Has there ever been a music subgenre stupider than "space rock?" For those unfamiliar with this short-lived musical fad, it originated in the early '70s, and combined a growing cultural fascination with all things sci-fi (inspired, no doubt, by the success of Stanley Kubrick's '2001,' and reaching nuclear meltdown levels with the release of 'Star Wars' in 1977) with the worst excesses of pretentious British heavy metal. Bands such as Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, UFO and even The Carpenters began to merge new-fangled synthesizers and unusual song structures into ridiculous "concept" epics (often running ten or twenty minutes long), with the result producing some of the most interminable music ever created. (Luckily, by the end of the '70s, "space rock" was dead -- may it rest in peace.)
If it's unfair to call UFO strictly a "space rock" band (with the group largely dispensing with the sci-fi musical trappings after their first couple of early-'70s LPs), it's also hard to deny that they've never quite surmounted their reputation as a poor man's Pink Floyd. Releasing seven mildly-popular studio albums by the end of the '70s (plus the live set "Strangers in the Night," which remains their biggest US seller), before quickly fading into obscurity in the '80s, UFO never achieved the status of a true arena-rock band in the States, at least not compared to their more radio-friendly rock contemporaries such as Boston, Kansas, and Pink Floyd. It's true that UFO may have been "big in Japan" (or, rather, Britain, where they were huge), but it's hard to argue that this group ranks as anything more than a footnote in the history of hard rock.
Of course, like most of the now-irrelevant bands from the '70s are wont to do, UFO would dust off the bad perms and attempt to stage the inevitable reunion for the new millennium. 'Showtime' documents a stop on the band's 2005 comeback tour (following tepidly-received revivals in 1995 and 2000), which saw the reformed quintet playing mostly small clubs. Composed of original band members Phil Moog (vocals), Pete Way (bass) and Paul Raymond (guitar), plus drafted colleagues Jason Bonham (drums) and Vinnie Moore (also guitar), it's a line-up that's a bit more rotund around the middle, but musically, pretty tight.
Indeed, 'Showtime' finds the band in fine fighting form. The multiple-riffing of Raymond and Moore is energetic and organic (if all still a little bit Spinal Tap), while the often-underestimated Bonham (recently seen backing up the reunion of some little band called Led Zeppelin) nearly steals the show with his propulsive rhythms. Only Moog seems to falter -- while his vocals are surprisingly polished for a singer pushing into his '60s, his stage presence is lethargic and uninvolving, and he comes off more like the backing singer for his own band.
Unfortunately, where 'Showtime' truly suffers is in presentation. The small club atmosphere (with a "sold out" crowd that looks to number about 150) just does not lend itself to a dynamic live document. The stage is cramped, which prohibits the band from moving about, while the "lightshow" consists of a few spots and a backdrop of the UFO logo on a cheap curtain. While the camerawork is professionally done, and the show is finely cut, there just isn't much to look at here -- every song pretty much comes off the same.
However, diehard UFO fans will probably be thrilled by this release. 'Showtime' was first issued on standard DVD last year, and is just now hitting HD DVD. The band plays all of its big hits (presenting the entirety of "Strangers in the Night" in fact), and their musical chops are up to snuff. I can't say anyone will probably find any thrills in the lackluster visual component of the show, but for the faithful, 'Showtime' delivers what it promises.
The 16-track setlist includes: 01. Intro / 02. Mother Mary / 03. When Daylight Goes to Town / 04. Out on the Streets / 05. This Kidds / 06. The Wild One / 07. Fighting Man / 08. Only You Can Rock Me / 09. Baby Blue / 10. Mr. Freeze / 11. Love to Love / 12. Too Hot Too Handle / 13. Lights Out / 14. Rock Bottom / 15. Doctor Doctor / 16. Shoot Shoot
'Showtime' is the first HD DVD title I've reviewed from indie label SPV, and it's a strong initial effort. The company presents the show in 1080p/VC-1 video, and despite the rather thrifty nature of the production (the disc's supplements are upfront about the band's limited resources) it looks quite good.
I have seen better HD source material before, but overall all of the elements are up to snuff. Blacks are nice and deep, contrast is well modulated, and colors are vibrant. 'Showtime' is not a visual feast, but the primary use of red and green lighting on most of the songs is cleanly reproduced. There is obvious visual depth and strong detail, and the transfer is never less than sharp as a tack.
The major problem here is shadow delineation. The image breaks up in the darkest areas, with visible video noise and very poor detail. Colors also pale out. Luckily, the majority of the footage of the band is vibrant and well-lit, so it is usually crowd shots and the like that suffer. All in all, though, 'Showtime' hits the mark.
SPV offers up a wealth of audio options (all in English): Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround and DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (both 48kHz/24-bit), plus Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps) and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (192kbps). Both high-res audio tracks deliver the real deal, with an expansive sound despite the intimate nature of the gig.
'Showtime' hasn't been overtorqued, so the DTS and TrueHD tracks have kick but won't result in earbleeds. I was impressed with the very tight bass, and the nice clarity of the ringing guitar riffs. Stereo separation is also well done, with a natural and organic feel to the spatial placement of instruments and vocals. It's also a well-balanced presentation (although I did feel the crowd could have been a bit more prominent in the mix and the surrounds). Truth be told, neither of the high-res mixes ever really deliver that out-of-body feeling I've enjoyed with the best high-def audio presentations, but then quite frankly 'Showtime' was recorded on much more modest means than, say, the latest Justin Timberlake extravaganza. In any case, fans of the band shouldn't be disappointed.
For their debut HD DVD release, SPV has done a very fine job presenting the extras from the DVD version by making full use of the next-gen format's interactive capabilities. There is a nice variety of material here (both ported over and exclusive to the high-def version), accessible via very well-designed menus and with the video-based footage encoded in 1080p/MPEG-2 video (note that much does appear to be upconverted 480, but at least SPV formatted for HD). Let's start with the material taken directly from the DVD:
'Showtime' presents a comeback of sorts for UFO, who were not one of the leading '70s hard rock bands. I personally found the concert a bit lackluster on the visual side of the things, though the group does sound quite tight musically. This HD DVD is a very fine first effort from SPV, however, with very good video and audio, plenty of extras, and an exclusive picture-in-picture track. Non-fans of the band won't be won over by 'Showtime,' but then this release isn't for them, now is it?