Review

Review

Celldweller: 'Live Upon a Blackstar' – DVD & Blu-ray Review

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It's hard to imagine that the first time I chatted with Klayton – founder and frontman of cinematic electro-rock powerhouse Celldweller – the idea of taking his music on the road was just about the furthest thing from his mind at the moment. Granted, that was back in 2008, and we've revisited his work many times since then... and damn, did he ever have a change of heart about the whole live thing. Not only did he release the band's years-in-the-making sophomore album Wish Upon a Blackstar to great acclaim (check out our review here), he also put together an amazing stage production and took Celldweller's new and classic songs on the road. The Blackstar tour was documented by pro camera crews, and the result of that coverage is an epic DVD & Blu-ray set released this summer by Klayton's own label, FIXT music. Check out my review below and get a taste of the Celldweller experience...
 
 
For this tour, Klayton teamed up with his frequent collaborator and label-mate Blue Stahli (aka Bret Autrey) to share the multiple instrumental duties, most of which had been handled entirely by Klayton in the studio. The pair switch back and forth on everything from percussion to keyboards to guitars, depending on the needs of the song. The result is a more spontaneous, improvisational twist on the original tracks, with Klayton drawing on his DJ experience and his ventures into dubstep; the overall vibe is one of a massive cybernetic dance party at the heart of the TRON grid.
 
Filmed during the band's North American, Russian and Japanese tours in 2010 and 2011 (including shows on Klayton and Bret's home turf of Detroit), the live content kicks off proper with an expanded version of “Though the Gates” – a piano driven, choir-infused instrumental which originally appeared on the collection Soundtrack to the Voices in My Head Volume 1. I've mentioned the cinematic connection to Klayton's music in the past, and this track is a prime example of the larger-than life quality that makes his sound ideal for the big screen. Also included from that album is the equally dramatic “Ursa Minor,” rendered here in the form of an epic dueling-drummer routine.
 
 
The lyrical songs are split between Celldweller's self-titled 2003 debut album, including the band's legendary electro-metal single “Switchback” and the lesser-known but equally intense “Symbiont,” as well as the pensive “Frozen,” with its amazing glassy synth sequence enhanced by eerie guitar riffs from Bret. Also from the first album are radically reworked versions of “Fadeaway” and “Own Little World” (including a badass riff duet). Blackstar album songs include “Louder Than Words” and “The Lucky One,” plus Klayton and Bret mash up other recent tracks to create entirely new beasts, such as a fusion of "The Best It's Gonna Get” with “Tainted,” and an ultra-heavy hybrid of "So Long Sentiment” and “Eon” – definitely one of the DVD's most memorable performances. Here's a sample:
 
 
The 5.1 sound mix is top-quality, capturing the perfect balance of the multi-layered, overlapping instruments with Klayton's robust vocals well-centered – that is, except for some wild digital voice treatments that spread out across the left and right channels like a cyber-ghost chorus. The crowd noise is mighty enough to convey the size of the event, but never overpowers the music. The video quality is also excellent, combining professionally shot hand-held and flying camera footage in pristine HD, with dense black shadows forming a razor-sharp border against the neon light scheme and pulsing liquid-metal visual displays which rival the groundbreaking motion backgrounds used by Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy... and I swear I saw some tentacle Hentai mixed in there. Seriously.
 
The disc supplements (identical on the DVD and Blu-ray versions) include brief but fun video tour diaries, which include some cool remixes in the background and some seriously hilarious moments: one running joke involves the band members doing vocal exercises, and their experience on the Russian tour is quite an eye-opener. Also included is an interview with Klayton, who describes his unique approach to the tour (which he also discussed with FEARnet in a previous interview). The extras are rounded out with music videos for “Frozen” and “Own Little World,” and promos for Blue Stahli and for Klayton's DJ set. Another cool running feature is the option to watch the complete unedited versions of the elaborate backing videos, all synchronized to the music to create self-contained animated shorts that'll blow your mind.
 
The true Celldweller sound is the rare atmosphere of strange new worlds – some dark and terrifying, others ethereal and uplifting – but all depicted on a grand scale. Until now, only those lucky enough to catch their live shows have seen the human power behind the band's cybernetic symphonies, but since this disc is finally within your grasp, it's well worth it to see the wizardry of the men behind the curtain.
 
 
Just to tease you a bit more, I'll play you out with “Switchback,” a slow-burning encore rendition of the band's most popular single that ends with a huge payoff.
 

 

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