All of the cities the band chose – from Washington and Chicago to New Orleans and Nashville – have fascinating musical stories, and they’re told brilliantly through the medium of TV interviews with the likes of Buddy Guy and Steve Albini.
You know what you're getting with Foo Fighters these days, and album number eight does nothing to subvert your assumptions or challenge their chart-topping formula. Which is a pity. They're an odd entity, the Foos. With one hand they giveth, like the ethereal 'Everlong', one of the greatest rock tracks of modern times, but with the other they throw shit at the wall and some of it inexplicably sticks, like their long-running catalogue of boring, inoffensive radio rock singles over the last decade.
Conceived in tandem with the HBO docuseries of the same name, each of Sonic Highways’ eight tracks aligns with a city in which Foo Fighters lived and drew inspiration from, including New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago and Nashville. “In The Clear” is a massive anthem with a thick, punchy brass section; “Something From Nothing” finds frontman Dave Grohl cursing detractors from his past; “The Feast And The Famine” is livewire alt-punk that is a not-too-distant cousin of The Colour And The Shape’s “Monkey Wrench. ” It’s hard not to look at Sonic Highways as a soundtrack instead of a proper album, though; many of the arrangements are loose, with rhythmic jam parts and Led Zeppelin-esque guitar solos feeling at times never-ending.
opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN For better or worse, Sonic Highways is a concept album: Dave Grohl, et al, travel the United States and record at different legendary studios with different rock legends at each location. In my mind, I picture Grohl as a child rigidly completing a maze checklist on the back of a happy meal, tracing his route via “sonic highways” between Seattle, New Orleans, D.C., etc. Only this time, there are cameras.
Almost 20 years after Dave Grohl composed and recorded Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut (mostly) by himself in a week, he is releasing an eighth album that’s light years away from his band’s modest inception. Gussied up as an overzealous musical odyssey, Sonic Highways is an arena-ready album in scope, with an ostentatious name to boot. Aside from Grohl’s everyman, salt-of-the-earth charm—yes, he would probably be cool to get a beer with—the frontman remains a bona fide American rock star with the means to govern his rock-star ambitions.
Dave Grohl has developed a reputation for reliability with Foo Fighters. Others may call it predictability. Unlike, say, Jack White, who typically works within a similar guitar-bass-drums format but is prone to more audacious experiments, Grohl doesn't color outside the margins all that much. That consistency gives his seven previous albums an increasingly homogenous feel.
For Foo Fighters' eighth album, Dave Grohl, inspired by the success of his 2013 Sound City documentary, decided to record each song in a different American city. He spent time interviewing local music legends from all genres, letting their thoughts and stories seep into the songs. (The whole process was also turned into the TV series Sonic Highways.) It's a cool premise, but despite the ambition and guest musicians on each song, Sonic Highways sounds like every other Foo Fighters record: exploding with throat-bulging angst, commercial rock song craft and slick, airless production.
In a contemporary pop landscape where Adam Levine is presented as an embodiment of and advocate for rock music on millions of televisions weekly, Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” is welcome recalibration for the genre. But in the context of a world where “The Colour and the Shape” and “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace” exist, it’s hard to view the band’s eighth album as anything but its weakest. Which isn’t to say that “The Feast and the Famine,” “Congregation,” and others don’t rock righteously, it’s just that only “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness,” burning with the drive and breadth of a compact epic, pulls off anything more than that.