posted on 11/2011 By:
It’s a given that everything new borrows and steals from the old, and while this platitude ought to liberate us critics from the tiresome debate over authenticity versus pastiche, there’s enough of a difference between homage and recreation (and enough of the latter masquerading as the former) that the messy details need to be worked out more often than not. Los Angeles’s White Wizzard is among the highest-profile of the recent bloom of traditional metal reenactment societies (see also Cauldron, Holy Grail, Volture, etc.), and as such, the band’s musical DNA is almost exclusively Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. I’m not opposed on principle to slavish recreation when it’s done with an appropriate amount of reckless enthusiasm (which is why Enforcer’s Into the Night still gets regular airtime with me), but committing to an art-form that is such an obvious replica of a decades-old style means that one’s craft will be subjected to a level of ruthless scrutiny that the style’s originators escaped due to its novelty. While much of Flying Tigers surges with sturdy efforts at instrumental virtuosity and impassioned choruses, White Wizzard’s attempts to write a more serious album are much too self-conscious. Moreover, when the players’ energy slackens, their sketches and traces of musical forebears too quickly become photocopy and pantomime.
I cannot pretend to care in the slightest about the incessant line-up drama that has apparently plagued White Wizzard, but whoever sings on Flying Tigers has a tremendously impressive set of pipes, even if a little bit of snarling grit would go for miles toward dirtying up this over-clean presentation. Band leader Jon Leon’s bass lines are a thing of drooling beauty, and clearly the product of a borderline-unhealthy Steve Harris fetish. The debt to Iron Maiden occasionally devolves too sharply into mimesis, however, with the opening riff of “Flying Tigers” a damn near dead ringer for “Gangland,” and the electric arpeggios that close out the album on “Starman’s Son” a bit too reminiscent of “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Nevertheless, the dual guitarwork is exceedingly competent and often inspired (see the odd scale choices near the end of the soloing on “Starchild”), but too many of these songs simply feel like unfinished thoughts, and the album as a whole is worryingly front-loaded, leaving almost every song after “Fall of Atlantis” with an air of tossed-together-in-the-studio.
White Wizzard also grafts a glam rock flavor onto songs like “West L.A. Nights” and “Night Train to Tokyo,” the latter of which is so irritating, with its obnoxious chorus and entirely unconvincing swagger, that it’s a good thing no buses routinely pass through my living room lest I hurl myself in front of them. It should also be noted that the song’s lyrics can be read as an Orientalizing rape fantasy, which belies their somewhat disturbingly breezy delivery. Further attention to lyrics reveals White Wizzard as paradigmatically American. The title track involves American airmen flying during the Second World War, which may remind some of you of a little-known British band who wrote an obscure song called “Aces High.” White Wizzard’s invocation of the men flying the P-40 Warhawk is all chest-thumping and spitting-in-the-face-of-death (“Warhawks fighting / So the dream can stay alive,” “A bond of brothers / In a field of hopes and dreams / Lives forever changing history”), which is all fine and good, except it lacks any of the attention to the prosaic inevitability of Iron Maiden’s account (“Out for the scramble we’ve got to get airborne / Got to get up for the coming attack”), as well as completely disregarding any of the sharply elegiac quality that marks almost all of Maiden’s many songs about war (see “The Trooper”: “On this battlefield no one wins”; “The Aftermath”: “In the mud and rain / What are we fighting for?”; and even on the strident “These Colours Don’t Run,” war is ‘cold’ and ‘bloody’, not some jolly adventure).
Admittedly, most of us probably don’t give two shits about the lyrics. On a purely experiential level, then, Flying Tigers is inexcusably long, particularly as the band enters “no smiling allowed” territory on the ostensibly dark and brooding second half. Rather than being actually dark and brooding, however, the latter half of Flying Tigers is achingly transparent in its desire for Powerslave-styled majesty but equally unsuccessful in the attempt. The three-minute instrumental intro to “Demons and Diamonds” comes off as much too self-consciously epic, and as the song wears on, one fact bangs itself repeatedly into my forehead: just because a song is long does not make it epic. Playing a “Wrathchild” for thirteen minutes does not make it a “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Meanwhile, when the drums slip into a heavy stomp on “Blood on the Pyramids,” they reveal just how thin and choppy they have sounded the entire time. “Fall of Atlantis” is completely energetic, and thus ends up being one of the album’s most satisfying songs, but when part of “Dark Alien Overture” sounds cribbed from one of the original Super Mario Bros. games and the rest from Rush’s “2112,” it’s difficult to keep one’s bile from rising.
But really, I’m more disappointed than angry. The reason that these myriad flaws are so frustrating is that somewhere in this bloated mess of an hour lurks a feisty thirty to thirty-five minutes of truly accomplished heavy metal archival research. When White Wizzard plays to its strengths on adrenaline-fueled rippers like “Fight to the Death,” “Night Stalker,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Flying Tigers,” they aren’t necessarily less imitative, but those imitations are much less distracting. The lesson that White Wizzard has apparently forgotten on Flying Tigers is that the one fail-safe fix for this hand-wringing over originality versus regurgitation is to cram your album so full of undeniable fun that even the dourest of critics can’t help but stuff both fists in his mouth in an uncontrollable fit of splendid enjoyment. Well, friends, as I live and breathe, I must sadly report that both of my fists remain devoutly not-stuffed-in-my-mouth.
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