Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – [Discography]

Here on Avery Island, we tend to toss around the phrase “genre-defying” a lot to describe bands that push the confines of musical convention. Generally, we like to use the term to refer to artists that transcend the contemporary norm or the typical expectations that coincide with the band’s parent genre. Liars and Fucked Up more or less consistently disband the turgid simplicity associated with punk acts by cross-breeding influences from other genres; Intronaut and Isis break the mold of their less-inspired contemporaries, even in the broad constraints (if it can be understood that there are any) of art metal; Surfer Blood are now leading the reinvention of classic surf rock by blending it with influences from revered 90’s rock veterans.  Rarely, however, do we see a band that manages to sidestep labeling entirely, to the point where influences are numerous and yet tangential. Bands that successfully invent a sound that is wholly their own are few and far between, especially ones that pull it off with aplomb. As difficult as it sounds in an era that seemingly suffers from the stresses of multilateral creative exhaustion, it’s not entirely impossible; to name a few, Melvins have done it, Lightning Bolt have done it, Animal Collective have done it.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum have done it.

Go ahead and laugh at the silly name to get it out of your system. Having formed out of the remains of several relatively obscure, yet respected 90’s experimental groups including Idiot Flesh and Species Being, the band is known for incorporating numerous homemade instruments into their irregularly-structured songs and for weaving elaborate Dadaist-era stories about Futurist revolutionary groups, the vices of technology, and the fabled Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of 1916, which featured no exhibits as a Futurist statement and was consumed by a fire shortly after its opening, hence the name of the band and its first album, Grand Opening and Closing. The music is deeply rooted in the Dadaist/Futurist philosophies it was based off of, right down to the album cases, which often feature fold-out “brochures” for the museum, complete with bullet-points enumerating these extremist philosophies. The band stays hauntingly in-line with these philosophies, even performing their first live show on the exact date the museum was supposedly opened, 83 years later.

Whether the members are secretly members of some anarchist anti-establishment movement or just trying to take the live musical experience to another level, one thing is certain: their music is audacious, experimental, and eerily creative. Most of the group’s songs feature extensive use of one or many homemade instruments, such as the “Log,” the “Popping Turtle,” and the “Thing,” all lovingly named by the members. Of note, however, is not the quantity of instruments the band invents, but how they successfully manage to utilize their idiosyncratic sounds in crafting some of the most frighteningly deranged music out there.

Grand Opening and Closing

While Of Natural History may have been the more cohesive and refined culmination of the innovation on Grand Opening and Closing, the band’s debut is remarkable for the precedent it set. The album spanned quiet passages filled with mysterious whispered vocals and eerie string instrument melodies with the occasional cacophony of dissonant violin, unorthodox percussion fills, and Nils Frykdahl’s Mike Patton-esque vocal skills.

SGM’s catalog usually sounds like a blend of Mr. Bungle’s aggressiveness and experimentation with the technical virtuosity and complex song structures of Frank Zappa. However, their debut release, unlike any of their other albums, also featured a post-reunion Earth-like drone/ambient sensibility. Instrumental passages would span several minutes of subtle melodies, in stark contrast to the raucous cacophonies that surround them. Tracks “Sunflower” and “Ablutions,” though they couldn’t be more different from one another, demonstrate this concept to great effect. The dissonant bass and heavy reverb in the latter, being only the third track in the album, make for a frighteningly portentous song. The former, on the other hand, is peaceful and the melody even soothing, yet disturbing and eerie when played on the paranoia delivered by the preceding cacophony of frightening dissonance throughout the album.

Despite the intrigue that the quieter parts of the album lend, the loudest parts of the album tend to be what one leaves with. Single candidate “1997,” SGM fanatic classic “Ambugaton,” and the opener “Sleep is Wrong” are the most impacting moments on the record, delivering the loud chaos and time signature experimentation that the band is reputed for.

Amid all the sonic variety that the record delivers, track “Powerless,” undoubtedly the record’s strongest song, manages to bridge the loud and quiet, a perfect amalgam of the best of both aspects of the record. Though 9 minutes long, not one second leaves the listener outside the circle of mortal fear, let alone inside that of boredom.

Of Natural History

What Grand Opening and Closing waned on, Of Natural History refined and perfected. The band’s sophomore release harnessed the band’s wild sound into songs that are all-together more cohesive and thus all the more potent. The melodies are more intricate, more complete, and more mystifying this time around. Most prominent, however, is their reemphasis on philosophy above all else. The lyrics utilize samples of poetry, theater, and manifestos ranging from poet Muriel Rukeyser to Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti to the Unabomber himself in order to create a concept album that is rife with anti-civilization sentiment.

“The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion” will bring back instant memories of “1997,” but this time around with a lyrical air of indignation towards a techno-centered civilization that forsakes its natural world in favor of “progress,” with blatant condemnations like “Mankind is a plague/ Breathing hell into every corner of the rotting earth.” “The Creature,” similar to Grand Opening and Closing’s “The Stain,” tells a satire about the subjugation of mankind under a tyrannical system that leeches them of their wealth and sustenance.

“FC: The Freedom Club,” a song that lasts for nearly 11 minutes, manages to not only stay intriguing through its duration, but musically and ideologically compelling. The lyrics largely borrow from the writings and social theories of Theodore Kaczynski, the infamous Unabomber, the name of the song even coming from the inscription he would leave on his homemade bombs.

While the philosophies are questionable, the effect on the music is undeniable: it brings meaning to the hellish chaos, more than ever before. Like YACHT, SGM have found that the musical experience is much more engaging with a concept to unify the madness. Unlike YACHT, of course, SGM’s aim is not catchy, danceable pop rhythms, but something darker, more sinister.

The brochure-like fold-out manual for this album has been photographed in its entirety and is on display on our Facebook page for viewing.

In Glorious Times

Musical acts can be very sensitive to change, especially one as distinct as SGM. Following the loss of influential former Species Being drummer Frank Grau and the shift to The End Records, In Glorious Times turned out to be a significantly less impressive sequitur to their ambitious Of Natural History. The songs follow the precedent on their last release for intricate melodies, but lack the hooks that made the songs on Of Natural History memorable and have the unfortunate tendency to excessively meander through instrumentals.

Song “Helpless Corpses Enactment,” the group’s first song to feature a music video, also proves to be the first truly compelling song on the record, even sitting at position 5. More so than ever, the focus in this track seems to be on melodramatic vocalizations as opposed to instrumentals. Overall, the song feels dreadfully out of place on a relatively uneventful record. Discounting this one, other stand-out songs include “The Greenless Wreath” and “The Putrid Refrain,” but merely because they are juxtaposed to the weakest material the band has made in their short history.

Apparently, “glorious” times are the worst of times for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. It’s unfortunate that their first record on a relatively well-known record label had to be their weakest. The band is almost overdue for their fourth record. Perhaps they should do well to look towards the future through their past rather than glorify the present, as the philosophies from which they borrow so much entreat us as men to do.

Mason “Monkey Museum Curator” McGough


1 Comment

  1. New Stuff For Everyone on 2/7/10! « Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks said,

    […] A Look Back at the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum Discography, by Mason McGough […]

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