(All Album Reviews by Baribrotzer)
OK, I'll say it up front. With of Natural History, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have done something I would have sworn was impossible: They’ve made an album as strong as their live show.
Anybody who has seen them and had that show knock them over will know how difficult this was. SGM live to perform, do so far more than most prog bands, and play with an unusual combination of headlong ferocity and turn-on-a-dime precision. Full of heavy-metal guitars, madhouse violin, gravelly or screeching vocals, and boiler-factory percussion, their music ROCKS like $%. However, to some extent it also depends upon the intensity of their over-the-top stage act, and neither Grand Opening and Closing, nor the official bootleg SGM Live managed to translate that power to record. The new one does.
First, of Natural History consists of a concept album: The songs, production, liner notes, and packaging all tie together to make a statement of radical environmentalism - how Mankind has come to act as if we own the Earth, how we do not in fact own it, how disaster looms over us, and how we've brought that down upon our own heads. The band express this in terms of their peculiar mythology, some of which derives from the eccentric history and philosophy of the original Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, some from the band's home-brewed legend of the “Donkey-headed Adversary of Humanity”, and some from the Italian Futurists and the Unabomber – a couple of new additions to their stew-pot of ideas. (for more about all this, see Appendix I.) Although they, typically, connect only a few of the dots, they also present a clear enough outline to guess at the rest of the picture.
The album's misanthropic theme, though, might not strike a listener so much as the way SGM communicate it. They obviously took great care in sequencing the tracks – this album could serve as a model for both flow and contrast. But far more than that, transitions – archival samples, odd special effects, musical passages, or field-recordings of bird, animal, insect, and human sounds – tie each tune to the next, cementing the whole together into a unified work. It really sounds like a single artistic statement - not a rock opera, but a classic concept album. In the manner of Sgt. Pepper, of Natural History doesn't so much tell a story as assemble a picture out of snapshots taken from different points of view, although SGM’s come closer to nightmarish staged tableaux than The Beatles’ hand-tinted postcards. (See Appendix II for a track-by-track rundown.)
As that would suggest, the band's harsh, clamorous sound hasn't changed a lot. However, it has broadened and deepened. Nils’ voice ranges from a cavernous Johnny Cash bass to a Wetton-like timbre to a gravelly, demented howl to a surprisingly tender falsetto; his guitar tone is brawny and aggressive, yet absolutely clear on the occasional extended chord. Although Carla played down her violin virtuosity on their earlier output, she doesn't hide it quite so much here; her singing has strengthened and sounds more like Sonja Kristina than Dagmar. In the rhythm section, the “Mr. Big Heavy Beat” vs. ”Clattering Madman” duo approach of Frank (or Matthias) on drums and Moe! on percussion remains, as do Dan's simple, rock-solid, and huge-toned bass lines. And while all this will sound familiar if you've heard them before, what they do with it will sound a little different.
The material on of Natural History has definitely changed direction from Grand Opening and Closing - more concise, it focuses on tightly written songs. That might reveal some influence from their friends Uz Jsme Doma; it also sometimes ends up sounding a bit like Cardiacs (although I don’t think SGM have ever heard that band). The earlier album's lengthy, droning explorations of bizarre textures and extended build-ups still appear, but either used as the transitions between songs or edited, defined by sharp-edged harmonic progressions, and built into those songs’ forms. Only one tune, “Babydoctor,” continues their earlier, more-deliberate, approach.
Their manner of mixing styles has also changed. While of Natural History goes just as much all over the map as its predecessor, its many idioms seem better melded together, integrated as different aspects of a single identifiable sound. The central constituents of this remain heavy metal, industrial-music, folk-rock, and avant-prog, but now they rarely appear separately: Even SGM’s prettiest folk-rock has an underlying Comus-like ugliness; even their angriest extreme-metal has a musicality beyond the usual rumbling, croaking explosions of animal rage; even their most nightmarish industrial-music has a compositional focus and range expressing far more than pummeling sonics and seething alienation. For the first time, echoes of punk and jazz also show up: punk in the terse, urgent, and clear-cut song structures, jazz in Carla's vocal lines, her wailing, bent-note performances, and the occasional Mingus-like minor-major-9th harmonic color. And although SGM draw heavily from the sound of each of these styles (and from many others as well), they don't hold themselves to any of the accompanying esthetics.
