Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways Review

Review by Kelly O

Much has been made of Dave Grohl the artist in the last few years. Once seen largely as an overachiever, a drummer who dared to step out front and create a whole new, viable musical identity out of the ashes of one of the most influential bands in the history of music. These days we know the “overachiever” tag is misplaced bias. Dave Grohl is now a genre unto himself as the music he makes transcends the industry and has crossed over into movies and television.

As the Foo Fighters have progressed as a band, Grohl has challenged how he makes albums. From the basement recording of There’s Nothing Left To Lose, the double album In Your Honor, the genre bending Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and the back to analog home recording of Wasting Light. Parallel to this the music industry has floundered under the weight of piracy and artists have been looking for new ways to make the full-length album a current and viable art form that can still either pay for itself or make money.

So when the Foo Fighters announced they would be recording their 8th album in some of the most well know musical hotbeds and studios in America and each song would in turn be an episode filmed for HBO, it created a fair bit of intrigue. The essence of the show was Grohl creating love letters to these locations through interviews and then getting a local artist to guest on that track. This would also be a peek inside the Foo’s creative process and also inside the mind of Dave Grohl the music fan and how would the FF’s process be effected recording in heartlands more associated with country, jazz, blues and hardcore.

Not so incidentally this could be viewed as a new way to make albums a musical experience and create an event around it. While the concept of watching a band just recording sounds about as exciting as listening to a kick drum for 2 hours, if you find the right hook it has potential to be compelling viewing. The other factor is that either HBO are paying the FF’s for the series, which would cover the cost of recording or the Foo’s are paying for this out of pocket themselves and then licensing the show. Either way, with their level of popularity, this is a legit money making exercise.

Since this type of project has not been tried before with such an established act it raised an important question, is this a soundtrack or an album? How much does the theme of Sonic Highways influence song selection, tracking and even the writing of a song?

What comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Sonic Highways
1) Something From Nothing
2) The Feast And The Famine
3) Congregation
4) What Did I Do?/God As My Witness
5) Outside
6) In The Clear
7) Subterranean
8) I Am A River

Some have made mention that there’s only 8 tracks on this album. This isn’t a big deal as the running time clocks in at just a tick over 42 minutes. Only one song comes in under 4 minutes and the longest at 7:09. As a comparison, the 11-track Wasting Light comes in at 47 minutes. So there’s no real skimping on quantity. Anyone that complains about this is living in the past.

To the question I posed before…is this a soundtrack or an album.?

Grohl has expressly stated this will not be a musical left turn for the group. They are recording Foo Fighters songs and nothing has been written to accommodate the surroundings. In essence this should be a normal recording, just recorded in an unconventional way.

The answer to the question? A little of column A and a little of column B.

For starters, this may be the most ambitious that the FF’s have ever been musically. By allowing the songs to breath and move they have created an almost panoramic musical effect. Even in the tightly coiled “The Feast And The Famine” there is a scope to the music that is a revelation. With the urgent intro riff, big chorus, cathedral-like backing vocals and manic Taylor Hawkins drumming, this song is as close to classic Foo Fighters as you will get.

Outside of this the musical palette gets as varied as it gets inconsistent. This is where the album slips between a true long player and something that more closely resembles a soundtrack. It also doesn’t help matters when song elements are included more because they could be rather than if they should.

Take “Congregation” for example, while I like the overall song, when guest guitarist Zac Brown comes in with his neo-classical lead it makes sense for the first 30 seconds. However, when the song kicks back in and knocks it up a gear the same clean guitar tone is used and it’s falls flat. What we needed was the “outlaw” Zac Brown guitar playing. I would have kept 30 seconds of the interlude, trimmed about a minute and headed into the slamming outro. Of course this is opinion but the song would have had tighter structure and been more concise.

Songs like “Outside” offer nothing new but fail to get that classic Foo spirit either. However, thanks to the bands effort to stretch their arrangements the outro is great, borrowing more than a little from the Fleetwood Mac classic “The Chain” (no surprise as this is the L.A recorded song). Is it enough to save the whole track? Maybe, but if the main part of the song was lifted just that little bit higher it would have been a slam-dunk.

Not that I want to sound like I’m bitching about the whole album. “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” has quickly become a favorite. With its clever double use of the intro for two different songs and great blues solo at the end by Gary Clarke, Jr. make this a sweeping success. “I Am A River” also delivers in spades. As one of the few true successes of Grohls experiment with arrangements and atmosphere it takes it’s time, never feels forced and is the gem that shows what could have been.

Album opener “Something From Nothing” almost touched greatness itself. This slow-burning first track is a change of pace from the usual sonic assault that greats a listener too a Foo Fighter album and I applaud the break from convention. I also like the progressive layering of instruments that help build tension and menace. I would however have taken a razor blade to the song length. At 4:49 it’s a good 45 seconds longer than it needs and would have trimmed down either the verse lengths or jettisoned one of the verses all together. The sacrifice of the usual FF’s economy of song structure does not suit them here.

While you can’t knock the ambition that the Foo Fighters have shown with the Sonic Highways experiment, I wonder did all the studio hopping make the overall cohesiveness suffer? It’s hard to be too critical since where this set falls short is the band and Grohl overshooting on the ambition front. It’s impossible to give them too much of a hard time in that regard.

In saying all of this, I do like most of the songs even if parts aren’t as great as we would expect from such a consistent tunesmith like Dave Grohl. Maybe this will be that album that rewards repeated listening. I have played Sonic Highways once each in my car, on my computer and finally in my headphones and the last time was certainly the best as it highlighted the detail in the record and the fine instrumentation.