Live Review: Baltimore Rock Opera Society presents Gründlehämmer @ 2640 Space (2009.10.03)

Editor’s note: This is a long overdue report from the show’s first engagement. Thankfully, it is more relevant now than ever since a second weekend of Gründlehämmer performances is fast approaching 2640 Space on the weekend of Feb 19th-21st (Fri – Sat @ 7pm, Sun @ 5pm). And this time, you’ll be able to take a part of it home with the 2-disc studio album packed with songs of heroic deeds and villainous mischief.

If you are feeling particularly generous, drop by and show your support Jan 28th @ the Brewer’s Art-hosted fundraiser.

All photos: Andy Cook

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  1. MP3: Baltimore Rock Opera Society – Vengeance & Guide My Hand
  2. MP3: Baltimore Rock Opera Society – Hear Ye (rough mix) * preview track, the final version will be available along with the album, at the show dates.

When the four founders of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society talked up an epic production, they spoke every bit of truth.  Epic is undoubtedly the best word to describe Gründlehämmer, the 3-hour long, debut rock opera from the creative quartet of director Aran Keating, music coordinator & actor Dylan Koehler, band director John DeCampos, and propmaster & floor manager Eli Breitburg-Smith.

I found that Gründlehämmer has few parallels to what has become known as the rock opera.  Unlike nearly every conventional rock opera that begins too often as an asinine conceptual album (recent, less asinine examples include Dream Theater’s Scenes From A Memory, the Decemberists’ Hazards of Love, Mastodon’s Crack the Skye), Gründlehämmer was conceived and developed with the stage in mind. Point of fact, this production shares much more lineage and motivation with traditional opera, and musicals.  Much like classical opera from its late 19th century, Verdi and Wagner populated heyday, Gründlehämmer operates in almost hysterical extremes, firing on all cylinders: the epic, archetypal storyline, the completely over-the-top sets and costumage, the showy and at times complex music and expansive cast and huge choral / dance routines. Hell, they even span the theatrical spectrum by including a shadow puppet dream sequence.

But the most recent cultural touchstone in my mind is the musical episode (“Once More With Feeling”) from Joss Whedon’s cult-favorite TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  A full-bore masterpiece of entertainment encompassing multiple genres of music, dance and theater.  The bulk of the episode’s appeal lay not in any extreme technical proficiency, or necessarily excellent acting or singing (by contrast, all of which Gründlehämmer has in spades).  For Whedon’s creations, the appeal lies in the disposition of the journey, the viewer’s bond with the characters, and the meticulous nuance in every facet of the production.  Whedon juggles a massive cast of characters and multiple sub-plots.  He delivers winking, self-aware acknowledgements of standard tropes, multi-layered arrangements, engages in endless pop-cultural referencing and homaging, and takes painstaking detail with props and sets.

So it is with Gründlehämmer.

The plot is a familiar one: the kingdom of Brotopia, plunged into darkness by a dark overlord (Lothario) who murders a noble king.  This king’s infant heir (Benedon) is miraculously rescued and orphaned to a distant agrarian hamlet called Coxally Glen.  We follow the kid as he grows up, learns how to slay on his ax (literally and figuratively, his guitar/weapon/implement is a crudely-fashioned ax), through his quest to ultimately become the king he is fated to be.  As it is in Buffy, the outline of the plot is fairly generic: clearly evil antagonist does some horrible things and breeds conflict before he is finally confronted and destroyed.

But as I said before, the magic is in the details of the journey. In Gründlehämmer, the extremes of detail are baffling, from those that are massive in scope to the minute, ridiculous accents that complement them.

Everyone in Brotopia has a stringed instrument of some sort, representative of their trade or place in society (farmers get pitchfork-headed guitars, grandma gets a tiny lute, villains play on sick metal \m/ axes with skulls and various pointy edges).  The sets were surprisingly elaborate and polished, using a diverse set of color palettes to set the mood of each scene. Equally impressive were the various iterations of Medieval costumage.

But for me, the crowning visual achievements of this phenomenally crafted spectacle were the highly-anticipated reveals of the titular weapon itself, and the monster (Gründle) who guards it.  The former is a gaudy, devil-horn-throwing, head-banging piece of nerd-gasm. It picks up a pop-cultural spare by channeling every phallic, pointy symbol of power and masculinity from every 80s and 90s childhoods filled with cartoons and video games (He-Man, Power Rangers, Thundercats, Voltron, Zelda, Strider, Final Fantasy, and nearly every action-based anime in existence with their novelty sized weaponry).  When the house lights were cut and the various LEDs and lasers embedded into the weapon shone like a lighthouse beacon slicing through a fog-enveloped darkness, you couldn’t help but feel a bit giddy.  The latter is an inspired bit of ridiculousness: a giant, green, multi-armed, cave-dwelling beast that uses the limbs of its dismembered victims to craft the grotesque instruments of its one-monster band, fretboards made of bones strung with muscle and sinew…a perfect candidate for a new volume of Grimm’s.

Opera as an art form was really the first to marry theatrical moments directly to a musical soundtrack representative of what was going on on-stage.  Broadly speaking, in Brotopia you’ve got the forces of good commanding gentle, folksy tunes or righteously twinkling duets of prog riffs a la Queensryche versus the evildoers’ chugging soundtrack of various heavy variations on metal or hardcore.  Remarkably, all the tunes settle into their respective styles excellently, never inappropriately jarring transitions, and the house band constantly surprised with its versatility (a careful eye will notice multiple personalities from local music groups throughout the band and cast).

Ultimately, a spectacle like this is hard to evaluate based solely on technical merit alone.  On this basis alone, Gründlehämmer excels. But at some point, the scale of it all sweeps you away, and the social experience becomes inextricably linked to the actual production, and you’ve got a whole ‘nother class of entertainment.  Considering how strongly and easily this symbiosis was in Gründlehämmer, you know that they’ve gotten it right. This is undoubtedly a show you can’t, and shouldn’t, miss.

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4 Responses to “Live Review: Baltimore Rock Opera Society presents Gründlehämmer @ 2640 Space (2009.10.03)”

  1. Susan Helldorfer says:

    Am looling forward to seeing you Feb 19

  2. Jack Wright says:

    Actually, a more recent “cultural touchstone” concerning musicals is the Scrubs episode “My Musical.” It is a really amazing episode with great tunes and performances. Even more recent is Whedon’s project “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”–another masterpiece.

    Go Grundlehammer. I wish I could be there next week.

  3. Greg Szeto says:

    Funny you say that Jack, as I thought about the Scrubs musical briefly. Personally, I thought the Buffy musical had more impact (more subplots juggled more effectively, musical variety) and felt more aligned with Grundlehammer so I went with that one.

    Dr Horrible has some great tunes/writing, but is missing the scope (performance-wise you don’t have any dance numbers, musical variety again) of any of the other musicals mentioned.

  4. Jack Wright says:

    Too true on both counts. Horrible is lacking in scope when compared to the other two, but is is very well done when you consider Whedon funded the project himself.

    Another modern musical/TV masterpiece (in my mind, at least) is “Cop Rock.” Hardcore Hardcore Cop Drama meets quirky musical? It doesn’t get much better than that. Unfortunately this example lacks in the “cultural touchstone” department, as it only lasted about 10 episodes, and most people hated it.

    Oh well. A man can dream…

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