Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is one of the bands that defies classification. Even among their brother bands in the growing “unclassifiable” genre (think Mr. Bungle, and all Patton-related projects for that matter), SGM stands out as one of the most creative and original, albeit nearly impenetrable collective of performers ever captured on disc. It’s not so much because of their musical paths are previously untraveled or that they use fragments of genre-bending and jump cuts in their music like their fellow un-genre bands, but because they create an entire world around themselves. To narrow them down with buzz terms and cross-bred genre titles like “avant-prog” would be as much of a misnomer as it is an understatement, and somehow still completely accurate.
How exactly can one begin to undertake an album as detailed and abstract and simply titled after the vastness Of Natural History? Like their previous effort, Grand Opening and Closing, this record is presented like a book with its cover already summarizing the goals of the fictionalized literature inside: “What happened in the past? Will the future involve wood? Can we help the lower animals? Who swarms?”
After you’ve gotten over the “what the hell?” confusion of these abstract concepts, you open it up to find a booklet entitled “The Futurists Vs. The Unabomber” and it all starts to make some sort of sense. Of Natural History is a highly thought-out concept album involving the conflicting “anti-humanist” theories for and against the modern world. They include point by point lists of the major ideas in the different manifestos of the Futurists and of the Unabomber. Many of the songs on the album relate directly to text in the CD packaging and quote different essays or poems. Beyond the intrigue involved in such an effort, the actual music is just as interesting, detailed and frightening.
The opening track, “The Hymn to the Morning Star” opens in ominous soundscapes and sounds and melts into an almost ironic sounding gospel sung through the booming voice of singer/guitarist Nils Frykdahl, a voice that begs comparison to Mr. Bungle front man Mike Patton’s crooner-to-screamer pipes. It introduces a songbook of mythology and theory that might frighten the average listener with chants like “Bring Back the Apocalypse” and “The Creature” but is enough to keep any forward thinking black metal enthusiast listening. Carl Kihlstedt’s disciplined and enchanting violin breaks some of the chaotic math rock passages only to add to them an extra sense of mysticism on others. She lends her fabulous voice to a handful of tracks such as the clamorous “Phthisis” which excites me on several levels… needless to say I kind of have a crush on her. Check out her work in the Tin Hat Trio and Charming Hostess if you want to get an understanding of her full capabilities. “Bring Back the Apocalypse” is one of the most compelling of the songs because of its percussion duets and driving bass line by Dan Rathbun over the carnivorous barking of the band calling for Apocalypse.
The two longest songs on the album, “FC: The Freedom Club” and “Babydoctor” are both equally impressive in their composition and instrumental technique as well as extremely compelling lyrical style. Lyrics like “Even when the last tree falls/There will be fire” and “Let us dream the impossible dream of the math professor” among the screeching violin and crashing metal might spark the thinker in all of us while at the same time sparking hatred for pretentious art-metal, but lets face it folks: they’re called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. When the music temporarily dies out the summary of the anti-futurist statement is made: “And let us never forget that the human race with technology is like an alcoholic with a barrel of wine” and propels the piece into some of the most amazing few minutes of musical collaboration I’ve heard in any art-rock band.
The 12 minutes of “Babydoctor” never get boring or arduous and the instrumental parts tickle the brain even when layered with repetition. Homemade instruments such as The Slide-piano Log, the Percussion Guitar, the Electric Pancreas, the Vatican, & the Pedal-action Wiggler, Autoharp, Glockenspiel, Toy Piano, & Viking Rowboat (as they boast on their website) as well as real field recordings of old men making no sense are employed to create their particularly unique sound which is about as unique as their concept. The retrogressive hatred of progress and the future outlined in the two “anti-humanist” manifestos of the liner notes is particularly interesting to compare to the actual music of the band. While they are considered progressive and their music certainly is that, their sound is of a more primitive and cryptic nature which sounds almost medieval at times. They achieve progress without the traps of progressive rock because they do not pretend to be progressive and even reference retrogressive ideas for their music.
Of Natural History is more than just an album, it is the whole package. It is deserves, nay demands at least a good three or four listens to get a full understanding/appreciation, even if its tendency toward the insane prevents a lasting place in your disc changer.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are finally doing a lengthy tour as I type and I highly recommend anyone who has any interest in a brilliant spectacle of music and costume (so I hear) make it their business not to miss it. This tour includes Butoh perfomance artist Shinichi Momo Koga. It promises to be quite amazing. Unfortunately they’ve already played New York once and I was unable to make it, but I won’t miss the next time around. Here are the current tour dates:
Sat., 10/15 DC 9 Washington, DC
Sun., 10/16 Mercury Lounge (w/ Flaming Fire) New York, NY
Tues., 10/18 Earl (w/ Indorphine) Atlanta, GA
Wed., 10/19 Jackrabbits (w/ Indorphine) Jacksonville, FL
Fri., 10/21 Cellblock (w/ Indorphine) Mobile, AL
Sat., 10/22 TBD
Sun., 10/23 Conservatory (w/ Indorphine) Oklahoma City, OK
Mon., 10/24 Emo’s (w/ Indorphine) Austin, TX
Tues., 10/25 Axis (w/ Indorphine) Fort Worth, TX
Thurs., 10/27 Rhythm Room (w/ Indorphine) Phoenix, AZ
Fri., 10/28 Howie And Sons (w/ Indorphine) Visalia, CA
Sat., 10/29 Attic Santa Cruz, CA
Mon., 10/31 Pound (w/ Kehoe Nation) San Francisco, CA
Also check out www.webofmimicry.com for more information on the band and their strangeness.