Tenacious D come back with ‘Rize of the Fenix' to rescue rock
Tenacious D rehearses in a grim-looking practice space on a desolate industrial strip deep in the San Fernando Valley. A string of twinkle lights works in vain against the gloom of the room. The vaguely creepy atmosphere is exactly where you'd expect to find a rock band as obsessed with Satan as Tenacious D is.
Or at least it would be if the band weren't fronted by a comic movie star whose last several films -- including "Tropic Thunder" and the "Kung Fu Panda" pictures -- have together raked in well over a billion dollars, according to Box Office Mojo. Jack Black laughs off such celebrity exceptionalism.
"In a way, it's more fun the rougher it is," the singer-actor said on a recent afternoon at the rehearsal space. Black and his bandmate, Kyle Gass, had finished practicing for an upcoming tour (they play May 23 at the Santa Barbara Bowl) for their new album, "Rize of the Fenix," and were lounging on a pair of lumpy sofas. "That's where we came from before we had an album: shooting little videos in the desert for 50 bucks."
"There doesn't seem to be a relationship between budget and comedy," Gass mused. "In fact, it might be inverse."
"Right," Black agreed. "Would ‘Beavis and Butt-Head' be funnier if it was done by Picasso?" He shook his head. "Less."
"Fenix" is Tenacious D's self-conscious crack at a comeback, with an opening title track in which Black insists, "The fiery heart of a champion cannot be quelched." (Yes, that's an original Tenacious D term.) Like the band's surprise-hit 2001 debut, the new disc affectionately parodies the grandiose sound and over-the-top spirit of the hard rock and heavy metal Black and Gass grew up hearing.
In "Roadie" they salute the guys "changing the strings while hiding in the wings"; "Deth Starr" advocates the creation of a "new human race in the sky." And then there's "To Be the Best," a pitch-perfect approximation of inspirational early-'80s hits like "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Eye of the Tiger."
"Tenacious D is one of the few bands in the world you never wanna go on after," says Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, who's known Black and Gass since their days in the short-lived late-'90s HBO series "Tenacious D." Grohl plays drums on "Rize of the Fenix." "We took them to Australia last year because we thought it'd be fun to have friends open for us. I remember sitting backstage at the first gig hearing 40,000 people singing every word to their song ‘Tribute.'" He laughs. "I was like, ‘We're about to get [shown up] in a stadium.'"
Throughout "Rize of the Fenix" -- as well as in several appealingly tacky music videos the band has posted online -- Tenacious D's grip on its subject is so firm and its song craft so tight that the music nearly transcends its basis in satire.
"Jack and Kyle are just empirically good," says John Kimbrough, who produced the new album. "They're great musicians and they have great taste in records. But they're also really focused -- their whole thing is so dialed-in."
In addition to restoring its own value, Tenacious D is determined with "Rize of the Fenix" to save rock music as a whole. In "Rock Is Dead" they isolate the problem in language unprintable here, and the album's title track argues that a single hit might do the trick. (At press time "Fenix" was at No. 4 on iTunes' album chart.)
"We're a dying breed," Gass acknowledged with a knowing frown. "I think the genre needs to reinvent itself." Asked why young people seem less attracted to guys with guitars than they once did, Gass replied, "The kids want something different from what their parents listened to."
"Maybe we should get a rapper to come in and do stuff between our songs," Black said.
Who could Tenacious D get?
"Who could we get?" Black repeated. "Who couldn't we get?"
"You know who I like?" Gass said. "The rapper from the Paula Abdul song."
MC Skat Kat?
"Yeah! He's probably got some time."
With or without the has-been, animated feline, Tenacious D's tour (which launches Wednesday) will include stops at Washington's Sasquatch! Festival and the Download Festival in England, where the band will play alongside Metallica and Black Sabbath.
Gass warned fans not to expect a multimedia spectacle along the lines of the two-night Gibson Amphitheatre stand Tenacious D played in 2006. (Those shows featured a simulated trip to hell.)
"We do have some production ideas, though," Black said. "We were talking about just going out there and entertaining you with the sheer force of our rock. But then we couldn't resist the opportunity to blow people's minds. So there may be a spaceship. And an evil alien octopus. And lasers." He shrugs. "We'll see.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: Tenacious D is lead vocalist and guitarist Jack Black, left, and lead guitarist and vocalist Kyle Gass, right. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times