On the other hand, the sound of their progressive-rock side may not appear quite as obviously as the others, but their musical esthetic comes very much from that quarter. It provides their dissonant, chromatic harmonic language, their ferocious meter-changes and cross-rhythms, their nonstandard song structures, and, most important, their governing approach of using different styles like mixable colors in a paint-box, rather than discrete scraps to collage or sealed compartments to work within. Other industrial acts seem to think like cutting-edge visual artists - sculpting raw sound for pure visceral brutality, morphing piled-up textures into other piled-up textures, and trying for an endless tension with no release. SGM don't. They may admire such sound-art greatly and aspire to its single-minded power, but they can't stop thinking like composers: building music in terms of melodic development, harmonic progressions, cycles of tension and release, musical contrasts, and modulations of key. And in the process, they've set themselves to do something else nearly impossible: to bring Apollonian orchestral scope, compositional skill, musicality, and professionalism to an over-the-top Dionysian musical idiom all about emotional meltdowns, unpredictable performances, and flamboyantly dysfunctional lives brought raw and unedited onto the stage. Without giving up any of its intensity. The result may sound different from most progressive rock, but it works in a similar way, sounds musically right rather than wrong, and has its own type of scorched, desolate, contorted, volcanic-landscape beauty.
But under that racketiness lies some traditionally good songwriting. Most of the tunes have strong, memorable melodies, at some point if not throughout. And even at their noisiest, they also have a large helping of hooks – whether the lilting falsetto nursery-rhyme bridge to “Gunday’s Child”, the twanging odd-metered guitar riff on “The Donkey-headed…,” the careening Moog-like violin counter-line for “Freedom Club”, the lurching rhythm-section of “Bring Back the Apocalypse”, or the percussive BONGs, CLANGs, and SCREECHes in “Babydoctor”. Unlike most avant-prog, but very much like the best of Seventies prog, of Natural History works way better as pop music than you'd think. A lot of it, in fact, is pretty damn catchy. Apparently, their label (Mimicry Records) has large hopes for this album. They have good reason – with it, SGM have matured into full-on recording artists, as opposed to a live band who also release CDs. Whether Sleepytime Gorilla Museum will ever break out of the Oddball Music ghetto is anybody's guess, but this just might do it for them.
- John Hagelbarger
Nils Frykdahl: Guitar, vocals, flute.
Carla Kihlstedt: Violin, vocals, percussion-guitar, autoharp, and pump organ.
Dan Rathbun: Bass, vocals, slide-piano log, and cockroach.
Moe! Staiano: Junkyard percussion and glockenspiel.
Matthias Bossi: (on tracks 3, 5, & 6) Drums, xylophone, and vocals.
Frank Grau: (on the other tracks) Drums, melodica (on 10 & 11), and band manager.
Appendix I – SGM’s Mythology and the Album Concept:
The Original Sleepytime Gorilla Museum:
As described in the liner notes to Grand Opening and Closing, the original Sleepytime Gorilla Museum consisted of a print shop, an artists’ studio space, and a series of elaborate Dadaist performance-art pranks perpetuated by those artists. Although it started in 1916, some of its members continued to work together until the Fifties, including John Kane, an eccentric mathematician and misanthropic philosopher. In the Thirties, Kane published a series of pamphlets detailing a sort of Theory of De-evolution, in which he equated human culture and inventions to an emulation of the “lower” animals. Furthermore, as civilizations became more advanced, he saw them as copying ever-lower animal life: Tools and weapons imitate the teeth of pigs and wolves, villages imitate rodent burrows, and cities imitate social-insect nests. And the devastation that modern “civilized” man wreaks upon the environment can compare only with that done by insect swarms.
