Album Review

Foo Fighters "Wasting Light"

Brian Ahnmark
“Please play at maximum volume.”

So reads the sticker affixed to the front cover of Wasting Light, the seventh studio album from the Foo Fighters. The message reads like a request, but be assured, it's not.

It's a warning.

Wasting Light delivers a sonic pummeling unrivaled by any previous Foo Fighters release, thanks to a double-barreled catalyst:
1) The best songwriting of Dave Grohl's career
2) Captured on analog tape in Grohl's garage.

After another slew of Grammy nods for 2007's Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and an epic blowout concert performance at England's Wembley Stadium in 2008, the Foo Fighters were faced with a dilemma: Where do you go next from the grandest stage?

How about back to the simplest setting – home?

For Album No. 7, Grohl made his intentions clear: To record at home in his garage. So he cleared out the minivan and lawnmower and set up Taylor Hawkins' drumkit in their place. Former Foo Fighter Pat Smear was re-inducted into the band, birthing a three-guitar monster. Grohl enlisted the wizardry of Butch Vig, producer of Nirvana's Nevermind, and secured guest support from Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and Bob Mould (Husker Du), a hero of Grohl's.

The end result of this homecoming dance is a band reborn.

A renewed sense of urgency dominates this record, recalling the early days when Grohl had something to prove. In truth, he still does; Grohl's everyman goofball persona (“Dave Lunchbox” as one major publication memorably put it) has endeared him to millions while simultaneously detracting from his enormous gift as a musician and songwriter, providing fodder for critics who suggest that Grohl doesn't take his craft seriously.

This collection of songs commands – and demands – respect. Recording to tape meant no easy ProTools edits, forcing an emphasis on performance and precision. The Foo Fighters were clearly game for the challenge, their musicianship flawlessly taut, the overall energy relentless. Like a bulldozer on a downslope, this sucker moves. Even between the songs, there's but a half-breath of pause, as if the band can't be bothered to reload amidst the onslaught of the arsenal.

Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Smear comprise the Battalion of Bludgeoneers, their axe attack a full-throttle offensive from the get-go. Bone-crushing opener “Bridge Burning” mixes guitars in a slurry of fury before Hawkins beats the shit out of every piece of his drumkit, and Grohl introduces himself with the following message: “These are my famous last words!” The song evolves into a classic Foo balance of shriek and sweet, with Hawkins deftly working his way around the hi-hat and muted cymbals while bassist Nate Mendel hurls bombs at the chorus. Throughout the record, their seamless rhythmic communication acts as the nimble footwork beneath the muscular hulk of the guitars. Witness the pinpoint stop-start beats in “Rope” and “Dear Rosemary,” or the bruising pre-chorus of “Back & Forth.”

“Bridge Burning” locks horns with lead single “Rope” and “Dear Rosemary” to form a trifecta slab of meaty perfection, setting the table for a pure screamer (“White Limo”), nuanced dynamic shifters (“Arlandria”), vintage Foo (“A Matter of Time”) and the defiant howling joy of closing track “Walk.” The only trace of balladry is the lovely opening phrase of “These Days,” which ultimately sets up a festival-sized chorus. According to Grohl, there wasn't an acoustic guitar in his house during the sessions, and there sure as hell isn't one on the record.

Of course, the foundation of it all is Grohl's massive leap forward as a writer. The expertly-crafted arrangements mesmerize; tones change from verse to verse, as do the rhythmic patterns; pre-choruses are big enough to be choruses, so the choruses ice the cake and add a scoop of ice cream and a glass of sippin' whiskey for good measure.

The early Foo Fighters records rattled with desperation, balanced by the simultaneous celebration of shaking off that despair. Grohl built a career out of the quiet-loud dynamics, veering at times to clean pop and hushed acoustic work. Through it all, there always seemed to be an overall concession that necessarily comes with massive popularity – a desire to please the old grunge fans, the modern rock radio listeners, the sensitive acoustic aficionados, all at the same time. It caused In Your Honor and Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace to wander, bloated by the weight of those expectations.

And deep down, the punk inside of Grohl has always craved the “heavy” tag, as his dalliances with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures attest. But the Foo Fighters aren't “heavy.” At their best, they are crisp and bright and loud and melodic; heavy with levity.

Finally, finally, finally, the Foo Fighters found the recipe to the magic potion. Wasting Light is the sound of a band shedding all preconceived notions and labels to instead write the songs that will move them – and then capture performances of those songs worthy enough to move us. In terms of standout tracks, take your pick. There's a reason the boys have been routinely performing the album in its entirety during recent promotional appearances: It's a triumphant statement by an overlooked band unfairly relegated to the middle of the road. It's an achievement 16 years and seven albums in the making.

So by all means, play Wasting Light at maximum volume.

The Foo Fighters insist.