“If Tenacious D has died, what will we do? / And what will we do / About all the fans that have the D tattoo?”
Act I: And Satan Said, “The D Shall Rock”
Once upon a time, at the height of their collective majesty, Tenacious D were indeed the Greatest Band in the World—a fact of which the duo (Jack “JG/Jables” Black and Kyle “KG/Kage” Gass) constantly reminded us on their short-lived (and utterly brilliant) HBO series. Two portly fellows strapped to acoustic guitars, singing in gorgeous harmony over wicked, wild riffs that put the “cock” in cock-rock, their literal audiences may have been a few drunken open mic night drifters—but in their heads, they were Rock Gods: spewing their decadent glory upon enraptured millions from world’s biggest stages, indulging in backstage groupie sex that made Led Zep look like a gaggle of school girls.
That underdog spirit, that charming disconnect between dream and reality—it’s what made Tenacious D so damn funny. What made them a great rock band, however, (as demonstrated back in 2001, on their amplified self-titled debut) is that they simply rocked harder—and with ten times more passion—than basically anyone else who dared stand in their pompous paths.
Act II: And The Gods Did Weep: The Tumult
But what happens when the dream turns into reality? For one, the joke becomes irrelevant. By the time of 2006’s origin story movie/soundtrack The Pick of Destiny, The D were legitimate, bona-fide rock stars—not pretend ones—which made their bumbling on-screen antics less believable, and more pointless. It’s hard to root for the underdog rock star on-screen when he’s a real one off-screen, which was part of the reason The Pick of Destiny tanked at the box office. The soundtrack fared much better in terms of sales, but it was even harder to digest: Removed from its visual counterpart, the music was incomplete—and the songs themselves felt bloated and tired, even if (compared to every other rock band on the planet), they still packed a punch. Critics, ultimately, weren’t kind.
Act III: Just Like the Fenix, They Rize Again
As Jack Black’s Hollywood film career skyrocketed (while Gass worked on other musical projects, along with the occasional minor acting role), The D seemed as good as dead. But from that dormancy arose opportunity: Suddenly, Tenacious D were underdogs again—not in terms of budget, fan adoration (or perhaps even groupie adoration), but in terms of respect. Nearly six years after The Pick of Destiny, Kage and Jables return mightily with The Rize of the Fenix, an album which—at its finest—mirrors the transcendence of their early days.
“When The Pick of Destiny was released, it was a bomb,” JB sings during the opening seconds of the epic title track, his rubbery voice soulfully churning and sweeping over a bluesy acoustic strum. “And all the critics said that The D was done.” For a brief moment, it’s the sound of The Old D—just acoustics and harmonies and big ideas. And then the sonic floodgates open (“Just like The Fenix, we’ll rize again”), with Dave Grohl pummeling his massive drum kit alongside John Konesky’s breakneck arena-rock riffage. It’s all things wonderful about The D—hilarious, irreverent, (“Phil Jackson is the master of Zen,” Jables exclaims for no reason other than rhyme), full of shape-shifting rock mastery: The track ends in a rousing electric thunder, but its true climax arrives a minute or so earlier, with a brief calm of acoustic, psychedelic Led Zep-esque balladry.
In fact, “Rize of the Fenix” is so powerful, so perfect, so representative of what these guys do well, what follows is almost sure to pale in comparison. Luckily, the highlights keep on coming: “Low Hangin’ Fruit” is gleefully stupid and un-subtly sexual, with Kage and Jables lusting after modest-looking babes (“Don’t want no high class model in designer fuckin’ bathin’ suit”) over another tossed-off blues-rock riff; “Deth Starr” continues to demonstrate the band’s finesse at prog-like suites, opening in a jazzy, psychedelic haze and morphing into cheap metal riffs, power-pop hooks, and back again; meanwhile, “Roadie” appropriately straddles the line between send-up and tribute, JB romanticizing rock’s most unsung backstage hero (“He’s changing the strings / While hiding in the wings”) with an alternatingly gorgeous and kick-ass epic.
At their slightest (and, arguably, laziest), Tenacious D’s stream-of-conscious writing style seems to suggest the assistance of a computer-based Rock Generator, with tunes that feel more like templates: “Roadie” (despite its brilliance) is clearly informed by Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” while the surprisingly tender (and the so-dirty-I’m-honestly-afraid-to-repeat-the-lyrics) “39” rips the chord progression from Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.” JB, while remaining toward the cream of the crop of modern rock singers (in spite of the humor), similarly takes blueprint vocal cues from the great Halls of Rock—for some reason, he’s especially gravelly on Fenix, at times favoring Springsteen or Neil Diamond possessed by The Prince of Darkness.
Even for a band that pasted together its own myth, The Rize of the Fenix is surprisingly self-referential, peaking in that regard with another classic, “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage,” which hilariously chronicles the band’s rize and fall (with, perhaps, a couple dramatic embellishments). KG is painted a disgruntled, disillusioned, washed-up former rocker, bitter and jealous of JB’s film success (“He grumbled and growled and watched Hollywood Jack on Jay Leno”); meanwhile, JB faces the same plight, for the exact opposite reasons—losing his indie cred, losing touch with himself, despite his monetary and empty sexual conquests (“He’d screen KG’s calls and snort coke off the ass of a whore”). If it weren’t for the profanity, the amplified absurdity, the embracing of cliched rock stereotypes (The instrumental break features Gass on an expertly-handled Renaissance Faire recorder), “Hollywood Jack and Rage Kage” could be taken at face-value as a legitimate betrayal-redemption story—and in spite of all that (and in some ways because of it), it is anyway.