SGM’s Adversary first appeared in the home-made legend also found in the liner notes to [Grand Opening and Closing: the tale of a Fisher King-like divine sacrifice and succession, suddenly short-circuited by the infant god's refusal to accept his preordained role, his desecration of the ceremony, and his transformation into “the Donkey-headed Adversary of Humanity”. Having aspects of an enraged nature-god, he seems more like a personification of ecological disaster. The Adversary takes the side of animals, plants, and the Earth itself, we have made an implacable enemy of him by our own hubris, environmental irresponsibility, and self-appointed godhead, and we will soon begin to suffer the consequences of that.
However, he is the Donkey-headed Adversary of Humanity, NOT the Goat-headed Adversary of God. The conflict here is fought at right angles to the one between Good and Evil: it is not the Cold War for the human soul between Heaven and Hell, but open battle for the Earth between Man and the Adversary. And unlike the Devil, we cannot buy the Adversary off with worship. From his viewpoint, Christianity and its negative image, Satanism, differ very little, for both give Man a special preeminence, and neither “thou shalt have dominion over the Earth,” nor “’do what thou will,’ shall be the whole of the law” encourages much responsibility for the rest of the world.
Finally, the Adversary is also an intentionally grotesque and ridiculous figure. At least in part, the band intend his mythology as a sort of mockery of Satanism, for SGM tend to meet a number of Satanists, and often find that they “think they're so much cooler than Christians, but they're just as dogmatic.” I see a certain parallel to the Subgenius crowd here.
The Futurists and the Unabomber:
Of Natural History has the subtitle, The Futurists vs. The Unabomber, and SGM also express the conflict in those terms:
In pre-WWI Italy, the Futurists were essentially a harmless group of artistic hipsters who celebrated speed, progress, and resolute decisiveness, and dismissed endless talk and pasta, among other things. Sounds ridiculous and inconsequential. But they had given voice to an undercurrent in popular culture that led, in ten years, to a jumped-up schoolyard bully with a big chin running Italy. Still a bit absurd. Ten years after that, a man who looked like Charlie Chaplin was running Germany. And suddenly none of it was funny at all.
On the other hand, the Unabomber was a criminal madman, not at all harmless, and evil by almost anyone's definition. He murdered and maimed people, simply to make the world take his brand of environmentalism seriously. He may have come about as close as any human being can to taking the Adversary's side. Yet his anti-technology ranting contained a fair amount of insight and some truth. And it may yet turn out to be prophetic.
While the above will give you some idea of the real and invented source-material SGM used in making of Natural History, it doesn't tell you what they mean by it, or how they dealt with it. Most of the songs articulate the viewpoints of one or another of the individuals described above; they don't tell a linear story. A few of them seem more personal – “Babydoctor,” for example, concerns several people Nils met and how they affected him (he once explained the lyrics to me. It took him half an hour). Despite the political edge to their work, they are artists, not revolutionaries: Rather than denying or ruthlessly eliminating confusion, they glory in it, in creating work having multiple interpretations.
Two things do seem clear, though: they write, play, sing, and perform their material with absolute conviction; and at the same time they dislike and distrust ANY kind of dogmatism, including their own. Most of what they do has a dark, off-center humor. This, I think, comes partly from a desire to avoid self-righteous preachiness, partly from a conviction that people who can't laugh at themselves have lost their perspective and sense of fairness, and partly from something else: not so much a lack of commitment, but realizing and admitting just how far that commitment extends – and doesn't extend. A band of radical environmentalists who spend three months out of the year touring hundreds of miles a day in a vehicle getting five miles per gallon, whose most left-wing member makes a good living as a partner in a small business, and who espouse a misanthropic philosophy but also genuinely like people and firmly believe in always giving their audiences 100% onstage, need to have a certain appreciation for cognitive dissonance.
