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I've already gone on at length about Sacha Gervasi's documentary on the life and times of aging Canadian rockers Anvil, and even written a full review for the film, but I do feel it's crucial in understanding and interpreting the mindset of these gents so late in their careers, performing in a field generally reserved for the young, testosterone bleeding hellions with something to prove. Not that Robb Reiner and Lips Kudlow have ever lacked in that androgen hormone, as their long legacy of silly sex songs has amply proven, but these guys were really at a stalemate by the middle of the 'oughts. Albums like Plenty of Power and Still Going Strong were middling and underwhelming, and while Back to Basics (2004) marked an improvement in actual songwriting, the vocals were weak enough to dull its effectiveness.
Enter This is Thirteen, and the band's decision to shell out some cash and reunite with British record producer Chris Tsangarides. A wise choice, as it turns out, because this was the best Anvil record since Pound for Pound, or should I say, the first GOOD album the Canadians had issued in nearly 20 fucking years. This is huge, ugly sounding heavy metal the way these boys were playing it through the 80s, polished but pummeling. Now, I can't squarely lay the credit on Tsangarides' shoulders alone. To be honest, the production itself was not a major issue for me in experiencing the band's output from '92-2004. Worth the Weight might have been a little dry, and Plenty of Power a little clean and stale, but the real stigma was the lackluster songwriting. Never outright bad, and there were acceptable tracks strewn through the Mausoleum and Massacre years, but none of them comparable to the first five full-lengths...
Well, now we've got the songs. And the sound. Even the vocals have made a turnaround, no longer the lazy, dry and disheveled presence of Back to Basics but the more vibrant, howling and piercing range he exhibited in the band's formative years. As early as "This is Thirteen", the first track on the album, a slow and superstitious lurcher redolent of "Metal on Metal" or "Forged in Fire", Kudlow stretches himself to the limit, and it never once drags down the effective drudge and doomed sensation of the riffs beneath. Songs like "Worry" and "Flying Blind" sound like they're being launched out of the 80s via rocket and crashing directly into your stereo speakers, and even if they're not among the best the band has written, they still carry that inherent enthusiasm that made Anvil so exciting in the first place.
Personal favorites here are "Bombs Away", in which Glenn Five gets to strut his formidable fingers below a set of concrete, flowing chords that channel the listener straight into the band's prime. "Game Over" also kicks some serious ass, bringing a little of that dirty Motörhead smear back into the band's repertoire, with some bluesy shuffling, and again, strong bass lines. It's also pretty hard to find fault in "Should'a Would'a Could'a", "Ready to Fight" or "Axe to Grind" which all feature a fond mesh of NWOBHM and 80s power metal virtues. Hell, the closing cruiser "American Refugee" even has Lips sounding like a Mike Muir guest spot. On the other hand, there are a few tracks that admittedly lag behind. The slow "Big Business" with its' Iron Butterfly wannabe riffing was far from a highlight, and I could go either way on the grooving of "Feed the Greed" or the somewhat bland "Worry".
Yeah, there's nothing here on the level of a "Blood on the Ice", "Metal on Metal" or "Fire in the Night" but that's to be expected. The genre was far fresher in the 80s and its works will always, for all history leave a stronger impression on both those who got to experience them the first time and those newer and younger fans who awaken to their glories decades hence. That Anvil finally pulled their shit together and ceased their incessant string of mediocre, going nowhere albums that stretched back for many years. Not that they had ever entirely given up on their dreams, but This is Thirteen sounds like a band which has gotten over its midlife crisis, grabbed its Viagra or tantra lessons or whatever and finally become reinvigorated, reassessed of its own inherent magic. There is nothing wrong with good old heavy metal music. There never was, and never will be, no matter what trends might arrive and conspire towards it becoming obsolete. Never gonna happen. Anvil's 13th record is far from amazing, perhaps, but it's proof positive of an enduring legacy and genre, and that sticking to your guns will eventually put you on target.
If anything, the image and the promotion is the real reason these guys never got big. I include image (even though promotion is the key) because, face it, these are pretty ordinary looking guys, and image does sell. These guys wanted to be huge, but instead got nothing for a couple of decades. Things are looking up for them now after the release of Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, so that’s nice. Personally I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about image, but if these guys wanted to be huge, that’d be one thing they needed to work on.
But fuck that, why do that (read: why commercialize the band and make way more money) when the music is already kickass? That was back then and This Is Thirteen is a recent album that still carries on the power and aggression that isn’t so fruitfully accomplished with many acts. For me, this was my first venture into the band, as the production is top-notch and the songwriting is stable, making for an album full of consistent tracks. These songs are chorus and riff driven, and for thirteen songs that may get a little tiring for some people. For me, I’d say to start the album from the beginning and go play a game while you rock out; listening to songs individually on and off doesn’t detract from the experience, though.
For those looking into harmonious, charismatic power / heavy metal, this might not be a cakewalk for you. For heavy metal, the lyrics are pretty bleak and sometimes political, the approach is very desiccated in terms of glossiness, and there’s a ton of rage that doesn’t take itself lightly. This Is Thirteen is an angry album by angry men, with Lips having some possessed vocals that are way rougher than the earlier days. As old as he is, his voice can get a little sloppy and out of tune, but he has a ton of energy and can sing well on those terms; his coarse voice fits with the boorish attitude and musty tone. The riffs reverberate as a dusty throwback of an unprocessed guitar tone, making the album altogether an arid affair (not an insult, but a statement of the atmosphere).
The straightforward nature of the songs work wonders in a live environment, but as I mentioned, thirteen songs of this formula can get tiring. Thankfully a lot of them are short so they don’t drag on, and some variety in regard to the vocals and riffs make the appeal last. The quality of the production by Chris Tsangarides means the mixing is exceptionally well-done, allowing all the instruments to take part. This helps the bass stay alive with some deep grumbles, to deafening rumbles, to slick grooves, and much more. Anvil isn’t a bass focused band, but taking the time to let the bass be heard adds another element and appeal to the music. Solos are usually standard stuff that isn’t mind-blowing, but Lips does a good job tying them to the songs with enough harmonies to make it enjoyable; check out “Feed The Greed,” “American Refugee,” and especially the apocalyptic title track for the best licks from Lips.
Easily my favorite element of the band is Robb Reiner, who drums like a firebase full of howitzers ready to blow shit up. Every bit of this drum kit I love thanks to the production and Reiner is just the guy to fire away behind it. The snares have no hollow bullshit to them, the drum bass has just the right amount of thickness, and the cymbals eclipse your senses with every clash without drowning out the music. On the title track, the bludgeoning doom tempo is where he lets loose all his power right away, but he never once lets up on the entire album. He’ll go from crushing and consistent to hasty and relentless in an instant, with every song showcasing another way to beat the hell out of you.
For newcomers, this is a decent place to start, I say. It’s accessible like the rest of Anvil’s discography, but there are certain things I don’t like about the early material that this one doesn’t have. The band took a huge gamble with this album financially, but in the end it looks to have paid off. While Anvil was there for heavy metal early on, it’s these later stages where they’re now beginning to get appreciation again. With music like this, it’s there’s no denying that they are able to back up what they preach.