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 m
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,