Unless you are a true connoisseur of outsider music and musicians, the first time your came across someone – or something – called Buckethead was during the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. As part of the surprise finale to the festivities, a be-braided Axl Rose arrived, looking freshly minted from some major cosmetic surgery, and introduced the latest line-up of Guns and Roses to an enthusiastic, if quasi-perplexed, audience. It wasn't just the botoxed bad-boy from a decade before that had the crowd confused. Standing on stage, in a yellow slicker, ghostly 'shape' mask, with an upside down KFC container on his head, was a blazing guitarist, as adept an axe man as exists in the modern music scene. Yet very few would have recognized the sonic savant with the virtuoso skills, and all anonymity aside, Buckethead is an ass-kicking metal maniac. Sadly, he has done very little to embrace the mainstream, and the latest DVD release from the reclusive artist will do very little to change that – no matter how provocative the final product is.
Two discs, with over three hours of content spread out among them both, what we have here is a celebration of the chicken-challenged entity known as Buckethead. From his earliest days as part of the California metal-funk freak out Deli Creeps to his recent rash of recordings featuring members of System of a Down and Death by Stereo, the pick prodigy with the unusual stage persona has regularly reinvented the notion of modern musicianship with his idiosyncratic style and subtext. Not content to contribute to the ongoing fusion of musical genres, while indulging almost exclusively in his own world of wicked wonders, Buckethead could best be described as a far freakier Fred Lane, or an even more reclusive Residents (if that's possible). All three make noise that somehow skirts the mainstream while also sounding a great deal like Satan's hit parade. The only difference between them is attention span. The right repugnant Rev. Lane is lunacy in a pop tune paradigm, while the Eyeball guys aren't beyond mega-prog performances. The Bucket views the three minute ditty as far too restrictive. He will either indulge in long form fiddling, or render his aural attacks in brief, seconds-long strikes.
Still, you've got to wonder about Brian Carroll. Here's a guy who can outplay Eddie Van Halen, puts Steve Vai to shame, and runs riffing rings around Joe Satriani, and yet he is barely a cult figure. He could own heavy metal, his startlingly original compositions a bizarro combination of horror film references, dedications to all things Disney, jarring jolts from Japanese monster movies, and a rather unhealthy love/hate obsession with robots and theme parks, all smothered in a genre busting mix of thrash, grunge, death, cock and any other manner of rock and roll you can name. He even brings a little classical gas and some substantial jazz leanings to the overflowing festivities. Yet aside from a group of dedicated aficionados who worship the very frets he fingers, and a collection of industry acolytes who support his increasingly strange sense of stardom, Buckethead (Carroll's confusing alter ego) is basically unknown. He could probably walk into any record store in America, in full freaked out get up, and more people would confuse him for a serial killer than a skilled musician. There is something so insular, so oft-putting about his disturbing disguise that it must repel more potential devotees than it draws.
Unfortunately, the Secret Recipe DVD really won't change anyone's perception of the perturbing player. More or less a sonic scrapbook of everything the enigmatic entertainer has done over the last 13 years, all without a lick of context to clarify just what it all means, we get multi-faceted menus (with Buckethead buddy Bootsy Collins doing the voice over vaudeville) that lead us to a treasure trove of tainted goodies. There's old home video footage, demos, bootleg performances, music videos, an exhaustive, illustrated discography, galleries loaded with oddball art, instructions for Buckethead's signature guitar/nunchaku combat, press clippings, and lots of man's mystifying mythology. There are even a couple of concert appearances to round out the offering. It's a lot to take in all at once, since most of the material here is provided to showcase Buckethead's peerless musicianship. As a matter of fact, one does get the distinct impression of walking in on one's own private conversation with themselves without a program or substance score sheet to fill us in on all the details. During the homemade movies, we learn that, as a baby, Buckethead was (supposedly) injured by pecking chickens. So serious were his wounds that he had to be disguised. Thus the nod to the Colonel, his 11 herbs and spices, and the entire phony façade. But since this is obviously a joke, the humor is hidden in a non-ironic sense of seriousness.
After experiencing everything this package has to offer, the first thing you notice about the world of Buckethead is that it is very specific in its pop culture clutter. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in all its variables) is referenced once, it appears dozens of times – in clips, in sound bites, in movie memorabilia and musical homages. So do Halloween, The Exorcist, and any other manner of motion picture macabre. As for the before referenced robots, we see a lot of a gray statue that looks like a combination of Ultraman and the ancient Hebrew monster the Golem. There's also a little round automaton named Herbie that appears to be a combination sidekick and logo for the artist. Along with a severed head prop that 'speaks', a fairly decent grasp of both martial arts and the 80s dance craze of body rockin'/poppin', and the everpresent fast food container on his head (sometimes festooned with a bright red band that reads "FUNERAL"), there seems to be some manner of social underpinning to Buckethead's bravado. It could be a comment on the cross-pollination of cultures that's occurred both before and after the millennium.
Or maybe it's just an adolescent admiration for all things 'cool' and 'wicked'. Whatever the case, it gives Buckethead's efforts more depth and resonance than, perhaps, they really deserve.
