Much like many concept albums that came before it the idea of Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways could, on paper, sound massively self-indulgent. Across eight tracks the band travelled around the USA visiting eight cities and in each city visiting a different iconic studio to record a song.
What sets this apart from being an exercise in pure self-indulgence is two-fold. First is that the album they came up with in these unique circumstances is, somewhat bizarrely, one of the Foo Fighters’ most consistent albums to date.
Second is that as well as visiting these cities band leader Dave Grohl continued his new-found love of film, first seen in Sound City, by making a documentary TV series focusing on the musical culture of each city, while taking a behind the scenes look into the album’s recording.
The album itself is a great modern rock record, combining everything that has made the Foo’s reputation so far, but with an added sense of exploration and maturity.
As with much of their previous material there are hints here of where the band came from with grungy overtones and screamed vocals still present. These are tempered with huge melodies that feel custom-built to fill stadiums and festivals come the summer.
Along with that comes the more conceptual end of things where stylistic flourishes, lyrical nods and guest musicians related to each city are added to the usual Foo Fighters mix to create something extra.
While these could be overlooked on a quick listen they are there and reward re-listening brilliantly, like references and ‘Easter eggs’ in movies, just in appropriately sonic form.
While Sonic Highways is certainly the closest the Foo Fighters have come to so-called ‘Dad Rock’ it retains enough of the edge of the band members’ shared musical history to set it apart and make it a great album.
While it may not have stand out ‘singles’ like many of their other records, this new-found consistency is refreshing in an often ‘shuffle’ centric musical world.
While the album is very enjoyable by itself, it really comes into its own after absorbing the accompanying documentary series.
It would be very easy for Grohl and his crew to have taken the easy approach here by telling the obvious stories of each city, but, while these are reflected, each episode adds a personal level.
This varies from the intense connection the band has to Washington DC, Seattle and Los Angeles to the more exploratory links to Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville and Austin while the series’ climax in New York City brings it all back together.
Across the series a real insiders view of the band in the studio is also presented as we see their crew rigging the studios and the band working out the songs and recording them over the course of a few days in each location, while producer Butch Vig gives some brief but surprisingly in-depth insights into the nature of the work he and the band are undertaking.
Much like the album this comes together into something fascinating and highly enjoyable whether your interest lies in the musical heritage explored or the behind the scenes glimpse into the world of one of the rock’s biggest bands.
The real highlight of the whole project comes in its conclusion where Grohl, during an interview with US President Barrack Obama, puts the work into the context of a wider American culture and the notion of the ‘American dream’.
Alongside this comes a more universal idea of how the perception and value of music and culture seems to be evolving for good or bad depending on your point of view
While its conclusion is, possibly, a little on the positive and sugar-coated side (as you might expect coming from a band making millions from their art) it also leaves questions open and introduces ideas that leave the more adventurous viewers with a starting point from which to explore many new avenues of music and culture.
This makes Sonic Highways a genuinely successful conceptual, multi-media, work from a band firmly planted in the current mainstream – though I got the feeling each episode had a lot more to say that their hour run time allowed.