At some point in every successful artist's career, past accomplishments become more compelling than future prospects. Having a string of hits can therefore be something of a double-edged sword, for the shadow cast by those hits, not to mention, nostalgia for the lineup of musicians who recorded them, tends to grow over time, often in inverse proportion to the relevance of an act's new material.
Lately, however, some bands have tried to have their cake and eat it too. ARCH ENEMY has successfully transitioned into Mark III, but the group has also played a handful of BLACK EARTH shows with original vocalist Johan Liiva to commemorate its early years. Similarly, FATES WARNING turned back the clock for some recent festival dates, where the lineup that recorded "Awaken The Guardian" temporarily reunited to perform the album, after which the group's current incarnation resumed touring. FOREIGNER and Alice Cooper have also occasionally welcomed back former members for live shows without fully playing the reunion card.
Then there's DOKKEN, who has attempted to forge something of a dual career path in recent months as well: one featuring the group's classic lineup of Don Dokken, George Lynch, Jeff Pilson and Mick Brown, who reunited for a string of shows in 2016 (and if Lynch and Pilson have their way, will do so again next year), and another with the group's current lineup of Dokken, Brown, longtime guitarist Jon Levin and more recent addition Chris McCarvill. While Dokken has vowed to carry on with the latter incarnation, the new live album/DVD/Blu-ray "Return To The East Live (2016)", recorded during reunion shows in South Dakota and Japan, will only make the shadow of the former that much harder to shake.
Even Dokken himself seems to acknowledge the crossroads in the lyrics to "It's Just Another Day", the new studio track by the group's classic lineup that's included here. "Where do we go from here?" he croons at one point in the mid-tempo song, which features a bouncy riff, chunky bass lines and a meaty groove. Exuding more of a '90s vibe than you'd expect, the track feels somewhat restrained, at least until an extended solo section gives Lynch a chance to show off.
Also included are two primarily acoustic re-workings of tracks from the group's glory days. The lush "Heaven Sent" falls somewhere between desert noir and spaghetti western, but its walls of harmonies and extended guitar solo provide added heft. Meanwhile, "Will The Sun Rise" feels like a campfire jam, albeit one in which Lynch refuses to mellow out by unplugging.
That brings us to the hour-long concert portion of "Return To The East". In its review of MACHINE HEAD's divisive "Catharsis", Decibel magazine famously abandoned its normal 0-to-10 rating scale in favor of the "shrug" emoticon. It's tempting to follow suit and award DOKKEN a "?", as the "live" footage here is clearly anything but. Granted, very few live albums are 100 percent authentic, but while "Return To The East" — the audio portion of which was produced by Pilson — sounds like a million bucks, it's unquestionably benefited from numerous nips and tucks.
The sweetened crowd noise and overdubbed vocals aren't the main problems, though. The majority of the video is actually not from Japan, but from South Dakota — "Return To The Great Plains" must not have had a good ring to it — and often, songs feature footage Frankensteined together from multiple performances. Case in point: DVD/Blu-ray opener "Tooth And Nail", hilariously sees Don take the stage at the Badlands venue in Sioux Falls and greet the audience, only to cut to a crowd shot of cheering Japanese fans. Later, during "Kiss Of Death", Dokken walks toward Lynch, only to magically reappear at center stage in the next shot before he's right back alongside Lynch in the one after. There are also numerous awkward angles and bizarre effects — things like mosaic cuts, mirroring and, in "Unchain The Night", blurry footage of Brown that seems like someone having too much fun with Apple's Photo Booth feature. In short, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" would have a field day with this.
That said, if you're looking for a genuine document of a historical musical moment, "Return To The East" isn't it. As a killer soundtrack to a tour program with moving pictures, though, it hits the mark. Yes, some of the material — most noticeably, "Dream Warriors" — is tuned down significantly, and yes, Don's voice isn't what it once was, but it's not entirely fair to fault vocalists whose ranges change as they age. After all, aside from Glenn Hughes, which rock singers have the same power three decades later? A more pointed criticism is to call Dokken out for his dour expression, which borders on an outright scowl at times, especially in "Paris Is Burning" when he's clearly unhappy with his vocal monitors. He provides a sharp contrast to Pilson, who's energetic from the opening bell and completely drenched by the show-closing "In My Dreams".
It remains to be seen whether "Return To The East" — which also includes 45 minutes of interviews, rehearsal clips and other behind-the-scenes footage not screened for review — is a snapshot of a moment in time or a harbinger of things to come. Either way, perhaps its most commendable quality is the spotlight it re-shines on underrated '80s rock anthems like "Breaking The Chains" and "Into The Fire" — and to be honest, those songs never really benefited from their video accompaniments in the first place.