Review Summary: Is Buckethead selling out to Billboard Top 40 convention or have the changes only broadened his scope, vision and power? In this reviewer's opinion, this is about as far from radio-ready as you can get.
My friend Mike asked me to write a review of something a little more obscure the other day. I looked through my collection and was disappointed to see that of all the CDs I felt like reviewing, they were all either fairly well known or on a major label. Of course, his idea of “obscure” is Tenacious D, so I probably could have reviewed Metallica and he would have encouraged me for giving these unknown artists representation. I say all this not because I think anybody is sincerely interested, but rather because reviewing this album is extremely difficult.
I’m not familiar with the rest of Buckethead’s work, but I have heard great things about him, mostly technical. “Guitar virtuoso,” “technically astounding,” “some weirdo with a KFC bucket and a Michael Meyers mask-“ all phrases that add to the mysterious persona of the man behind the mask/bucket/insane guitar skills. I heard about this album when I was perusing the Net for anything Serj Tankian was associated with. I love Tankian’s vocals (he sings for System of a Down, as if anyone here didn’t know that) so when I heard that he was producing this album, I decided to give it a listen. It was interesting enough based on what I heard, so I bought it. And I enjoyed it. Not loved it, but enjoyed it. This CD is sort of impossible to love for a particular reason, which is also the reason it’s so hard to review this CD- it’s so inconsistent. Not in terms of quality, but in theme.
You see, on this record, Buckethead employed a virtual army of musicians and vocalists to help give his work a more conventional structure. However, convention is thrown right out the window when you consider the diversity in the backgrounds of these artists. There is opera, there’s punk, there’s metalcore, there’s spoken word, there’s pop, there’s death metal, there’s country, and then there’s… um… the Hand. This track will be discussed later. The point is that the sheer range of music that this album spans is enough to alienate many listeners. Metalheads may shudder in disgust when listening to “Waiting Hare,” a poppy ballad featuring a sultry, fragile duet between producer Tankian and Shana Halligan. Likewise, “the Hand,” where the focus is on the insane gibbering of vocalist Maximum Bob, might disappoint fans of Buckethead’s lead guitar showmanship. There are other complaints as well; Buckethead forsakes all technicality on a comparatively simple, yet chilling, excursion into Eastern European melody on “Coma.”
But you know what" They can suck it up. Buckethead will return to his normal instrumental virtuosity, and it’s a great listen anyway. Buckethead may be providing riffs for quite a large amount of time on the album, but things get just as impressive and wild as ever; the degeneration into chaotic madness of “We Are One” is something that only Tankian and Buckethead together could orchestrate, and the closing instrumental “Nottingham Lace” gives us the technical soloing that Buckethead is renowned for. To majorly paraphrase Roo from Winnie the Pooh, “we all like the old twenty-fingered guitar god Buckethead best.” However, the vocals don’t hurt the album. As I said, some are an acquired taste, and others may be intolerable for some listeners (one of my favorite things to do is play the first few seconds from “Funbus” to my country/alt-rock radio loving friends and see their reaction) but there are several vocal high points that bear mentioning. (I will not bother mentioning instrumental high points because, for one, the bass and the drums are essentially backing and they rarely show off, and two, Buckethead’s presence on the album is an instrumental high point in and of itself.)
Tankian’s vocals are less spastic and violent on this album than his work with System of a Down, with the exception of “We Are One.” If you hate his vocals, then you probably won’t enjoy the songs he shows up on, but his performance on “Coma” is completely unlike anything he’s done with System. That song is probably the highlight of the album despite it being extremely simple on Buckethead’s part; simply due to the eerie vocal control of both singers and the haunting melody they sing. The song is permeated with a sense of loss and regret that makes the song more emotional than any other Buckethead song, even if the guitar wizardry is next to nothing. The other female singers, on “Running From The Light” and “Waiting Hare,” perform admirably, but they are overshadowed by the accomplishment of “Coma.”
Saul Williams on “Three Fingers” is likewise impressive. His flat, deadpan voice adds a menacing aspect to the odd picture he invokes, and in those few lines he leaves a lasting impression on the album. The metal vocals throughout are neither bad nor great, they are good but they show nothing outstanding. The only other vocal performance that cannot be ignored is “the Hand.” This song simply has to be heard to be believed. Over a musical template that ranges from an operatic female vocal line to metal shredding to a hazy soundscape of DJ noises and dreamy guitar, Maximum Bob recounts the saga of a demonic hand in a variety of ways. He cackles, gasps, screams, mutters, and seems to fall apart at the seams no less than a dozen times, becoming a manic multi-headed monster through the variety of voices he puts on. Some may find this irritating, even awful. I found it hilarious. He is the focus of the song, but he never dominates it, allowing the natural themes of danger and uncertainty in the music to help him. It is by far the weirdest and craziest song vocally and lyrically that I have ever heard. Tankian’s goofy fingerprints are all over this song, just as you can detect a hint of Toxicity’s Middle Eastern melody on “Coma.”
However, Tankian’s influence over the sound of this record is not as major as some might believe. Buckethead clearly wanted to do something different on this album, and he largely succeeded. Everybody involved was clearly having fun, but it never seems self-indulgent or boring. It doesn’t boil down to whether or not you like System of a Down, it sometimes depends on what genre of music you like, but most of all, the main question that will determine if you like this or not is whether you like Buckethead. Despite his downplayed musical role, his sound is one of the driving forces of the record- he’s just using different tools to express his mad ideas. “Enter the Chicken” is an awesome album, not for the faint of heart or the fickle of taste, but staggeringly diverse and impressively mature in some sections. Some may think of it as a concession to radio format- others, like me, think of it as a testament to Buckethead’s skill as an artist.