Appendix II - The Tracks:
Droning pump-organ and snoring open the album, interrupted by the furious bark and growling of a sleeping dog awakened. Twittering violin harmonics lead straight into “A Hymn for Heaven's Radio.” This does, in fact, consist of a hymn - sung in Nils’ theatrical basso and recounting the myth of the Adversary, as celebrated by a coven of deluded would-be worshippers.
Accompanied by glockenspiel, acapella vocal harmonies, and pizzicato violin arpeggios, it breaks twice for crashing outbursts with distorted bass from the rest of the band.
The drone, snarling, and twittering immediately return. Then a guitar lick coalesces under them and “The Donkey-headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion” clatters to life. The album's most obviously “progressive” track, it combines a relentless guitar riff, interruptions by abrupt unison triplets, and a Fred Frith-like Eastern European jig used as a bridge. Its several sections alternate and vary themselves quickly and nervously, while gravelly metal vocals bellow of how the Adversary declares war upon Humanity and angrily rejects worship.
A couple of growls, a donkey's bray, a short gap, and “Phthisis” starts. This track features Big-Time Music-Biz Production by Scott Humphrey, a Big-Time Hollywood Producer, and it shows - “Phthisis” leaps out of the speakers in a way unlike anything else on the album. Its first two-thirds compress the guitar and rhythm-section into one gruff rhythmic bark and reduce the violin to a special effect, all to leave sonic room for Carla's King-Kong-sized vocal. Lyrically, it seems to summarize the Futurist world-view and also refers to the original S.G.M. The arrangement opens up a bit on the B section, crowd noise builds, someone bellows in Italian from a scratchy archival recording (Mussolini?), and the track ends in more crowd noise.
The crowd noise continues, and “Bring Back the Apocalypse” slowly emerges out of it as a sparse rhythm pattern, gains a wobbly percussion-guitar melody and an overdubbed chorus like drunken Russian sailors, then segues into a stumbling, hiccupping groove and a crazed vocal chant. This track seems more like an elaborate two-part transition than a conventional song, ends with another scratchy archival recording of Italian ranting mingled with nonsense words (one of the Futurists?), and fades into buzzing flies.
From the buzzing, a ghostly xylophone part appears, and a falsetto chorus begins to sing of the Unabomber and his vision in “FC: The Freedom Club.” A small epic, this transforms by degrees into full-on growling, rivet-gunning extreme-metal, passing through a few brief spoken lines, hard rock, and straight metal on the way. In this, it vaguely echoes Opeth, although “FC” has four or five gears and the Swedes seem to only have two: slow and flat-out. After repeating that progression of styles, the song ends as it began.
Birds singing, more insect sounds, and wind lead into the raging anti-war “Gunday’s Child.” Somewhat different from the version played at NEARFest, it now has a staggering funk groove, a jazzy vocal from Carla, a nasty singsong "nursery-rhyme" bridge, and no longer ends with that throat-tearing shriek (by the end of last summer's tour, Carla's speaking voice had come to sound rather like Nils' as a result of that song).
The insect sounds return along with violin squeaks. Then a nonstop three-note lick of bass harmonics surfaces, the violin and a tin whistle shrill out similar lines, and metallic percussion improvisations bong and clatter away. Another transitional piece, “The 17-year Cicada” fades away into chomping noises and pig squeals.
Out of those, “The Creature” starts with an attack of musical hiccups, then levels out to droning violin and “Midnight Cowboy”-like bell parts over a loop of samples. Highly political and rather heavy-handed, Dan's mostly-spoken vocal hits too hard and doesn't work as well as the one he did for SGM Live’s “The Neighborhood” (a ghoulish little story with an odd, half-familiar resonance). Gradually, the music gets louder as Dan gets more outraged, abruptly subsides, then ends as it began.
A taped conversational fragment, in which a Relaxed Southern Gentleman ruminates upon the theft of his shirt, provides a bridge to “What Shall We Do Without Us.” A brief Utopian vision, it starts with Carla's frantically sawing violin and breathy voice, suddenly explodes into a full-band development of that idea, then returns to its beginnings. It finishes with another individual in an equally relaxed state asserting his authorship of an old jump-rope rhyme.
