For Canadian heavy metal trio Anvil, music has always come second to their primary mission. This is a band that spent 30 years shirking off industry trends, consumer taste and the tricky mortality few acts successfully navigate. No stranger to cruel irony, Anvil's belligerent refusal to give up the dream has finally brought about the band's first real taste of success.
The critically acclaimed 2008 documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil certainly didn't deplete morale. Directed by screenwriter and former Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi, the film premiered with six sold-out screenings at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Viewers easily connected with the story's brash humanity, reinvigorating a cause that never really needed refreshing in the minds of the band's longsuffering founders, Steve "Lips" Kudlow (guitar, vocals) and Robb Reiner (drums). The epic underdog tale not only brought Kudlow and Reiner celebrity status, it also revived flatlined consumer interest in Anvil.
The band's effort to capitalize comes in the form of Anvil: the Anvil Experience, a novel bundling of the film screening plus a live performance. The tour, which stops at Variety Playhouse on Jan. 20, should be viewed as several things: a struggling band's last-ditch effort; promotional duties for the documentary DVD, released last October; and a postmodern perversion of text, context, and subtext where the crowd – if it shows up at all – will write the evening's ending. Anvil likely wouldn't have it any other way.
Back in 1973, Kudlow's and Reiner's interest in hard rock brought them together as idealistic Toronto teens eager to build their own band. Their quick friendship erected Anvil. Despite lineup changes over the years, the core duo tried to live a dream that consisted of traveling around the world while rocking bump 'n' grind anthems for sold-out stadiums.
And they did – for a while.
By the mid-'80s, the band was sharing stages with Bon Jovi, Scorpions and Whitesnake. Frontman Kudlow rivaled Ted Nugent with his wild-man antics. Clad in S&M bondage gear, Kudlow savaged his guitar with an oversized dildo and led the band through material littered with sexual references.
From the beginning, Anvil's sound allayed itself firmly alongside such stalwarts of Britain's new wave heavy metal as Saxon, Tank and Diamond Head. It was propulsive music akin to Little Richard being channeled through Flying V guitars. Augmented with smutty, overt lyrics, songs such as "Butter-Bust Jerky" and "Jackhammer" never aspired to mystery. Anvil took the Spinal Tap-esque shtick even further, giving their records simplistic, alliterative titles: Hard 'n' Heavy, Metal on Metal, Forged in Fire, etc. Art direction was stoically one-directional. Hammers, chop saws, incinerators and, of course, anvils decorated covers in lieu of the then-popular palette that leaned toward exaggerated satanic imagery, apocalyptic scenes and distressed hotties either bound or pursued by flesh-eating maniacs.
While most acts spend their formative recordings openly searching for a persona, Anvil's airtight aesthetic and sound was quickly assembled in the practice space and showcased wherever the band could land gigs. Anvil aspired for world domination, but quickly became a living museum of outmoded sights and sounds powered by players unaware of the fickle nature of fans.
The problem? Their contemporaries evolved. Some softened songs into radio-friendly hits that rubbed shoulders with bona fide pop tunes. Even Bon Jovi and Whitesnake took backseats to the bubblegum schlock of Poison and Cinderella.
Thirteen full-lengths and one bizarrely riveting documentary behind them, the only perceptible change is Kudlow's and Reiner's acknowledgment of time ticking away. Yet they play their hand no differently. Only such graybeards as Iron Maiden, Motorhead and AC/DC have stuck to their guns with the same resolve.
The band's greatest strength is its ability to incessantly straddle the fence of high and low art. Their paeans to movie monsters ("Mothra"), self-obsessed anthems ("Metal on Metal"), and orgasm-addict confessionals ("Bedroom Games") are well-tread territory for the heavy metal ilk. The songs are hilarious; perhaps unintentionally so. By sheer bravado, however, the music demands to be taken seriously. The latest album, 2007's This Is Thirteen, isn't a departure from Anvil's aesthetic, but a repackaging. Guitars are tuned lower, overdubs abound and the overall sound is bottom-end heavy, lending gravitas to a musical style that's marginal at best, cliché and silly at worst.
Still, any band – let alone a heavy metal act – that weathers 30 years deserves respect. But Kudlow and Reiner command something greater. Today they stand as veritable totems of authenticity, headlining festivals and receiving high praise. As Anvil teeters on the cusp of once unattainable fame, they refuse to lose sight of why they've kept going for so long. It has everything to do with the band's endless compulsion – a power source at once purposeful and pathetic.
Anvil is a band bound to its mere existence. With a lifetime invested, putting the brakes on has never been an option. So Anvil continues to soldier on – partly for the money and partly because they enjoy making the music. But, above all, because they must.
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Phoenix though! LOL. That's aiight though Kwanza; you're still good with me.
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