Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Centro Zo, Catania, Italy
Apr. 12, 2007
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.
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
"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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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
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.
then it was over ("we have CDs and T-shirts to sell in the other room!").
© Beppe Colli 2007
CloudsandClocks.net | Apr. 17, 2007