July 1, 2003

Sea of Fire
Mountain is perhaps the foremost example of how one song—or one riff—can expand in scope to drive an act into legend. That song, “Mississippi Queen,” propelled Mountain out of obscurity, made guitarist Leslie West a second-tier icon of the guitar-hero era, influenced scores of heavy-rock bands, and may one day ignite the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sea of Fire—filmed during a 2002 concert at Northern California’s Mystic Theater—won’t add even one more reason beyond “MQ” to sanctify Mountain, but it is a thrilling musical-docudrama of a near-legendary act coming to terms with age, relevance, and its own myth.

Happily, this is not a sad collection of Spinal Tap moments. West can still rip it up on guitar, and his raw, bluesy voice is rich with soul and charisma. Original drummer Corky Laing is in excellent shape, and his backbeat-with-asymmetrical-fills style of pounding echoes Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker. (Bassist Richie Scarlet ably fills in for founding member Felix Pappalardi, who was murdered by Mrs. Pappalardi in 1983.) Even better, the 5.1 soundtrack is brilliantly recorded and mixed—you really feel as if you’re enveloped in the roar of the band. This is also one of the clearest and most dimensional concert videos you’ll see—obviously, the seven-camera shoot paid off—and a selectable multi-camera view lets you experience four different perspectives simultaneously. Way cool.

Less groovy are filmed “tributes” by the concertgoers (as you might guess, most of the fans are aging biker types), a rambling documentary “scrapbook” of the band (“Don’t give your wife a gun,” offers West about the Pappalardi tragedy), and a frustratingly meager collection of vintage clips and photos. There’s also the bizarre concert intro, which I haven’t yet decided is stunningly creative or outright lame. What happens is, West ambles onstage without fanfare and begins “soundchecking” his rig. Watching the man riff away and step on pedals is definitely dumb, but the interesting bit is that the 5.1 soundtrack reacts to his sound tweaks. You hear circulating punches of full-on Marshall gronk, ambient washes, processed shimmers, silence, and echo splatters. Interesting….

While you could write off Sea of Fire as a souvenir for Mountain fanatics, the intensity of the performances, West’s obvious joy of loud-ass guitar playing (as well as his formidable talent), and the band’s subtle air of historic charm make this DVD a real gem for connoisseurs of old-school rock. And if you’re one of those cats who is always proclaiming, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” Sea of Fire will absolutely provide you with new evidence of how “the old guys” can wow an audience with groove, guitar, and a take-no-prisoners attitude. Long live rock! Lightyear Entertainment.

—Michael Molenda    

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