(All Album Reviews by I.M. Weasel)
As always, you unwrap the CD from its plastic enclosure, take the CD out of its fastener, and pop it into the tray. You press "close". Now, prepare yourself for one of the wildest musical rides in years.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is one of the most crazed and adventurous progressive rock bands out there. This six-piece band from San Francisco starts with heavy metal, adds a giant tablespoon of all-around wierdness, then throws in dashes of the unexpected, like ambient chime music, and stretches of music that rival the beauty and lushness of any symphonic prog band. This makes it difficult to really pigeonhole a band like SGM; just when you think they are headed in one direction, they go another.
Grand Opening and Closing starts with SGM's signature song, "Sleep is Wrong". Imagine being hit over the head with a jet-powered sledgehammer, and tickled with 10 feather dusters at the same time, and thats how you might feel when listening to "Sleep is Wrong".
"Ambugaton" slowly builds up from a pastoral, yet dark opening to an all out, full force assualt on the senses. "Ablutions" is just plain creepy.
"1997" is the song that might appeal the most to your average metal-head; it sounds like a White Zombie tune, if it were included on King Crimson's 1974 album Red. The short interlude "The Miniture" is in stark constrast to "1997", as it sounds like it could have been lifted from a symphonic prog album. But then, another left turn takes you into "Powerless", which slowly builds up into another horror rock masterpiece.
"The Stain" just sounds difficult to hum, let alone play. "Sleepytime" is perhaps the album's best song, starting out like a children's lullaby from an alternate dimension. Five minutes in, the song kicks in full force, with another audio assault. "Sunflower" ends the album on an unexpected note, with an almost ambient offering of chimes and acoustic guitars.
This music is not for lightweights. If you want something daring, give this album a shot. Chances are, you might send everyone else running out of the room screaming, but thats not always a bad thing, is it?
There are two words I want you to think of: wild and inventive. Both, in so many ways, describe the music of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. They are wild. They are untamed, uncontrollable. Don't get me wrong; there is an incredible amount of discipline in their music and believe me it shows, but they don't let anyone tell them what to do or where to go, and they don't use orthodox methods of getting there. They are inventive. What they are doing, no one has ever done more than hint at before. They do pull from traditional rock-in-opposition such as Henry Cow and Art Bears, but what they are doing is more appropriately called metal-in-opposition (or, as the band themselves call it, rock against rock). This is a style hinted at by Mr. Bungle with songs such as “Carry Stress in the Jaw”, but here it is materialized for the first time. Those two words do not tell all the story by themselves, however. It is when the two are combined that we see the full picture of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a band that is both wildly inventive and inventively wild.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum takes its name from a Dadaist museum of the same name that opened and closed in 1916 (hence the album's title). They have a strong environmentalist agenda that gives cohesion not just to this album, but to their entire body of work, so far comprised of three albums. This concept is not in full force here, but songs such as The Stain hint at it. The lyrics on the album are not the strongest you will see, but they are far stronger than your average boy-loves-girl (or any other cliché theme) lyrics. When you add all of these elements together, you get the perfect backdrop for their music. That is right. It is not the music that is the backdrop to the lyrics, it is the lyrics that are the backdrop to the music. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum do not preach, they play their instruments and sing.
To achieve their wondrously cacophonous sound, the band ventures beyond the constraints of a traditional rock/metal band. While it is true that their base instrumentation, minus Carla Kihlstedt's violin, is traditional rock fare, they also are notorious for inventing their own instruments (most invented by bassist/producer Dan Rathbum - the one with the mohawk). The most famous of these is the piano slide log (or something of that nature), which is type of bass instrument where the musician holds two sticks, one in each hand. The first is used as a fret while the second hits the strings. I don't have the musical knowledge to tell you when Rathbum is using traditional bass and when he's using the piano log, but I can tell you that his playing is huge throughout the album. Also to be noted is Carla's work on vocals and violin. While both have improved over the course of the band's three releases, she is still a force to be reckoned with and perhaps the most important member of the band (certainly the most lovable, and NOT because she is a woman!). The end result from the combination of these many elements is an assembly of what the band classify as "lullabies and headsplitters." That should tell you all you need to know. Many of the tracks are soft, even beautiful, but these are contrasted by songs that will, as progarchives reviewer Atavachron so wisely put it, "take the enamel off your teeth."
The album opens with “Sleep is Wrong”, one of the band's signature tracks. If Sleepytime Gorilla Museum know one thing, it's how to open an album. This song is a headsplitter from start to finish, loud and massive. As Nils Frykdahl, guitarist and lead vocalist, grunts and screams about how “Sleep is Wrong”, the band creative a brutal atmosphere that does not really fit under a metal classification. It is not hard rock, it is not metal, but it's louder and heaver than most music in either genre. The song then builds up to a fantastic climax where Nils and Carla engage in a call and response vocal section that will send shivers down your (by now broken) spine.
“Ambugaton” keeps up the high energy, this time with a song that is half lullaby, half headsplitter. It is mostly instrumental, with the only vocals coming in the from of a shouted "Ambugaton!" with about one minute left. It starts out peacefully enough, but, after about three minutes evolves until it becomes centered around a fantastic metal line, getting heavier and heavier until, after the shout, it explodes in a stunning climax.
