Monday, February 18, 2008

I'd Buy Anything By...Foetus

While I was in university the campus radio station was an endless source of musical discovery for me. They had a huge selection of vinyl spanning the past twenty years of the station and most of it was very strange indeed.

Still, when I did my radio show I tended to stick to the bands that I already knew, occasionally dipping into the new releases to broaden my horizons. Left to my own devices I might never have fallen in love with Foetus.

But during every show I found myself entertaining the night janitor from the House of Friendship, and he was a musically adventurous guy. He'd call up and challenge me to, for instance, play punk bands from Quebec or find some random song on an old David Bowie album. That guy introduced me to Roxy Music...and one fateful morning he asked me to play some Foetus.

I was familiar with IDEA of the band -- crazy solo project by rude guy with multiple names -- but I'd never heard any of the music. There are some bands that you avoid getting into because you know you'll need to listen to most of their catalog in order to understand their "mythology," and Foetus was one of those. A cult band, diverse, mysterious, difficult.

I played "Bedrock," and after I got over the fears of losing the CKMS broadcasting license I was instantly in love.

J. G. Thirlwell -- the man behind the band -- is a strange sort of genius. He makes music using an alter ego that is so unpleasant you can barely tolerate him -- his song "The Fudge Punch" was one of the few songs we were forbidden to play on CKMS -- and his style is meticulous and lock-step. He pioneered the idea of "industrial big-band" and he has been the only person to pull it off successfully, thanks to his sampledelic brilliance. Mixed in with his often filthy lyrics are strings of disarming, hyper-intelligent wordplay. Thirlwell is not a guy you'd like to eat dinner with, but you'd sure want him remixing your album, and you might want to co-author a book with him.

After fifteen years of independent obscurity he was signed to Sony and released "Gash," which I now consider his best album: a tidal wave of guitars, distortion, horns, relentless drums, and undistilled Thirlwell hatred. While by no means the best song on the album, the video for "Verklemmt" sums up Thirlwell nicely, and it seems designed to make video compression algorithms cry.

The Sony thing didn't work out and Thirlwell has gone back to the independents, producing albums under various names, composing respectable songs for high-brow outfits, and remixing the bands that he helped to inspire in the first place.

Thirlwell and his live band are fantastic, but all of the live Foetus clips on YouTube have terrible sound quality. In fact, despite the huge number of video projects he's been involved in, there is precious little Thirlwell material on YouTube at all. So rather than present something inferior and unrepresentative, I encourage you to explore the Foetus-world all on your own.

Must-have albums: "Gash" is just wonderful, but you should REALLY pick up the "Male" double-CD live album...power, power, power! I also highly recommend the "Pedal to the Metal" EP he made with Roli Mosimann under the name "Wiseblood." Albums to avoid: "Deaf" and "Ache" -- his first two full-length releases -- are pretty obnoxious, all clinky and screechy. For fans only: "Sink," the CD of assorted singles, compilation appearances, and experimental pieces, and the dedicated fan should also check out the percussion-crazy Lydia Lunch collaboration called "Stinkfist." Smelly.


Anonymous said...

He is also the musical genius behind "The Venture Brothers"

Adam Thornton said...

Holy cow, I had no idea! Good for him! It's exactly the sort of thing he SHOULD be doing!

Anonymous said...

There are some good video clips of JGT on his site in QuickTime. Most of these are recent live Steroid Maximus performances, but there are a couple of studio ones. There are more recent videos on the second disc of 2005's Love CD, but that version is now out of print. Also, the Male DVD has pretty good quality video although there are some weak spots.

On that point, the Foetus documentary which should be coming out this year on DVD (I hope) may have some better quality live clips as well.

I think the "Someone Drowned in My Pool" live performance on YouTube is pretty amazing, and the quality is better than other live Foetus stuff on YouTube (for example, the "Ghost Rider" duet with Marc Almond).

On the purely audio front, I'd also like to mention the more recent "Thaw" compilation from December 2006, which has more recent remixes and b-sides and oddities, including that amazing tune he did with Melvins "Mine Is No Disgrace." And he's supposed to be releasing a CD this year called "Minimal Works 1981-1983" which sounds very promising indeed. And he promises that a Venture Bros. soundtrack is forthcoming this year.

Also, Hole, Nail, Sink, and Thaw have been recently re-released and I know that Hole and Nail were remastered by JGT himself. And you can get several Foetus albums as downloads, complete with artwork, for about $10 each on the site.

(For what it's worth, I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to have dinner with the man.)

Adam Thornton said...

I've never been a huge fan of "Hole" and "Nail" in their entirety, but that's mainly because I think they sound tinny...maybe a remastering is exactly what they need! "Thaw," however, is just wonderfully ugly, I love it.

I agree that the "Ghost Rider" duet is terrible, as is the one with Lydia Lunch...yick!

I missed the "Damp" compilation (our local cool record store didn't pick it up) and it's something I really wish I had. Oh, time to check out the Foetus store...

Anonymous said...

Nail was the first one I bought and it was on vinyl so it sounds a lot better than the tinny CD version. I don't know if it's a problem with the mastering or what. Jim's stuff doesn't lend itself well to radio-friendly mixing/producing where you can hear everything and volume control isn't an issue (like Nevermind, for example). I've only ever had the CD of Hole so I rarely listen to it, even though it's got some of my fave songs.

I'm just realizing I am a total loser because I mistakenly referred to Damp as Thaw.

Damn you Jim and your four letter album titles!

Adam Thornton said...

The CD titles! I can always remember "Thaw" because it's an ugly word for an EXCEPTIONALLY ugly album. "Gash" is an ugly word too, but I always picture it on that NYPD sign.

The Dutch band Nits often went in for four-character album titles (Tent, Work, Henk, Ting, Wool, Kilo, Omsk, Nest, Hits, 1974), but usually the titles related in some way to the album's contents. I can never keep "Nail" and "Hole" straight!

And I wish I could forget "York."

I just MIGHT get sucked into the reissues, if they have bonus tracks...