sam dunn

MOVIE REVIEW: ZZ Top – That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

ZZ TOP – That Little Ol’ Band from Texas (2019)

Directed by Sam Dunn

Banger Films have never released a dud, have they?  Their latest documentary, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas is another well made, entertaining film to add to your collection.

And it’s about time, isn’t it?  50 years?  And not just that, but the same three guys for 50 years solid!  The only thing that changed were the grooming habits.  Frank Beard tried to grow one but just couldn’t pull it off.  I think it’s better that way.  Two guys with beards plus a moustache guy in the back on the drums.  Although it was completely accidentally, it’s so genius it seems planned.  The beard tale, and many more like it, make up the backbone of this film.

As it turns out, there isn’t a lot of craziness and drama in the official ZZ Top story.  We never learn much about their personal lives outside the band.  Beard is quite “frank” about his past drug situations, but Aerosmith they were not.  This movie is actually mostly about the music.  Imagine that!  About the influences — both blues and rock.  About opening for the big boys like the Stones.  About Texas.

Texas plays a huge role in this film, and in ZZ Top.  That unique blend of forces that spawned ZZ Top came together in Houston.  But then they got too big to be just a Houston band.  Things were about to happen.  Their sound is half nurture, and half nature.  Yes, Texas (the nurturer) had its influence on the three, but so did their sheer talent and chemistry (the nature).  Hill and Beard talk of playing together for the first time, and it was obviously just meant to be.  As much as ZZ Top rocked, their down-home country image certainly confused people in the early days.

What really comes across is the music.  Via the old recordings, and brand new footage of the boys playing in the studio, you can hear just how little they have lost over 50 years.  What a tight, yet thick sound.  Overdubs were a part of the ZZ Top studio sound early on (though not without some doing).  Of course, we know that ZZ Top made a massive sonic change in the 80s with Eliminator.  This is briefly discussed, as is the MTV revolution and just how ZZ Top came to dominate in that era.  Unfortunately that is where the film ends.  Potentially you could have added another hour just talking about the seven albums that followed Eliminator, some of which were pretty big.  Or another hour getting to know the three guys a little better. That Little Ol’ Band from Texas goes no deeper than just the bare surface when it comes to the guys and their interpersonal relationships.  Surely in 50 years there must have been some drama.  You won’t find much of it in this film.  Clearly, that’s the way ZZ Top want it.  Maintain the mystique.  Never reveal too much.  Hone the mythology.

As with any music documentary, other stars must be interviewed in order to gush and add context and detailed observations.  These include Josh Homme (what isn’t he in?), Steve Miller, Billy Bob Thornton (?) and Dan Auerbach.  But you’ll also hear from Tim Newman (director of those classic videos and brother of Randy Newman), and Robin Hood Brians, a studio owner who helped shape their early sound.

Any Banger film is going to be a quality product going in.  It’s not so much “will it be good?”  It’s more “what nits will I pick?”  Because any serious fan will have some with any rock film.  I have very few to pick with this film.  Just that I wish it was an hour longer.

4.5/5 stars


REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier (2010)

Part 43 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!


IRON MAIDEN – The Final Frontier (2010, EMI)

Iron Maiden had a hell of an album to live up to when they recorded The Final Frontier.  2006’s A Matter of Life and Death was a total triumph, a complex driving metal masterpiece.  Witness:  Not one but two 5/5 star reviews here on LeBrain’s Blog alone.

The Final Frontier begins daringly, with an incredible piece of music unlike anything Maiden have ever attempted before.  The rhythmic intro “Satellite 15…” begins sounding like an improvised piece, but knowing Steve Harris and Adrian Smith who wrote it, it was anything but.  It has a looseness that sounds like improvisation, but then Nicko’s persistent drum patterns ground it.  Bruce’s plaintive vocals speak of “drifting way off course now” and trying to contact Earth, without success.    The piece is loaded with tension, which is released only as it breaks into the first actual song, “The Final Frontier”.

Continuing the lyrical theme, Steve writes of drifting through space, alone, unable to bid his family farewell.  Musically this is anthemic Maiden as Steve and Adrian have been known to write before, with a catchy riff and chorus.  Some of the guitar work is reminiscent of 1986’s Somewhere In Time.  I find it daring to team such a catchy metal tune with an abstract intro like “Satellite 15…”

Without letting up for a second, the lead single “El Dorado” gallops through the speakers.  And yes, it’s an actual vintage Maiden galloping start!  Written by the triumvirate of Steve, Adrian, and Bruce (who have written so many classics in the past), “El Dorado” careens through multiple sections all tied together by the effortless playing of the band.  Adrian’s catchy yet exotic solo is a highlight.  It’s not an obvious single at almost 7 minutes long, but this length is necessary to contain all the different riffs and sections.  None of them are extraneous; every bit of this song is as good as the last, although it sounds like Bruce is reaching for notes too high on the chorus.


