Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention became Reuben & The Jets for one album. Roy Wood’s Wizzard posed as Eddie & The Falcons. The Statler Brothers hilariously became Moran & The Cadillac Cowboys. Someone (rumored to be some of the sane members of The Amboy Dukes) posed as Godfrey Daniel for the brilliant Take A Sad Song album, where they performed ’70s songs as they might have been done in the ’50s, inadvertently creating a career for Big Daddy. And back in 1968, The Turtles posed as acts such as The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul, Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball, and Chief Kamanawanalea and his Royal Macadamia Nuts for their terrific Battle of the Bands album.
The idea of a band taking on another persona, or ten, isn’t new and has been pulled off over the years with various degrees of success. When these faux band albums have worked best, as with Daniel, they have had a solid concept and strong material. With Top Ten Hits of the End of the World, Prince Rama offers up an intriguing concept, one that the music, appealing as much of it is, for the most part, doesn’t match.
Prince Rama (formerly “Prince Rama of Ayodhya”) is a duo, sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson, whose music has been shaped and informed by growing up on a Hare Krishna farm in Florida and attending art school. Since forming Prince Rama in 2007, they released five previous albums, all characterized by a deeply psychedelic aura, built around long chants in Sanskrit and in the Larsons’ invented language, and deeply buried in effects, hypnotic synthesizer drones, and tribal drumming. Since being discovered in 2010, by Animal Collective’s Avey Tare, they have released two albums, Shadow Temple and Trust Now, which peaked at #3 and #6, respectively, on the Billboard New Age charts.
Top Ten Hits of the End of the World is a departure from their previous work, and a clever approach at expanding their audience. Conceived as a compilation of imaginary bands “that died during the apocalypse,” as “channeled” by Prince Rama, according to their label’s PR, this album represents composer Taraka Larson’s first attempt at traditional pop songwriting.
From the cheesy, K-Tel (“As Seen on TV!”) cover art, to the imaginative bios, to the ingenious band photos, every aspect of the packaging supports the myth of the beyond-the-grave groups. It may be trepidation over this departure from their usual, free-flowing mantra music that led the band to concoct the false identities of the Top Ten Hits makers. Whatever the reason, it’s more fun to listen to the “Welcome To The Now Age” track as a “beloved childhood anthem” for “Utopic Youth” by the computer generated band, Hyparxia, than as a departure from the often static sound of Prince Rama’s five previous albums.
A significant amount of Top Ten Hits’ 39 minutes is fun, not an adjective often associated with Prince Rama’s albums—their live shows, maybe. All four of the opening tracks offer lots of dance floor appeal, with propulsive dance beats and thudding bass. “Blade of Austerity” cuts loose with a snaky, Eastern riff and exotic percussion; the Euro-disco of “Those Who Live” sports a riff and progression that could nearly pass for an outtake from Sparks’ work with Giorgio Moroder; “No Way Back” adds some edge, and variety, to the sound with guest guitar lines from Tucker Rountree and a deep, male voice that could pass for that of former band member, Michael Collins. And, the chugging lead single, “So Destroyed,” is comprised of a couple of catchy hooks that sound to be radio ready.
Despite such evocative imaginary band names as Guns of Dubai and Rage Peace, though, there is a marked similarity to all ten of the “bands” represented on Top Ten Hits. All the album’s tracks rely on synthesizer-intensive arrangements and vocals so heavy with reverb and echo that they are commonly tough to decipher, all defining characteristics of Prince Rama’s signature sound. The greatest concessions to the hits compilation concept are the radio-friendly running times, some vestiges of conventional verse-chorus song constructs, and several sharp hooks.
Given the source, Top Ten Hits is a surprisingly accessible, enjoyable electro-dance offering. It simply lacks the variety to sell the concept that these could be chart toppers, even in a fictive pop world. The album may have enough broad appeal to gain Prince Rama success outside the New Age charts, but the songs may not be sufficiently commercial to qualify as hits in any reality.