Before MP3s and album leaks diminished the “event” status of musical releases, one of the many charms in anticipating new albums was the sense of expectation created by their titles. There was satisfaction in both the speculation about what a title meant or foretold and the fulfillment of that conjecture, whether the relationship between title and content was revealed to be literal (The Downward Spiral), ironic (OK Computer), reflexive (Prick), or incomprehensible (When the Pawn…). On the cusp of the proper arrival of the MP3 era, one album that exemplified this process was Deep Down & Dirty by Stereo MC’s. Nearly ten years had passed since the release of breakthrough album Connected, but the wait did not appear to have been in vain if the band was going to deliver something worthy of that title. Listeners braced themselves. Then, in 2001, the album was released, and although it was plenty funky and left no groove unturned, the songs did not quite live up to the promise of the title.
Now, almost another decade later, the high aim of Stereo MC’s comes to mind while listening to Tobacco’s also evocatively titled Maniac Meat, the sound of which could credibly be described as both deep down and dirty. Tobacco is Tom Fec, the force behind Black Moth Super Rainbow. Maniac Meat, his second solo LP, continues his push towards queasy-sounding, industrial-tinged hip-hop, which forms a strong contrast with Eating Us, the most recent output from his psychedelic pop outfit “day job”. Last year’s Eating Us was treated with Black Moth Super Rainbow’s most sophisticated production to date (courtesy of Dave Fridmann), yet perhaps as an unintended result, the songs lost much of the unique character and texture from the band’s earlier lo-fi releases. When compared with the pleasant but innocuous Eating Us, Maniac Meat plays like an aural assault that demands the listener’s attention.
Long regarded for his use of analog synthesizers and vocal manipulations, Tobacco joins those with bass and drums to create a sound that is also beefier than that of his 2008 solo debut, which included songs that seemed at times like sketches that needed additional editing or augmentation. The sharper focus of Maniac Meat suggests that Fec has arrived at a new destination in his artistic identity, having passed through some transitional material both with his band and as a solo artist. Maniac Meat could be called fully formed not only in sound but overall design. The cover art, which depicts an androgynous body-builder hovering over some future KFC abomination, casts a stomach-churning tone for songs that pick up the motif with names like “Lick the Witch”, “Sweatmother”, “Motorlicker”, “New Juices from the Hot Tub Freaks”, and “TV All Greasy.”
Interestingly, while the album does a lot to establish Tobacco as a solo artist in his own right, it does so through calling attention (to a greater degree than any of Fec’s past work) to the artists that might have influenced him during his formative music-listening years. For instance, Richard D. James/Aphex Twin looms large. His Windowlicker alone could be viewed as a possible influence for the design of Maniac Meat, from the shocking figure on the cover art to the song titles (“Motorlicker”) to the buzzsawing, nearly nauseating use of bass and analog synthesizers. While nothing here is as deeply creepy as the audio-visual experience of Windowlicker, Tobacco is operating in similar territory.
Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine comes to mind on “Sweatmother” and “Grape Aerosmith”, and there’s a touch of Rahzel in “Unholy Demon Rhythms”, but it would be not be fair to receive this album as only being the sum of its precedents. By and large, this collection of songs is an outgrowth of the unique sound Fec has honed over the years in numerous recordings under different project names. In point of fact, the album’s clearest link to Black Moth Super Rainbow is the frequent use of Fec’s vocodered lead vocals, an element that further distinguishes this release from his largely instrumental solo debut. While “Constellation Dirtbike Head” begins in media res and provides a recognizable gateway from the sonic world of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Fec’s vocals here, like his instruments, turn darker, more sinister, and less human. This is a positive change of direction that works much better than the prettifying techniques of Eating Us. The intensity of effect is sometimes overwhelming, but for the most part Fec knows when to change course or exit a song after he has made a point. Very few of these songs reach three minutes in length, and although the album’s final third grows wearying, this attests to the exhausting force of the preceding material rather than a lack of energy or ideas to conclude the album.
Of course, the marquee participation of Beck Hansen on two songs (“Fresh Hex” and “Grape Aerosmith”) elevated the profile of Maniac Meat long before the album’s release. Although the proliferation of full album leaks means many listeners do not speculate over the mysteries of album art or titles much anymore, a big name is one surefire way to build big buzz, and news of a Beck/Fec collaboration served that function. However, in execution, this is clearly not a case of inflating record sales via a superstar gracing the little guy with his presence and receiving featured credit. Instead, the songs (especially “Fresh Hex”) play out like Tobacco is providing Beck with a great opportunity, which is unexpected when one considers the artists’ respective amount of power and visibility within the music industry. The chopped-vocal delight of “Fresh Hex” rejuvenates Beck and reconnects him to his mid-to-late 1990s releases—albums defined by an intelligent and ironic stance towards hip-hop. Though Beck seemed to lose his groove after Sea Change and remained in the creative wilderness for a few years, “Fresh Hex” follows the energizing Record Club and “Harry Partch”, the hilariously awesome diss track deployed in good fun against the Fiery Furnaces, as a third piece of evidence that Beck has returned to the spirit that brought him all that attention in the first place.
By remaining mysterious and enigmatic thus far in his career, Tom Fec has created and preserved a sense of mystery about himself that leaves his personal identity largely unfixed and his artistic identity wide open for invention. Maniac Meat comes on so strongly that he might soon face the kind of inquiry that surrounds artists like Aphex Twin and Burial, both of whom are known and unknown, covered by miles of press yet ultimately indescribable except through sound. Fec’s music and career have not yet reached those heights, but Tobacco’s Maniac Meat proves that he is one to watch, even as he often chooses to remain unseen.