“Babydoctor” dates back almost to the release of Grand Opening and Closing, and its repetition, extended portions, and slow, inexorable build through many sections from eerie sparseness to roaring heavy-metal sound very like something from that album. In sound and structure, it resembles symph-prog reinterpreted by a death-metal band. Lyrically, it shows the first crack in the album's misanthropic theme: that someone outraged by Humanity in general can still respect and admire individual human beings – even ones very different from him.
The second relaxed individual speaks again, then an autoharp strum opens “Cockroach.” Revealing a second crack in their radical theme, it admits that even hard-core environmentalism only goes so far. The comic instrumentation includes an absurd sped-up melodica as well as that autoharp. ” As unabashedly theatrical as “Hymn,” it resembles very early Bowie and closes the circle, at least on a musical level.
Finally, on an untitled, “hidden” track, more nature sounds fade in, a park ranger talks about frogs and welcomes the band to his campground, the snoring with which the album started returns, and the Adversary brays one last time.
Unfortunately, “S.P.Q.R.” (AKA “We Are All Romans”) does not appear. Although a cover, originally written and performed by This Heat, that song belongs here. Its theme - that many unattractive features of our civilization originally came from the Romans and that we haven't gotten all that much better - fits in well with the Futurists. The band apparently plan to release it on an upcoming single, but if of Natural History goes into multiple pressings, they should think about adding it to this album.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have been stirring up a storm on the archives recently, and for good reason: they are absolutely phenomenal. They have released three albums so far, each one worth at least four and a half stars (and the latter two both worth five full stars). Their music blends influences from across the board and mixes them into something totally unique, even within the genre of music they play. This genre can take on either of two names, Metal-In-Opposition or Rock-Against-Rock. I prefer the latter, for reasons I will shortly explain. Other bands in this genre are Mr. Bungle (and just about anything Patton-related, really) and Kayo Dot. If you don’t like either of these bands, however, don’t worry. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum sound completely different from either of them (and, if I may say so, rather a lot better, even though both of those bands are great), and are rightly seen as the main innovators of the genre.
The reasons I prefer the name Rock-Against-Rock to Metal-In-Opposition mostly relate to how Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music sounds, and which name can better approximate that. First off, this music is not, despite what some reviewers would say, metal. It is heavy – there’s no doubt about that – but it simply is not metal. In fact, despite the heaviness, I’d say it’s about as metal as your grandmother (though metal fans probably will like it). It is avant-garde played the inclusion of some shared aesthetics with metal, and I feel that Metal-In-Opposition is thus an unfair term for the band. It cheats those fans that shy away from metal out of an experience they won’t want to miss. Also, the name Metal-in-Opposition comes from Rock-in-Opposition, a late 1970s movement of bands that were left-leaning politically and hated the music industry. That suggests that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is borrowing from those bands, only with a heavier bent. Once again, not true. While the Art Bears probably did have some influence on Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the main influence on this music is Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. This is completely original music, and the name of the genre in which they are classified should reflect that. Finally, now that I’ve disabused you of the notion that Metal-In-Opposition fits this band, let me provide two reasons why Rock-Against-Rock is a better title. First, the band use it themselves. The plastic wrapping on In Glorious Times bad a little sticker on it that began something like, “rock against rock pioneers Sleepytime Gorilla Museum…” Second, if we really look at Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s music, it is rock music that combats the stereotypes of rock music. In that sense, it is indeed Rock-AGAINST-Rock.