“Ablutions” is one of the weaker tracks on the album, but it's still excellent (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have yet to release a sub-par song, which is quite an accomplishment). Carla takes lead vocals for this strangely dark and frantic song. Despite being quite frantic, as I mentioned, it is not a fast, or even particularly heavy, song at all. The frantic comes from the atmosphere of the music and from the excellent vocals. You have to hear it to fully comprehend this, but it is a wonderful contrast. Again, as we reach the end, the song peaks with Carla ranting about counting herself to sleep.
“1997 (Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's...)” is easily the heaviest song on this album, and perhaps even the heaviest song Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have done, along with “Helpless Corpses Enactment” from In Glorious Times. This song reminds me of crappy nu metal with the "crappy" removed and "fantastic" submitted in its place. Like with the frantic atmosphere on “Ablutions”, you have to hear it to believe it, but I kid you not when I say that this is one of my favorites on the album. The lyrics seem to deal with rednecks (though that may just be me associating the reference to pickup trucks in the lyrics automatically with rednecks), and, it should be noted, contain the only profanity on the album. Nils' vocals are tremendous, and this song shows that nu metal cannot only be good, but even - gasp - progressive.
After such a heavy song as “1997”, “Miniature” is a relief, almost an intermission, if you will, since, after it ends, it's right back to madness with “Powerless”. “Miniature” is a stunningly beautiful "lullaby" piece that almost seems out of place on anything associated with the name Sleepytime Gorilla Museum until you release the ingenuity the band display in playing off contrasts (and also when you realize that with a song this good, where it's out of place or not doesn't really mean anything).
“Powerless” is one of my favorite songs on the album (I almost listed my other favorites, but when this ended up including over half the songs on the album, I gave up), and even of all of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's career. The bass here is phenomenal, but everything is indispensably good, really. There are some funk elements to the music that work surprisingly well, giving the song, an established headsplitter, almost catchy qualities. The song is a perfect example of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's ability to build their songs over time, though that is also true of “Sleep is Wrong”, “Ambugaton”, “Ablutions”, and most especially “Sleepytime”. What is it, then, that makes this song one of my favorites? I don't know, beyond that I like it. Perhaps the way Nils screams, "powerless" throughout the song?
“The Stain” is the only song on the album that I wish wasn't there. It's not that it's a bad song (don't you remember me saying that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have yet to release one of those), it's just that it is not at the level of the other songs. It seems unfocused, and the vocals, usually one of the highlights of SGM's music, fail to impress as they do on, say, “Powerless”. Again, this is not to say that it's bad, or that I don't like, it's just that I find it harder to praise this song when it's surrounded by “Powerless” and “Sleepytime”, two of the most amazing songs ever released. Had it been placed on a Justin Timberlake album, or even an average album, it would be remarkably easy to sing its praise, of which there are many. Most of them are the same as what is present on the rest of the album, just in lower quantities here.
“Sleep is Wrong”, “Ambugaton”, “1997”, and “Powerless” may be excellent songs that establish Sleepytime Gorilla Museum as the best modern band, but it is “Sleepytime” that propels them to the legendary status of such bands as CAN (my favorite) and Magma (my second favorite). In fact, behind those two, I'd say no one tops Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. This song starts out as a demented lullaby, with the band cooing, half reassuringly and half not reassuringly, "sleepytime" at you over and over. Then, after about five minutes, the song starts to build. Just under a minute later, the song explodes into ooey-gooey headsplitting SGM goodness that simply cannot be topped, except by other SGM work (and some CAN and Magma).
After that song takes your breath away, you can recuperate with “Sunflower”, or, as you might also call it, “Miniature” Part 2. While the two songs are not really particularly alike in overall sound, both are beautiful pieces, and both serve as a reprieve from the madness. “Sunflower” consists mostly of chimes and plucked strings of I'm not sure what instrument. It's soft and meditative, and doesn't seem to go anywhere. Key word there? Seem. I hated this song at first, but multiple listens have revealed it to be a masterpiece of a closing song, proving that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are just as good at calming you down as they are at busting you up. An excellent closer.
I have the distinct advantage of reviewing this album after having heard three Sleepytime Gorilla Museum albums, and can therefore put it into an appropriate context. This album is a fantastic debut that shows a promising band hitting the ground running, already living up to the promise they show. On their next album, Of Natural History, they produced their ultimate masterpiece, an album they will probably never top. It has worked its way into my top ten albums of all time (probably closer to top five, really, but I don't rank order my top ten, I just vaguely know what they are). Of Natural History distanced itself somewhat from this album, toning up the metal aspects of their sound. Their most recent album, In Glorious Times, leaves the sound of Of Natural History and returns to the style of Grand Opening and Closing, only more refined. In the end, it is an inexcusable sin not to own all three, as each is a masterpiece in its own right. If you are the type that wants to discover bands by starting with their first efforts, Grand Opening and Closing will not disappoint, and you'll be able to look forward to even better music with their future releases. If you wish to start with the band's best, go with Of Natural History. Or you could even start with In Glorious Times, though I expect that that one is their most difficult (not that anything they've done is easy) to date. It doesn't really matter, ultimately, so long as you get around to all three. 4.5 stars for this one!