Man, it's too bad MTV doesn't show music videos anymore. I know, I know, tired ass grumpy old man argument, but hear me out. Recording equipment has gotten cheap enough, editing software has gotten ever easier to use, that there are an entire generation of cinematographers in the music industry that lack any kind of showcase for their talents. In fact, in the MTV heyday there were a number of major film directors who got their start in music videos, a low barrier-of-entry means of putting together a convincing professional portfolio. Where will the next generation of Spike Jonzes and Michel Gondrys get their start?
Probably a weird first impression to have upon viewing Whitechapel's new DVD, The Brotherhood of the Blade, but – particularly where concerns the documentary portion – this seems as much a showcase for director Mathis Arnell's work as it does the band itself. Shot on tour but not really a "tour documentary", Arnell interleaves a series of visually arresting images to reflect the mood of the narrator, a simple device that highlights an eye for photography as well as keeping the 75-minute doc from becoming just a boring parade of talking heads; standard stuff, kinda, but Arnell elevates a boilerplate template into genuine craft.
The live portion is notably more static, less impressive, in terms of photography. There are two major drawbacks working against it: the obvious lack of a crane ensures a limited number of shooting positions… occasionally you'll see a pan across the group members or a crowd close-up from the lip of the stage, but it's all fairly static as these live keepsakes tend to go; furthermore, the non-descript stage set up doesn't help, a simply designed backdrop and lighting that lingers between bright whites and pale blues not making a stellar case for why this particular tour needed to be captured for posterity.
In terms of performance, the band is tight and on point, energetically working through a set predictably heavy on tracks from Whitechapel's most recent studio album, Our Endless War, but between starting and ending with the new material a cross-section of older tracks are offered as well, although 2010's A New Era in Corruption is conspicuously absent. The accompanying CD version of the performance inexplicably features an extra track, "This Is Exile", which could have easily been accommodated by the DVD's running time, but perhaps technical issues sullied the film version beyond repair… who knows?
In terms of both value and interest, The Brotherhood of the Blade's big selling point by far is the documentary. While featuring only a modicum of musical performance at best – primarily rehearsal footage at that – Arnell does an exquisite job drawing out the personal and professional sides of the band, aside from notoriously tight-lipped frontman Phil Bozeman, who prefers to have his bandmates speak on his behalf here. The clips of live footage included in the documentary are heads and shoulders more dynamic and visually rich than on the live performance… the credits list Aaron Marsh as Director of Photography for Live Segment but don't specify a D.P. for the docu portion, so it's unclear whether Marsh tackled both, with superior gear at his disposal for the documentary, or if Mathis Arnell did his own camera work for that segment. Either way, one wishes that the live performance could have also benefitted from the richer color palette and more diverse angles.
All in all, The Brotherhood of the Blade is an interesting, largely entertaining, but ultimately inessential entry in the Whitechapel discography, more a love letter to their hometown of Knoxville, TN (where the live A/V was recorded) than a crucial document in the band's history.