Of Natural History is the band’s sophomore effort, and will likely stand forever as their magnum opus. It (and this should make you perk up a bit) is a fantastic concept album. Unlike many concept albums these days, it does not follow some obscure neo-prog storyline that you can’t make heads or tails of (I’m thinking of The Visitor by Arena) or relate to murder/suicide/both (Scenes From a Memory, Brave). It has a down-to-earth (literally!) message from which everyone can take something. (The information in the rest of this paragraph and the next one I discovered through the progressiveears.com review of this album by Baribrotzer). The album is sub-titled The Futurists vs. The Unabomber, and this should give us an insight into what the band is aiming for here. The Futurists were a group of artsy people who celebrated speed, progress, and decisiveness, and who opposed endless talk. Sound like some famously evil world leaders we know? If it reminds you of Mussolini and Hitler, you would be right. The Futurists set the stage for those two. The Unabomber was a murderer with an environmental conscience (or an environmentalist with a murder complex, take your pick), who killed to make his point. The contrasts brought up here are intriguing. One the one hand, we have the Futurists, a group that appears harmless but that paves the way for one of the evilest men ever to have lived. On the other hand, we have the Unabomber, someone who appears evil but who is working, however poorly, for our own good. Ignoring his message because of how he carries it out is what Sleepytime Gorilla Museum hope to combat with this album.
The concept of this album is an environmental one, and it is even more interesting than what I just presented. This album revolves around a theory known as De-Evolution, first developed by John Kane in the 1930s. Kane was a member of the original Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (which actually was a real museum – a Dadaist one, which opened and then closed in 1916). His theory showed a trend in human culture and inventions that suggested that, as humans became more and more advanced, we also began to emulate more and more primitive animals. Our tools and weapons imitate the teeth of predators, our villages resemble rodent burrows, and our cities are little more than social-insect nests, only bigger. Finally, the destruction we cause to the environment is similar to that done by insect swarms. The songs on the album present a snapshot view of that, which will be seen in my more detailed discussions of the individual tracks. This is one of the most well done concept albums solely when looking at the concept, and music carries it along perfectly. Even without the background information I just gave you, it is still possible to understand what is going on lyrically, though you may not understand all the ins and outs of it. In my mind, it is probably because this album is a concept album that I prefer it to their other two albums, because the high quality of the music is (mostly) uniform across all three.
The album begins with “A Hymn to the Morning Star”, which introduces us to a fascinating character, The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity (once again, thanks to the progressiveears review for some explanation). As people sacrifice to an infant god, things go awry. The god refuses the sacrifice and refuses to fill the role left by the previous god, dismissing Christianity as “2000 years of guilty fears and the greatest lie ever told.” He then transforms into The Adversary, a being who takes the side of animals, plants, and the earth instead of humans. Our gleeful destruction of the natural world as self-appointed mini-gods has brought on his wrath. To Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the great conflict in the world is not that between Satan and Jesus, with us in the middle, it is between us and the Adversary. We cannot buy off the adversary with worship, because, to the Adversary (and to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Christianity and Satanism are equally evil and equally dogmatic. Christianity tells us that humans “have dominion over the earth,” while Satanism tells us “‘do what thou will,’ shall be the whole of the law.” Neither one encourages any responsibility. It is often interesting to note that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum often meet Satanists, and find that Satanists “think they’re so much cooler than Christians, but they’re just as dogmatic.” Musically, this song is exactly what it bills itself as, a hymn, except that in between the sections of Nils’ crooning there are some rather evil vocals (not heavy, mind you, just evil). The violin work here is stupendous, as always, and greatly enhances the track.
In the next song, “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion”, the Adversary tells us exactly what he thinks of us, calling us, among things, “a plague, breathing hell into every corner of the rotting earth.” He tells us that he is “not yours to embrace, I am not yours, to invoke.” He hides everywhere, waiting to catch us unawares in our senseless destruction, and can feel the hate, “even now, in this our finest hour,” of “every stone, tree, and flower.” Finally, he tells us that he will send us death in all sorts of ways, for it is all we deserve for our actions. The song is opened with the lines, “the donkey-headed adversary of humanity opens the book, the donkey-headed adversary of humanity opens the discussion,” and closes with a reprise, “the donkey-headed adversary of humanity closes the book, the donkey-headed adversary of humanity closes the discussion.” There is not room for argument. This is how it will be. This is the heaviest song musically, but it is still not metal. I find this one my favorite, but everything on the album is great, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
“Phthisis” comes next and is a look at the Futurist worldview. The opening image is of “the future stick[ing] out its tongue, in the eyes of the gentle past.” I find it hard to imagine a better way of expressing the Futurist ideology expressed earlier. As the song progresses, however, we see that all is not well for the Futurists, for even the future must one day become the past. This is another crushingly heavy song. There are two main sections, the first based around one riff with a killer vocal performance by Carla Kihlstedt, the second with an air of grandeur and with both Carla and Nils singing. Don’t get any illusions of harmony, however, as Nils is half-growling and Carla’s not too pretty either (this is in a good way, of course). Every song on this album is great, but this one is a legitimate highlight.
