In an effort to expand agm’s sweep into the past, here is a review of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s freshman effort, “Grand Opening and Closing” (2001).
There’s a lot to read in the liner notes. They even wrote up what I thought was a fake history of an actual museum. The story is so incredible I thought it had to be fabricated. The premiere exhibit on opening day was a staged real fire in a useless part of the building, which attracted lots of attention. Then, money with snail heads instead of presidents’ heads was thrown into the streets. The idea was to cause chaos and confusion; a sort of anarchy, perhaps. Included in the liner notes is a picture of the FREE SALAMADER EXHIBIT of 1916.
It turns out the place was real! According to Wikipedia.org, the place really existed and was operated by “a small group of Dadaists, Futurists, and artists named the Sleepytime Gorilla Press.”
According to the liner notes, the band’s first performance was to a single banana slug. Allow me to quote a portion of what is written on the album’s very cover: “We, the Directors and Sustainees of the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are inconsolable. We admit with shame that, as of the publication of this long-awaited volume, our GRAND OPENING AND CLOSING! will have already happened. We are sorry. We would like to have shared it with you, gentlest of readers, but we instead shared this inaugural (and conclusive) gesture with a sexless invertebrate, covered in slime.”
According to Wikipedia, that performance was June 22, 2009, and the following night, SGM performed to a group of humans. That performance was exactly 83 years after the “museum’s” opening in 1916.
Okay, enough about the history. Let’s get to the music.
This band’s music is really hard to pin down.
Powerless (live), an addition to the extended reprint of the album released in 2006 by The End Records, is almost like noise collage. There’s a mooing sound. The song is an accurate representation of SGM’s music: they take sounds that don’t necessarily work together and make them work together, the result being an emphasis on comfort within discomfort.
I played the first two songs on GOAC for two of my co-workers, two young people in their 20’s who really like punk music.
Bartender: “all I know is this music is really fuckin weird.”
Server: “I’d have to hear it more to know what I really think about it.”
In short, they didn’t know what to make of it. Now my girlfriend, bless her heart, is not as averse to weird music (and was not at work at the time), and she gave me a more thoughtful description.
Megan: “If it didn’t have that triangle, it would be metal. If it had more distortion; I don’t know. Maybe it’s not bass-driven enough that it’s not metal. I can’t tell.”
During the percussion-less, eerie piece “Ablutions,” Megan said, “And now this song; this makes it not metal. This song feels more like an interlude; a theater piece.” She then informed me that an ablution is a cleansing bath.
I didn’t know that. It’s good to have girlfriends!
“It sounds like musical theater.”
Then the song 1997 comes on, and it’s almost total metal industrial. Okay, I could see how the label “˜industrial’ could be applied to this music, because many of the sounds are really unconventional. Sometimes it’s like weird machine parts being clanked together. This middle of this song is a breakdown that is at once mathy and simple, and keeps the same tempo while it shifts erratically. It’s almost unbelievable.
I’m biased toward this band for several reasons: unconventional, lots going on, theater-like, cinematic, and it’s heavy. There’s heavy guitar, drums, bass, and vocals. It’s like a pure type of heavy; it’s heavy not because it wants to be metal, or follow some kind of rock formula. It’s heavy because that’s what comes out of these people in creating what is the sound of the Museum.
But then take a song like Powerless, which begins with what sounds like a single loose piano wire being struck within a metal barrel with a little water in it. The piece evolves uncomfortably, gets really heavy, the vocalist starts shouting, and weird harmonies bend up and down in half steps. Then it lands on an eerily comfortable groove that breaks too soon. The song then slows down again, into almost structure-less noise. The lyrics tie it all together. After that, the groove continues, and we’re taken out with a dissonant sing-a-long, complete with a mooing-cow-type instrument constantly wailing its mid-tone warbling. The track ends with a metallic, extended washboard-type sound and incoherent soft percussion.
Megan: “It would be metal if they weren’t singing la-la-la. You don’t sing la-la-la with metal. It also tends to have one singer at a time.”
I have the coolest girlfriend ever.
She’s right about this band””it would be metal, except that it’s got too many other sounds going on to be classified as pure metal. Hence the inevitable label avant-garde metal. Even Wikipedia agrees the band’s music is hard to define.
According to Wikipedia, “SGM’s music can be roughly likened as something akin to avant-rock, avant-prog or avant-garde metal, but it practically escapes any rigorous categorization “¦”
I love that they invented and built many of their instruments, and you can’t possibly know what these things look like when listening to them. Their names include Percussion Guitar (Carla Kihlstedt), Metal, Pressure-Cap Marimba, Spring, Popping Turtle, Food Containers (Moe! Staiano), Slide-piano Log, Pedal-action Wiggler, Thing (Dan Rathburn), Tangularium, Lever, Wheel, and Pancreas (electric) (Michael Mellender).
It’s just like the Museum””they’ve got a whole bunch of awesome stuff going on inside, and they never open their doors the public that is dying for a glimpse.
SGM basically combines metal with performance art. It sounds like theatre. But it is so much more.
Apparently, this album has less of a unifying theme than previous records. It’s sort of all over the map. This is can be seen as a positive or negative trait. If you want to be a dick about it, you can believe that the band has no idea what it’s doing, and is just flying by the seat of its pants. Or you can be smart and see that this music is so wildly experimental that it can’t be chained down. It has the fervor of youth, the rage against the system, the outright obliteration of norms and mores, and the high-art, righteous, ruthless, Randian pretentiousness held only by those who know that what they’re doing is right, and worth doing with abandon. And we cool people all know that having abandon is the most fun way to create rock n’ roll.
I mean, these guys are screaming, driven, and really pretty crazy. They quell it with a strong math rock quality, which takes a lot of concentration to be able to pull off correctly. They reign themselves in by emphasizing melody as they smash it together with noise.
And the whole thing, in all its packaging, really sounds like a demented circus from another world. Not hell. No, that would be too easy. They’re not straight-up evil. No, it’s more about mystery. It’s about what you can’t understand. It’s not the fault of the band for creating something too complicated and surreal, but of the listener for not realizing the high plane of art these men and woman come from, and how worthwhile it is to strive to reach for an understanding of it from our Earthly realm.
I mean, let’s face it. This band probably knows a lot about misunderstanding. I mean, you can’t even play this to punk purists. It’s metal, but then again, it’s not. There is no word you can use to describe it, other than: transmogrify. If that could be a category of music, it should be applied to SGM. They’re amazing, and as such, not applicable to even a less-than-mainstream audience.
Do not try it if you’re not prepared (or don’t want) to be creeped out to your core and then pushed against a wall and then get your neck licked by some sexy vixen snake and be painted a color the human eye can’t see and then thrown into a whirlpool. Somewhere in there you get whispered to like a child. It’s cool stuff.
01 – Sleep Is Wrong
02 – Ambugaton
03 – Ablutions
04 – 1997
05 – The Miniature
06 – Powerless
07 – The Stain
08 – Sleepytime
09 – Sunflower