Perhaps the most startling of these incidents occur when Buckethead halts his non-stop stream of lightning fast leads to break into a direct riff lift from Disney attractions like The Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World and, most remarkably, The Main Street Electrical Parade. The House of Mouse is routinely referenced by artists as being a bastion of micromanaged meanness, a one time entertainment giant that got a little too big for its founder's family-friendly focus, only to end up destroying the company's creative edge and public goodwill. But for Buckethead, there is still a sense of awe and wonder in the works of Uncle Walt, a purity of presence that comes across the minute he breaks into those memorable melodies. During the collection of live clips we see throughout the DVD (including two long form shows in Boston and New York) Buckethead will thread the Haunted Mansion's theme all throughout his performance (even playing along to the attraction's narrative at one point) and he usually closes his shows with a mash-up of that famed Main Street song with any number of self-styled solos. The overall effect is interesting. For many, Buckethead's musical ability often blurs his ability to connect with the crowd. Yet the minute we hear the familiar strains of that buccaneer sea shanty, we are ready to "Yo Ho" right along with the enthusiastic crowd.
This may indeed be Buckethead's raison d'etra all along. Since he is so superior in his skill – a kind of Stephen Hawking of hard rock, if you will – he knows he needs ways to link up with those who love his gift of guitar. Such prodigious talent can have difficulty translating to those without the skill, so the nods to monster movies, robots, and various cultural lynchpins provide the correlation that the playing can't provide. Indeed, a lot of what is on these two DVDs is designed to fill in gaps and give backstory and foundation to what Buckethead is all about. For the most part, it works. The videos are fun, the homemade movies equally hilarious and hideous, and the consistency of the concept so exacting that you have to give the man credit for never once swaying from his own demented design. Will hardcore fans want more in-concert material? Absolutely. Will newcomers still feel lost after watching a collection of clips that represent 13 years in the life of Buckethead? Definitely. If Secret Recipe was meant to disclose anything, it would have to be how safe and secure this artist is in his own self-crafted skin. Maybe one day, KISS-like, he will drop the drag and let us see his true face. Then again, Secret Recipe may already be that mirror into the mangled, mutilated and multi-talented world of one seriously fudged up freakazoid.
As you can gather by the rest of the review, Buckethead: Secret Recipe is a compendium of mediums, and as a result, the visual aspect of the DVD is quite topographic – read: all over the map. Most of the 1.33:1 full screen presentation is low light video that suffers from, what the cover art calls, "newly deteriorated transfers from materials buried underground to maintain the lowest possible picture quality". While an obvious joke, the sentiment is sound. Some of this footage is almost unwatchable. At other times, we get standard mid-90s technology in all its analog glory. Yes, there is flaring, bleeding, grain, ghosting, and any number of additional camcorder-created mistakes. While watchable, it definitely represents the lower end of the digital domain's dynamic.
Again, the age of the material sets the standard. Listening to this amazing guitarist blaze through a complex solo as recorded by a camera's internal microphone is the very definition of cross-purposes. The musicianship is amazing. The sound sucks. Sadly, this is the aural attribute for most of the material here. Even the concerts on Disc 2 suffer from sub par resonance. One show is even offered in Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 (everything else is Mono-mired 2.0), but there is still a flatness, and a lack of real ambiance, to the recording. When he appears live, Buckethead is usually accompanied by a preprogrammed backing track, and there are times when his playing seems stifled by the accompaniment. The music videos are the best way to experience Buckethead's muse. They are professional, and sonically superior to everything else here (besides, we get a cameo by Primus' principle pervert Les Claypool, which is always a good thing).
As with any disc set like this, it is hard to decipher what is intended content and what is a bonus feature. While it's true that some of the material is difficult to access (the concerts can be tricky, unless you pay attention to the changing menu screens) none of it is so hidden as to warrant consideration as an added feature. Indeed, everything that's part of this DVD would be considered extras if it accompanied an actual full blown concert or feature length documentary film. Instead, this is just a compendium of interesting individual items.
Musicianship without meaning can be excruciatingly dull. On the other hand, skill and ability buried inside an obtuse and off-putting dynamic can be equally aggravating. Somewhere in the middle lies Buckethead. If you love genius guitar work, no matter the context, you will thoroughly enjoy this sonic scrapbook. If you need a tad more reality with your riffing, or can't find your way inside Buckethead's sometimes baffling world of monsters and mayhem, then Secret Recipe will successful scramble your sound aesthetic in ways both uncomfortable and unconscionable. Since it is not the complete career overview the packaging professes, the DVD looses out on a Highly Recommended rating. Instead, it must settle for a score of Recommended. It all really comes down to a matter of taste…and temperament. A certain teenage demographic will probably latch onto this horror aficionados finger-picking freak-outs and wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world for not embracing his obvious guitar godliness. Others will look at this performer in a fast food hood and speculate on what he has to hide. Staying obscured is obviously part of Buckethead's intended ideal. Secret Recipe guarantees that such a conceit will remain intact.
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