“Bring Back the Apocalypse” is a sadly maligned song that I absolutely adore. It is built around a rhythm with people speaking in the background (Futurists, perhaps), eventually gaining some guitar to back it up. It really gets great, however, when it morphs into an insane chant of “bring back, bring it back, bring back the apocalypse.” The lyrics aren’t brilliant like on the other two songs, but they are excellent in context. This song, I will note, is not at all heavy. It’s simply avant-garde, and it’s excellent at it. The ending I must mention again because it’s so good, and the transition between the two parts, which is the most complex part of the song, deserves commendation as well.
After this comes the song “FC – The Freedom Club”, a song detailing the vision of the Unabomber. We start with him quietly calling on us to “turn our backs on this world ease, let us turn our backs and walk away.” After the spoken line, “and let us dream now, the impossible dream of a math professor,” the song starts to pick up loudness, as the Unabomber tells us that “even when the last tree falls, there will be fire,” a clear reference to atomic weapons. This section is ended with the spoken line, “and let us never forget that the human race with technology is like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine,” one of my favorite lines in all of music. Prepare yourself for what comes next, which is the only true metal on the album. And when I say metal, I do mean metal. Nils growls his heart out as the band play extreme metal that will collapse all the bones in your body. The Unabomber seems to have gone murderous now, calling on the freedom club to “rise up… crawl from your hole in the earth… dream your impossible dream.” At this point, we enter Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s views, as they tell us, “the hermit of the woods is gone, his shack taken down, and though his mind now is rot, his desperate warning lives on, blandly titled Industrial Society and its Future.” This song takes on mini-epic characteristics as it goes through many different sections. As was noted in the progressiveears review I love so much (and I urge you all to read it), “it vaguely echoes Opeth, although FC has four or five gears and the Swedes seem to only have two: slow and flat out.”
The next song, “Gunday’s Child”, is one of the most fantastic anti-war songs ever written, and it firmly details the De-Evolution theory as it relates to war technology. Muriel Rukeyser wrote the lyrics (except for the lullaby in the middle of the song), and, even though she is not a member or friend of the band, they fit perfectly. We start out ok, for “drill day’s child is full of grace.” Things get worse and worse, however, and we end with, “the child that’s born on battle day is blithe and bonny and rotted away.” In the middle of the song is a lullaby written by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum about a kid who “picked a fight with a bumblebee.” Later, a crow attacks her, showing the Adversary and nature getting revenge on humans for their misdeeds. The song’s music accurately reflects the action happening, for, as our problems increase, so does the music get more violent, culminating in an excellent climax that gives way to the final line, sung wonderfully (if scarily) by Carla (who has vocal duties on the entire song).
The next song is the one song that will bother most people, though, again, I find this most unfounded. “The 17 Year Cicada” again deals with De-Evolution theory (have you noticed that songs seem to come in pairs – the first two songs about the Adversary, the next two about the futurists, then, after the Unabomber only gets one song, but with enough substance for two, two about De-Evolution…). The song title refers to cicadas, of course, which spend seventeen years hibernating underground before rising up and swarming, which, if you’ll remember, was compared in De-evolution theory to our destructive nature. On an interesting note unrelated to the song, cicadas have a seventeen-year life cycle because seventeen is a prime number, meaning that they won’t arise on a similar cycle to a predator. This song is mostly percussion, and it’s less fleshy than most of the songs, but it’s certainly not filler. Once again, I love it, even if many don’t.
