Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
Apr. 12, 2007

When asked for the names of some new groups whose music he regarded as worth listening to, a guy living in the Oakland (CA) area whose opinion I take into consideration kindly burnt for me the debut album (which at the time was not exactly brand-new, but was quite recent all the same) by a group whose name I had never heard before: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Since the CD I received had the name of the album - Grand Opening And Closing - on it, but no additional information, I had no idea about how many people were in the group, what kind of instruments they played, and so forth. So I listened.

I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed: the group sounded reasonably competent, professional and sure of what they wanted to do; however, using my background as the only available resource, they reminded me a bit too much of some groups whose albums I had owned for quite some time: the opening track being firmly in the Fred Frith-Gravity/Massacre-Killing Time territory, the rest definitely reminding me of US "new wave/post-prog/late-RIO" group Thinking Plague (the knotty instrumental parts, the angular vocals, the percussion, even Bob Drake's engineering work with the group), albeit with a strange (and at times mildly disconcerting) "modern metal" slant (were I familiar with groups like Secret Chiefs Three and Meshuggah maybe I could write some more); it goes without saying that traces of '73-'74-era King Crimson were easy to spot. All in all a "promising first album" (as they say), but one that didn't exactly make me eager to know more about the rest of the story. And so that was the last time that I listened to them, until recently.

(Well, sort of. Turns out that three members of the group played on Charming Hostess' 2005 CD Punch, whose mixture of Balkan/Kletzmer/Punk I found totally unappealing for my taste.)

When I read that Sleepytime Gorilla Museum were to play in my town I immediately bought my ticket: what better occasion to bring me up-to-date? I did a Web search, saw they had released two more albums (one live, one studio), with a new one about to be released; that the violin and vocals from that first album belonged to Carla Kihlstedt (nowadays some kind of a minor celebrity of some sort); and that the other permanent members (Nils Frykdahl, on guitar and vocals; and Dan Rathbun, on bass and "invented" instruments) had a long background.

When I arrived at the venue I was told they had spent the whole afternoon rehearsing, checking the PA and the hall. I looked at the instrumentation on stage. From left, a Mesa Boogie Lone Star combo amplifier, an electric violin, and a strange instrument which to me looked quite similar to a steel guitar (with a single coil pick-up, I'd say, in a "slanted" position, Stratocaster-style). Two guitars (a Washburn semi-acoustic thin-line, a solid-body Aria) going through two budget (Boss?) pedals, a Mesa Boogie head (a Dual Rectifier), and a Fender cabinet (4x12). There was a long instrument that looked like a giant steel guitar (or like some things Elliott Sharp built and played in the 80s - take your pick) with piano-like strings, and an electric bass (a Music Man). Also drums, assorted percussion, a toy piano, and things that looked like two sets of (vertical) vibes.

Well, I had seen a couple of pictures, but... The (five) members of the group appear, all wearing strange (Pagan? Primitive? Post-atomic?) long tunics, and painting on their faces. Then the singer opens his mouth and... yikes!, he looks like the inside is all black, and he has no teeth! They look like... Kiss! They don't sound like Kiss, however - more like somebody giving us cues about what's in his record collection. They are obviously professionals: the sound is clear even at full blast, they know their (complex) arrangements inside-out, they can stop and start very efficiently, no sweat. They sound a lot more "metal" than on their first record - I seem to understand they are playing material off the new album ("out at the end of the month!"), but in the second part of the concert (lasting a generous two hours!) I seem to recognize two tracks off the first album.

There is a drummer doubling on percussion (Matthias Bossi), and a percussionist doubling on (mediocre) trumpet and guitar (Michael Mellender): strangely enough, when he plays unison parts with the violin he looks like a (much) better guitarist than the one who plays it all the time. The guitar parts consist for the most part of rhythmic riffs, mostly in a "metal" mode. The bassist plays that long, mysterious instrument most of the time, sometimes using sticks, other times with a metal bar in his left hand, while the right one does the picking. Technically speaking, the violin player is by far the most accomplished member of the group, but her electric sound (full of echo and reverb) is not what one would call "personal"; and one can't help but notice that she plays the strange-looking "steel-like" thing (which is also played using sticks and hands) with a certain degree of "wild abandon" that at times looks uncomfortably close to "show-biz"; and this is also true of the way she plays violin (by the way, does anybody remember Ray Shulman's violin solos?).

The music is puzzling. Metal arrangements, overtones, and riffs abound. The male vocals are in a "wounded beast" vein, with the female vocals adding variety and the background vocals (all five members sing) offering "solemnity". One can detect many different items: Frith and Fripp, Massacre, Thinking Plague for sure. But also a moment where the low, calm vocals in ¾ time reminded me of something by Johnny Cash (!). A "country fiddle" moment that sounded off Thick As A Brick (a US #1 in 1972). Some (so-called) math-rock. I found myself thinking about a concert by the (Japanese duo) Ruins I had seen a few years ago in the same venue: while they appeared as being able to distill five minutes of "prog" into, say, thirty seconds (not that one had to necessarily like the final result), this group sounds like their intention is to dilute the same five minutes into, say, eleven. In the end, one is never convinced that what one is listening to is in a way "necessary". Plus, the music lacks any real "drama" (to see what I mean, check both albums by High Tide - from '69/'70, OK?).

I seemed to understand some vocals were about some sort of "saga" (there was a strange creature with the head of a donkey in there, I think) where danger and mystery abound. And this is the other very strange thing of the night: things never got "scary" - I mean, whereas I was supposed to be scared by the singer going "I'M SCAAAAARY!" I found myself looking at a guy with a painted face and a trick that made him look like he had a black mouth and no teeth. I mean, there was no suspension of disbelief whatsoever. Like in, these guys are not "naturals", and are never at ease on stage. I'm sure we've all seen guys (and women, of course!) who seem to own the stage from the moment they go on: they come out, play three chords, and are totally believable. The group's uneasiness came to the fore during a couple of episodes which were supposed to enrich the narrative, but actually diminished it: in one, they pretended they had to avoid falling asleep; in another, some of them pretended to do strange things that had the others puzzled, but they all looked so stiff you felt sorry for them.

And then it was over ("we have CDs and T-shirts to sell in the other room!").

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Apr. 17, 2007