The heaviness lets up briefly for the start of “Mother of Mercy”, a brief but epic sounding track that could have fit happily on the Brave New World CD.  Yet it’s even more riff laden than anything on that album, continuing The Final Frontier‘s tendency to cram awesome guitar after awesome guitar into one song.  It’s a mere five minutes long, written again by Steve and Adrian, with another catchy chorus delivered with power by Bruce.  A song like this proves that Maiden can be brief yet still cram all of their power and talent into a catchy five minute number.  The lyrics question the deadly combination of war and religion.

How much more epic can you get?  None more epic than the chorus of “Coming Home”.  A Smith/Dickinson/Harris epic, the lyrics reflect Bruce’s love of aviation within one of the best choruses they’ve ever written.  By any other band this might be considered a “power ballad”, but at no point in its six minute length do I really consider it as such.  This is surely one of the best songs on The Final Frontier.  There’s even a bluesy guitar solo (probably Davey) to fit the melancholy mood of the song.

“The Alchemist” is the shortest song on the album, but the first that is a traditional fast Maiden scorcher.  It has a solid Janick Gers riff (who co-wrote it with Bruce and Steve) and Bruce spits out the quick verses.  Janick’s solo is his typical manic style, but as a song, this is the weakest on the album thus far.  It’s not as memorable or impactful as the four previous, but a fast one is required to balance out the more progressive material elsewhere.

And speaking of more progressive material, “Isle of Avalon”, written by Steve and Adrian, takes us back into that territory.  Nine minutes long, it is very different lyrically from anything Steve’s done before:  Celtic legends and mythology and all that.  And of course, it has multiple riffs, time changes and melodies to keep the listening entranced through the whole length.  It’s an effortless listen despite its complexity, simply because it’s loaded with great guitar parts.

One of my favourite tunes is next:  “Starblind”.  It’s another Bruce/Steve/Adrian masterpiece, and not too brief at almost eight minutes long.  It starts slow, but the main riff kicks in at 50 seconds. Be prepared to be pummeled!  Bruce delivers an epic chorus, while the lyrics seem to be another condemnation of corrupt religious figures (a traditional Maiden topic).  Nicko’s drum patterns are anything but simple; this is one more progressive Maiden masterpiece.


The heaviness of “Starblind” is replaced by the acoustic intro of “The Talisman”.  Yet another eight minute epic track, “The Talisman” was written by Steve and Janick.  2 1/2 minutes in, you’re assaulted with the next in what seems like an endless stream of  incredible Maiden riffs.  Bruce wails away of a treacherous ocean journey.   Steve has written some of his catchiest melodies yet, with plenty of twists and turns.  Yet another classic.

“The Man Who Would Be King” also starts slow, before moving into a classic sounding Maiden guitar harmony riff.  This one was written by Steve and Dave Murray.  Again, it’s not brief:  Over eight minutes of riffs, melodies and changes.  Lyrically, it doesn’t seem to have any great connection to the book or movie, The Man Who Would Be King.  Musically, it’s another complex amalgam of amazing parts acting as a whole.  Songs like these, there is no way to fully appreciate them after just one listen.  Even now I’m finding new appreciation for “The Man Who Would Be King”.  It has some sections that sound more “vintage” Maiden than anything else on The Final Frontier, but they’re over in a blink and onto the next section!  This is a hell of a song to digest, must like the rest of the album.

Finally, the end of your journey into The Final Frontier:  the epic track “When The Wild Wind Blows”.  This is my personal favourite song, ten minutes of non-stop drama.  This is the Harris album epic; the song that lives up to the legacy set by previous epics such as “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”.  Lyrically, it’s an end-0f-the-world scenario, as they huddle in their bunkers waiting for apocalypse from the sky.  When the world doesn’t end, they are found dead anyway, having consumed poison.  Once again, the song has many different sections, each one more powerful than the last, all wrapped in those trademark Maiden guitar melodies.

There is no denying that The Final Frontier is a challenging listen.  It is also a rewarding listen, a complete journey with a start, middle and ending.  Very few bands can manage an album like this fully 30 years into their recording careers.  Maiden have managed to do so, and not only that, but with their strongest lineup intact strong as ever.  With the production talents of Kevin Shirley, the band managed a crisp sound that strikes a balance between polished and live.

Melvyn Grant has returned to do the cover; easily his best cover with Iron Maiden.  An alien Eddie searches a derelict alien vessel for some kind of key.  I don’t get it, but I don’t care.  I’m a sucker for the alien motif.  Two of my favourite things combined at long last — Iron Maiden, and aliens!

For the first time ever, there are no B-sides to discuss.  There was only one single, which was “El Dorado”.  Dan Slessor from Kerrang! magazine sent me a promotional copy of the single, a really nice collectible in a 7″ sleeve (with even printed “wear marks” to make it look like a vinyl single is inside)!  It can be seen below for your enjoyment.  Disappointingly though, it is merely a CD-R, not an actual factory pressed CD.  I guess the old days have finally passed.  Why send out an expensive promo single when everybody else is simply sending electronic files?

