Steel Upon Steel: A Conversation with Steve “Lips” Kudlow
Anvil put out some records in the 1990s that really stretched the blueprint of the band’s sound; there was some surreal stuff mixed in there. Worth the Weight (1992) was creepy and progressive, experimental and dark, while Absolutely No Alternative (1997) was a psycho speed dream, a cartoon from hell. Long before the famous documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil! (2008) put the group on the map, Anvil was a hardworking band that moved both to survive and to dream, balancing the business of heavy metal and artistic expression.
"As a musician, you want to find more fulfillment, more in the music to explore and create,” notes co-founder, guitarist, and vocalist, Steve “Lips” Kudlow. “And sometimes that leads to over-playing and over-writing. Examples of that can be found in all out music throughout the 1990s."
He laughs. Lips is very serious about that 1990s stuff, though. It might have been a stretch of uneven highway, but it was fantastical in nature.
"That was all before metal became a big thing,” he says. “You know, like what it is now. Anvil was prog in a sense back then. We were completely over the top. That was a time for some great experimentation. A very positive thing for sure; though stuff Bob [Marlette] would call a train wreck. He'd say, 'We're calling these songs?'"
Bob Marlette is the producer who worked on Juggernaut of Justice (2011) and Hope in Hell (2013), Anvil’s first two records after the documentary. Marlette has worked with musicians across the musical spectrum, including Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, and with Anvil he wanted to capitalize on the sudden success and popularity of the band. He went to work stripping the band’s sound back down, concentrating on immediacy and craft.
"What's really interesting is this is how I was spoken to by Bob,” Lips laughs. “You have to do this, then this, and that, and then this. But when I listen to the older Anvil albums, that's basically what we were doing anyway.”
But the 1990s and early 2000s had taken its toll on the band commercially. Though the era contained quite possibly their best and most daring work (particularly the 1990s), they needed a change to survive. The exploratory nature of the group’s work from that period would have been more welcomed and lauded in this day in age, but in the 1990s, grunge and alternative rock had taken hold of the listener’s ears, and underground prog, speed metal albums were not selling. Even Lips thought they might be drifting too far.
"It had to be reworked. It really did,” he admits. “You know, we were trying too hard. You have to approach it as naturally as can be."
Anvil’s 17th album Pounding the Pavement, released January 19th via Steamhammer, continues with the more stripped-down and concise songwriting model. Though Marlette wasn’t involved (Jörg Uken produced it), you can still hear his central idea directing the band’s propulsion. It’s a record with consistency and variance, a combo that works on many levels. The band is able to articulate their more progressive leanings, while never expanding too far. Song craft is always is paramount. The balance between commercial necessity and artistic integrity is studiously applied, and Anvil sounds pretty good doing it. Ironic, humorous, and circular, the album is a time capsule of reflection, and an expression of bold survival.
"What success mean to me is being able to write songs, record those songs at a top-level form of production, with the best possible people I can find, and then getting it released on a record label,” Lips explains. “And to be able to do that, and then to be able to do it again, and again, and again. In this business, everything you do has to succeed or at least break even with the record you're releasing.”
Anvil is a unique band in the history of heavy metal. They’re a group that was clearly influential, but never hugely popular. They rode through basically the whole arc of heavy metal, from the dungeon thrash of the 1980s through the wastelands of the 1990s to the gazillion bands-per-second of today’s landscape, all without ever collapsing. Like all things in the universe, Anvil was just meant to be: they’re like some distant star in the universe shooting its light across the dimension of space. If you look close enough, you’ll see their dust sprinkled just over there.
"My lifeline runs parallel with that of rock 'n' roll," Lips beams. "I was born in 1956. In 1959, I was an Elvis fan, and everything from that point on, anything that had an electric guitar, that was my life."
On Pounding the Pavement, you can hear that passion. There’s a throwback and "old rock" feel to many of the songs. Even a nod to the blues and swing days in the album's sixth track “Rock That Shit,” which starts off like Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and sequences through 1950s bounce via extension and restraint, showcasing the chops they’ve honed through the years. The songs get to the point, are heavy on choruses, and manage to propel you without losing you. They are arranged like the old staples, grabbing your attention quickly and surely. They feel legendary.
"'Satisfaction.' That was the first heavy metal riff of all time,” Lips notes. “Then Hendrix broke through the mainstream. Then all the English bands broke out. Balls-out-blues was happening, man. That was the birth of it. Then Zeppelin, Sabbath, ELP, it was an onslaught [laughs]."
Being able to move on from despair and failure is certainly another crucial factor to Anvil’s success. It’s an aspect that typically goes hand-in-hand with rock music. Few bands could survive such an infinite grind as these guys have. You’d think a widely popular documentary on your life’s work would give you a chance to finally sit back and appreciate the journey. Instead, it turned into something of a grave.
"The movie's like a memorial to me," Lips says. "I actually prefer not to watch it. It just represents to me all those we've lost since it came out, and how much time we have left in this life. How much can we get done before it's over? As morbid as that sounds, it really makes sense. The heat of the moment, you know, you have to do it, that's what life is all about. Every second counts. Don't take it for granted."
Anvil aren’t, they’re still out there in the trenches, riffing to the metal gods of infinite time.