It's always interesting, though rarely pretty, to watch what happens to a novelty act when the novelty starts to wear off.
So: You're a trio, but you call yourself "Ben Folds Five." Great. So: You're a rock band based around a piano player. OK. What else you got?
What Ben Folds has got is the blues, an unhealthy case of self-loathing, and a masterful touch with complex, lush, gorgeously produced ballads. Unlike many other smartass, musically off-kilter bands -- They Might Be Giants springs to mind -- Ben Folds Five seems to have survived its brush with mainstream success, and its new album shows no sign that the threesome is anywhere close to creatively tapped out.
That's the good news. The bad news arrives only after you've listened to the album clear through and realize that almost every song is written in first person. If they don't all describe Ben Folds, they describe someone quite like him, and this someone is in desperate need of a little self-esteem. Lyrically, Folds seems to enjoy revealing himself to be a whiny, sniveling bastard, then musically challenges you to care about him anyway.
It doesn't always work. "Narcolepsy" is so smeared in self-debasement that it's hard to tell if it's a serious confessional ballad or a total put-on. The opening lines of "Army" ("So I thought about the Army/ Dad said son, you're fucking high") promise the kind of breezy ironic charm that Folds nailed so well on earlier songs like "Best Imitation of Myself." But even the bouncy rhythm of "Army," propelled by Folds' heavy left hand, eventually succumbs to self-flagellation. "Lullabye" is exactly what the title suggests, a simple, sweet arrangement reminiscent of the Beatles' "Good Night." It also achieves the same creepy, disquieting effect as that "White Album" coda, owing in part to the afterimages of the grim parade of angst that came before.
Is there a "Brick" in the house? Not really. Nothing on Reinhold comes near the poignancy and hard truth of that breakout hit, and that proves to be more damaging to this record than anything else. Ben Folds has been spending too much time in his own head, and not enough exploring the world around him. He has broken free of the cute-punk restraints that fame has fashioned for him but he has somehow, simultaneously, collapsed in on himself. This isn't good for anybody, least of all Ben Folds.
Ben Folds Five performs Sunday, June 13, at 8 p.m. at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Sixth Street), S.F. Tickets are $22.50; call 775-7722.
-- Brian Alcorn
To suggest a stylistic connection between classical music and heavy metal is nothing new, considering the Baroque forays of Iron Butterfly's operatic "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," or Randy Rhoads' studied precision on Ozzy's classic solo works. However, finding a metal band whose virtuosity and creativity truly evoke the complexity of classical music is indeed rare. Legendary in its homeland of Norway, as well as in the international coven of black metal, Emperor has earned infamy both for its musical precision and for select band members' violent crimes of passion.
The trio (a four-piece until bassist Alver departed last year) creates fugue-style compositions thickened with layers of chugging guitars that bolster climbing arpeggio leads. And just as it's extreme in speed and in its barrage of guitars, the group is aligned with the esoteric philosophy of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, and Emperor members make no apology for their involvement with extremist actions in the past.
Unlike run-of-the-mill speed-, death-, and black-metal bands, Emperor is an elaborate and eloquent revision of the complex structures of classical symphonies and Scandinavian folk music. Its band members' fervent devotion to the black-metal scene's rampant church-burnings and violence in the early '90s nearly jeopardized Emperor's existence: Guitarist Samoth served a sentence for arson; former bassist Tchort was convicted of burglary, knife assault, and desecration; original drummer Bard Eithun is currently in prison for arson, burglary, and murder. Freed in 1997 from legal entanglements, the band reunited (adding new drummer Trym) to record its sprawling masterpiece, Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk.
The equally triumphant follow-up, IX Equilibrium, pushes the keyboards further back in the mix to emphasize grittier guitar girth. Here Emperor's symphonic structuring is distinct and disciplined. On epic tracks like "Nonus Aequilibrium" and "An Elegy of Icaros," grunting and galloping rhythm guitars fill out the staccato foundations traditionally given to cello, brass, and reeds. Relentless 16th-note, double-bass-drum thuds and rapid-fire snare cracks track the 3/4 waltz-time meter, punctuated with occasional thundering kettledrum triplets. Chamber organ keyboards take the place of violins and woodwinds. Guitar leads introduce new melodies and harmonic layers, while vocalist/guitarist Ihsahn's harmonized, throat-grating aria screams sound like a full choir. Like the bombastic overtures of Wagner and Mussorgsky, "Decrystallizing Reason" builds dramatic keyboard flourishes into a relentlessly ascending refrain.
Just as its previous album brought musical eloquence to the genre, IX Equilibrium's anthemic persistence and classical Scandinavian folk structures uphold Emperor's throne as black metal's extremist vanguard.
-- Dave Clifford