Lastly, there was a deluxe “Mission Edition” of this album made available with interview footage conducted by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen; unfortunately this content was not compatible in Canada so I never bought it.  My copy did come with a cool Final Frontier sticker though.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – Flight 666 (2009 CD, DVD)

This is part 42 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!  And we still ain’t done!


IRON MAIDEN – Flight 666 (2009 CD, DVD)

In lieu of releasing a live album from the A Matter of Life and Death tour (where Maiden played all of the new album live front to back), they instead chose to document their Somewhere Back In Time tour with a movie, directed by Canada’s own Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage).   A live soundtrack was released not long after the film.

My buddy Peter and I got our tickets and got in line to see the movie the one and only time it played in town.  Turns out that Tom and Meat were there too.  Of course they were — who would want to miss this?


The film itself documents Maiden’s massive undertaking of the tour — resurrecting the Powerslave stage and a lot of the old songs.  More important than that, it chronicles the logistics of singer Bruce Dickinson doing all the piloting himself, aboard the private charter jet lovingly known as Ed Force One.  23 concerts, 5 continents, from Mumbai to Toronto.  Nobody had ever done that before.  Due to regulations about a pilot’s rest time between flights, this is something that will probably never happen again.

Regardless of historical nature of this tour, some people bitched and complained.  Another Maiden live album?

Yes, another Maiden live album, and this one with classics available on Live After Death and elsewhere.   It’s still relevant.

Ever since Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the band in 1999, I feel Maiden have never been stronger. The way the three guitars of Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers have meshed is something to behold. I really enjoy listening to the three-guitar version of Maiden, and once again producer Kevin Shirley has provided a strong mix where you can hear every nuance of those three guitars. Not to mention Bruce’s vocals, Steve’s bass, and Nicko’s steppin’! In other words, this album sounds great.

As for the track listing itself, it sure is great hearing all 13 minutes of “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” once again. I never thought Maiden would ever play “Moonchild” or “The Clairvoyant” again either. “Powerslave”, “Wasted Years”, “Heaven Can Wait”…so many classics! As Steve Harris notes in the liners, some of these songs may never be played live again, so it’s great to have this document. Some fans will wish there were more old tunes such as “Flight Of Icarus” or “Running Free” instead of more common songs like “Fear Of The Dark”. Another tour, perhaps?

Worth mentioning, each song is taken from a different live gig from the Somewhere Back In Time tour. There’s some fade-in and fade-out between songs. Don’t let that bother you though.  The whole idea was to give fans the sense that, “Hey, I was there!”

When Flight 666 was released on DVD, it went to #1 in Canada and almost every other country it was released in.  The DVD is a great package, mixed in 5.1 by Kevin Shirley, but also including a hell of a bonus feature.  Just in case you wanted a straight Maiden live DVD without the songs being truncated by the documentary, it’s all here.  Every song from the movie can be viewed complete, in sequence, on the bonus DVD.

It would have been nice to see a new Eddie painting on the cover…but if you look closely he’s still there.

5/5 stars (both CD and DVD)

MOVIE REVIEW: Rush – Beyond the Lighted Stage (blu-ray)



RUSH – Beyond the Lighted Stage (blu ray, directed by Sam Dunn)

OK, as a Rush fan, I am biased. I loved Beyond The Lighted Stage. For those who are not Rush fans, I am sure you will enjoy Kim Mitchell’s description of Geddy’s voice. (“Like a cat stuck in the door with a blowtorch up its ass!”)

This blu-ray looks absolutely amazing in beautiful 1080p. Consisting mostly of interview footage, Sam Dunn and co. have created another fantastic, glowing, appreciative documentary. Gathering up such fans as Mitchell, Billy Corgan (who is a SERIOUS fan), Trent Reznor, Les Claypool, Jack Black, and Sebastian Bach, Rush is finally given the movie treatment that they deserve. Dunn covers the early years, the 80’s, Neil’s tragedies, and beyond. Outside of Neil’s books, I have never heard him speak about his personal tragedies before. This was especially enlightening.

Amazingly, somebody in the Lifeson clan had a camera rolling at the dinner table one night when a 16-year-old Alex told his father that he wanted to quit school and do music full time. It is hard to believe such footage exists, but here it is. Such footage is very special, but only one of many such moments in Beyond The Lighted Stage.

Bonus features are fantastic. A hilariously tipsy dinner at a hunting lodge gives you that fly-on-the-wall feeling. A revealing bit with Geddy and manager Ray Danniels sheds light on the day that Geddy was fired very early in the band’s career. Live footage of “Working Man” with Rutsey on drums is a blu-ray first. Samples of other Rush DVDs give you some more music to sink your teeth into. A little bit more detail on Hemispheres, Presto, and Roll The Bones are also available as bonus features. This is just a portion of the generous bonus features included.

Certainly, since they still have not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rush have not achieved the ultimate in mainstream appreciation. This movie goes a long way into making up for it. Best of all, it maintains the feeling that Rush fans are in a secret underground club — those who “get it”. This is “our” band, not “theirs”. Now you can get the whole story, the way the Rush fans see the band.

Enjoy. 5/5 stars.