Seeland / Lumberjack Mordam, 2001
A dash of lunacy is usually a good thing in music, but even better is focused, inspired lunacy, and this daunting but thrilling album is powered by that kind of insane genius. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum mix ear-splitting metal, progressive experimentation and classical refinement with a flair that doesn't come along very often. It's a similar outlook to King Crimson at their peak in the mid-70s, and The Mars Volta recently showed how such tentacled prog can still sell to the public. But imagine what Mars Volta could be like with more discipline, variety and a sense of humour, and you're coming close to the sound of these guys, who have made some of the most original prog rock of the decade so far.
Their line in huge metal outbursts, growling vocals, complex rhythms and near-atonality might clear rooms at parties, but it's far from random plonking. Every track has a tune, tight and economical, decorated with a cascade of imaginative gestures. At one end of their scale is the intensive assault of rhythm and the inhibition-free shrieking of "Sleep is Wrong". The inspired slogans of its lyrics would have worked well in a "Teenage Kicks" style punk anthem. They could also have had a hit with the ball-busting metal of "1997", perfect for a rock TV channel. Its paranoid pace and hammering refrains are kicked off by a chase from an approaching police siren.
At the other extreme they have a delicate touch at classical arranging, shown in the middle by the short folksy Gentle Giant-like "Miniature". Many of the tracks are littered with unusual acoustic instruments, most distinctively, the exotic sound of a hammered dulcimer. The final track "Sunflower" is their most self consciously arty, a quiet dialogue between two dulcimers, with lots of meaningful silences. Occupying the middle ground of the album's variety in pace are some comparatively laid back but choppy instrumental-based tracks. The clockwork crescendo of "Ambugaton" and the sneering, powerful "Powerless" show off their skill for intricately-rhythmic band interplay. This is where the mid-70s King Crimson influence comes across most strongly.
One effect that's deliberately "extreme", but used well, is the way those throaty metal grunts are contrasted with the high-pitched female singer. This is used entrancingly on "Ablutions", with a baby-steps tune backed by eerie industrial creaking, building to an absolutely terrifying climax when the guy joins in. A similar effect is used on "Stain", along with a searing riff, to illustrate a wry moral tale contrasting the labours of a poor farmer with fussy suburban gardening. They have a serious talent for sustaining and buiding tension through long songs, and nowhere is this better shown than on "Sleepytime (Spirit is a Bone)". Buidling from the elfin "sleepytime" introduction, through a relentless slow waltz, to the grandiose word-association of the climax, it suggests that they have a piece like Starless somewhere inside them. Maybe it's on the follow-up, "Of Natural History"? Only one way to find out.
May 25, 2006