Some groups cannot be heard -- they must be experienced
. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are a case in point: they're the musical equivalent of stepping off the curb and encountering a westbound bus where you'd expected to find empty street. The breath is knocked from your body; your head spins; your senses come alive with the intensity of new and unusual input. For a short time you feel as if you're lighter than air, and then you return to earth fundamentally altered by the experience. There may also be some bleeding.
Of Natural History is a sensory tidal wave poised to flood your every faculty. Its torrent of information can be literally exhausting -- concepts, impulses, dreams, equations, tropes and more, so densely packed together that some of them have been compressed into fossil fuel, accelerant for the remaining thought-block. We have names for some of the pieces of this inhumanly complex puzzle: you may detect prog's unflinching rhythmic exploration, the clinical clamor of early industrial, the icy technical perfection of math rock and speed metal, spazzcore's unhinged free association, the sinuous defiance of orchestral avant garde, death rock's theatrical bloodlust and bestial simplicity, or even the showy, temperamental craftsmanship of operatic metal. As with so many puzzles, it all goes to hell the moment the lid comes off the box.
Initially, Of Natural History gives little indication of its mind-scrambling power. "A Hymn to the Morning Star" starts out reverent, even placid; Nils Frykdahl's stentorian croon suggests a devil-worshipping Neil Diamond or a more debauched Leonard Cohen, or perhaps even Darth Vader's taller, more masculine brother. This is what people who've never listened to Nick Cave think he sounds like. Never mind the fact that we're witnessing the arrival of a strange and terrible god -- more developments on that front are coming soon enough. An unseen hand flips a Sabbath switch and Frykdahl drops even lower. "I am the adversary / and must remain / the adversary," he drones. This, presumably, is the title character from "The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion", and he's not friendly. Determined to shred your flesh like rice paper, he's content for the time being simply to shred. The changes come at a furious pace -- impossibly fast, improbably articulated, shifting to an off-kilter orchestral figure, then back to the riffs as Frykdahl babbles and howls like a Glenn Danzig nightmare, every beat accented with bullet-stopping force. A black mass chorus provides accents, intoning "Death by science" as bell-tones ring and shattered clockwork clatters.
You're only two songs in...and you're already shaking.
"Phthisis" puts Carla Kihlstedt in the bully pulpit. She's icily calm here, with an oddly Björkian vocal sensibility. Later, in the tumultously operatic "Gunday's Ghild", she's as seductive as a spurned succubus. Her vocal interplay with Frykdahl gives Of Natural History its palpable sense of wrongness, swallowing conventional expectations the way a black hole swallows light.
A track-by-track trawl through Of Natural History can't hope to capture Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's phobia-jangling majesty. Direct exposure is required, and headphones provide a properly immersive experience. The disc's most extreme pieces, like "Bring Back the Apocalypse" (its final seconds, anyway), have a controlling effect despite their unrepentant theatricality -- they tug at your mental bell-pull, first patiently, then with increasing aggression as the record unfolds. Try getting through the spoken/sung/shouted "FC: The Freedom Club" without struggling to clear your head of fragmented thoughts. If your nerves have been jangling since "The Donkey-Headed Adversary", think seriously about alerting a care provider. The Sleepytime Gorilla Museum don't want you to have an "easy" listening experience -- they want to leave you wide-eyed, babbling and foamy-mouthed.
Most of the time it's not an unpleasant experience, especially after you've dissected the first few layers of this carefully coordinated performance. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum don't worship Chthulu in their spare time; they're normal, straightforward people who watch television, read magazines, eat breakfast cereal and play Yahtzee, just like you and me. They just happen to make music that leaves us drained and dull-witted, eager for a fresh round of punishment, preaching and processing. Once it clicks for us, we chase that moment of impact, that mental chaos, like a new addiction. The apocalypse has never sounded so good.