“The Creature” is composed mostly of a drone, but don’t let that make you think this song lacks substance. It’s one of my favorites on the album. The lyrics describe technology as the god we have turned to since the infant god became the adversary. Technology has taken on dictator-like characteristics where he makes us do as he wishes for his gain, starving us. Afraid that we will rise up, he distracts us with tales of “evil gnomes, coming to invade our homes, and trolls that come with gun and knife to threaten our way of life.” Ultimately, however, the parasitic creature has destroyed us, and there is nothing left for him to eat, until Sleepytime suggest, “it has amassed such awesome wealth, maybe it can eat itself.” Dan Rathbum takes vocal duty here for the first time on the album, and he does an excellent job, even though it’s spoken word. When this finishes, we are treated to the first of several recordings made by the band as they met with Southern men. The first man tells about how someone stole his shirt, but how he doesn’t want to hurt that person because that would mean leaving his knife in that person’s back. The man explains, “I think more of my knife than I do of him.”
“What Shall We Do Without Us” is an amazing song that is far too forgotten because of it’s short length. It gives a Utopian Vision, but the real highlight is the absolutely amazing violin work, especially in the song’s climax. Few bands can do as much in so little time as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum do with apparent ease here. Then we hear a conversation with a second Southern man, who tries to claim that he wrote a popular jump rope rhyme when he was four years old.
This segues into “Babydoctor”, another highlight of the album. This song was written around the same time as the band’s debut album was released, so it’s sound is more similar to that album than most of Of Natural History is, but it still fits in here. The buildup in this song is incredibly slow but still well-done and engaging. The peak of the song energetically comes in the second half of it, when we hit more sections similar to the heaviest from “The Freedom Club” (alright, there’s metal here, too, but less than ten minutes of metal on a seventy-minute album does not a metal album make). The lyrics are about individual people Nils respects, apparently, showing that, even while humanity as a whole is despicable, not every individual is. It ends with a continuation of the dialogue from before. It cracks me up every time when the Southern man says, “plagiarism’s legal in California, isn’t yet” (plagiarism mispronounced, of course). An earlier reviewer mentioned that this song was certainly not the strongest on the album. I must agree, but I also want to make some changes. Because of the overwhelming quality of many of the songs on this album, “Babydoctor” is not the strongest song. On 90% percent of non-SGM albums, however, this song would blow all the others out of the water.
The album ends with “Cockroach,” another song that some people give a lot of heat. This song shows human irony at its pinnacle. One human attempts to kill the cockroaches that have infested his planet, saying that he could “never trust a creature that would rather live in the trash than in the lawn.” In reality, however, humans are not much different. We have infested the earth, and we are turning it, our home, into a trash heap rather than leaving it the gorgeous natural “lawn” that it was. The ending lyrics are brilliant (and quite funny). “Cockroach, your problems are not mine, I love life, but with you I draw the line, not to flaunt my superior design, but next to you, I’m practically divine. Your problems are not mine.” The line “your problems are not mine” is especially important, because, as I just explained, our problems are exactly the same as those of cockroaches. There’s also a “hidden” track on the album. It’s not essential (meaning you can skip it), but I like to listen to it. A park ranger talks about frogs while welcoming the band members to his campground. The Adversary brays one last time, to suggest that he is watching them and us, leaving us with a warning we best remember.
Some albums are just special, and this is one of them. While enough time has not yet passed to fully place this in its place in rock music, enough time has passed to show that this album will become a classic. As for me, I expect that it will go down as one of the greatest albums ever. No matter where it appears “officially,” however, it is in my top three albums of all time (along with equally inventive albums Tago Mago by Can and Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh by Magma), and that should be enough for you to buy this album. If my own opinion is not enough, just read (almost) any of the other reviews on this site, most of which cannot praise this album enough. Also, read the review on progressiveears, which is the best of the lot. Rather than putting my faith in modern music on what are essentially cover bands with different words and music (Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, etc…), I prefer to look towards Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the brightest of many modern shining lights.