Considering the amount of time (five-plus years of development ), effort (innumerable smoke sessions) and money they poured into it (you can see where the $20 million went), mock-rock duo Tenacious D probably hoped their feature film debut Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny would be a big hit. But from listening to Rize of the Fenix, it’s hard to shake the sense they’re secretly happy it was a huge flop, because it gives them a great setup to work with.
Just as their 2001 debut album was an outlandish parody of Hookers ’n’ Satan rock excess from two dumpy-looking guys who spent their lives mistaken for roadies until “Tribute” became a viral hit (before viral hits were really even a thing), Fenix is a parody of the “comeback” album bands make after burning out creatively, flaming out commercially, breaking up, hitting rehab and then telling Behind the Music their new album is their “best work ever.”
Part of their debut’s joke was that these guys didn’t look like conventional rock stars, but they sang about cock-pushing groupies so sincerely you occasionally forgot they were really two well-regarded comedic actors. Here, the meta-textual joke is that The D have no real need to come back, but couldn’t resist a ripe target. Pick’s flop didn’t halt Jack Black’s steady stream of movies or keep Kyle Gass from doing whatever it is he does in his spare time. If anything, this endeavor is probably viewed by Black’s agent as time that could be spent on Kung Fu Panda 3.
Their extra-musical success and Wikipedian love of rock clichés gives The D a perspective and luxury the Mötley Crües and Styxs of the world don’t have when making their actual please-just-love-us-again turns. They delight in both mocking their failure (“When The Pick of Destiny was released it was a bomb / And all the critics said that The D was done”) and skewering every part of the Behind the Music template, from creative overreach (“Flutes & Trombones” is a send-up of the arena-rock impulse to prove artistic bonafides by using an orchestra on every damn song) to interpersonal strife (In “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage,” Jables “Climbed the ladder of stardom before him / He watched as his indie credentials flew right out the door / He’d make millions and then he’d go out and he’d make even more millions / He’d screened KG’s calls and snorted coke off the ass of a whore.”)
Like the best mimics, Tenacious D love the source material they’re satirizing, and they get the details right on Fenix, from the prime-era Metallica whiplash drums (courtesy of D superfan Dave Grohl) on “They Fucked Our Asses” to the Iron Maiden gallop of “Deth Starr” and the almost too-accurate Survivor homage “To Be the Best,” though the constant Eaglesian faux-classical guitar gets old after a while, thematically appropriate as it may be. Call ‘em a joke band, but their hook-writing chops and Black’s Angus Young bellow is legit. If Tenacious D hadn’t pitched themselves as a parody act, it’s doubtful they would have still broken through to the Olympic levels they survey, but longhairs who spend too much time at Guitar Center would have loved them just the same.
For the record, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny isn’t all that bad of a film if you go in with the proper expectations. Or, you know, high. There’s kind of plot to it, but it gets dropped fairly quickly so the dudes can get into whatever hijinks they talked New Line into funding that day, from the classic (Grohl as the Devil) to bits that probably sounded good at the time (uneven, misshapen comedies are not a crime, but wasting an Amy Poehler cameo is.) It’s a mess, but an enjoyable enough one if you’re on their wavelength. Same goes for the return to form. If The D had focused on the triumphant-rebirth thing a bit more, this could have been on the level of their dorm-room classic debut, but too many songs go nowhere (they seem to have either forgotten to write a joke for “Throw Down” or simply thought the idea of Gass fighting was so inherently hilarious that their workday was done) or revisit old ground to diminishing returns (“Senorita” is no “Fuck Her Gently”). Let us not even speak of the catalog of scatological terms that is the hidden track.
The D’s best songs find humor by zeroing in on the pretensions and lusts that fuel and destroy rock gods, and then making those the focus of their art rather than the ruin of it. That they found prime material by exploring the supposed wreckage of their career seems appropriate. And if the final result falls well short of the glorious comeback it’s supposed to be parodying, that’s probably appropriate as well.