Being an artist or musician from Rhode Island must be a terrible burden. Home of the Rhode Island School of Design, and with a reputation for spawning some of the more creative minds in the art scene, new creative minds have a lot to live up to. The Talking Heads, H.P. Lovecraft, Spalding Gray, and even Peter Farrelly can all lay claim to Rhode Island as the source their artistic emergence.
The now-defunct Arab on Radar also call Rhode Island their home. For seven years they were a unique presence on the noise rock scene, releasing records with some of the most notable experimental music labels, including Skin Graft and GSL. Their first two full lengths, Queen Hygiene II and Rough Day at the Orifice have long been out of print, but now come to us courtesy of 31G. With a sound that recalls—but rarely mimics—mid-‘80s experimentalists such as Scratch Acid or Big Black, Arab on Radar were really in a league of their own. Unfortunately, the re-release of the band’s first two records only goes to show that their brand of squealing guitars, screeching vocals, and shock value lyrics haven’t aged well.
Queen Hygiene II, the band’s first record, is their only album with a bassist, and as a result this portion of the CD is the most listenable. While the songwriting is largely the same from song to song—dual guitars trading off tight, complex riffs—the presence of a bass at the very least fleshes out an otherwise dry sound. Rough Day at the Orifice would find Arab on Radar without a bassist, and the results are less pleasant. With nothing to round out the screaming guitars, it sounds nothing short of a constant air raid siren. While their persistence is noteworthy, it’s too bad it comes with a lack of imagination. There are plenty of experimental bands who while not exactly pleasant, are at the very least interesting, but Arab on Radar are not one of them.
Perhaps the greatest weakness that faces the group is vocalist Eric Paul. Shrill and with a total disregard for phrasing or timing, he is a noise rock band’s wet dream, except that he lacks a key ingredient: personality. Vocalists like Mike Patton (Faith No More), David Yow (The Jesus Lizard), and Al Johnson (U.S. Maple) can do whatever they want, because their voices and delivery are unique and often brilliant. Eric Paul never seems to deviate from his high-pitched speak/sing delivery. There is no tension or variety in volume, making listening to his voice over this 18-track disc nearly unbearable.
Paul’s childish lyrics (they aren’t clever enough to be offensive) are also particularly uninspired. Looking to push buttons, Paul instead comes off as terribly immature, trying desperately to make an impression on people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention. “St. Patrick’s Gay Parade” finds Paul singing: “I just want to glance at her nipples / They are getting bigger, bigger and bigger / Wow, her nipples have tripled in size / I was just a normal guy, but ... / Now, I am turning into a peeping Tom”. “My mouth is dripping saliva / Get a muzzle for my vagina / My loose lips are sinking ships”, he sings later on “Capt Mouth”. On “Herpes Simplex 1”, Paul is in rare form: “And this is her stunt / She shoves firecrackers up her cunt / This is her stunt / She shoves antioxidant up her cunt / Now, now the spectators cocks are stinging / As, as her crotch starts smoking / And, her pussy explodes putting us in egg hunting mode”. On top of his annoying vocals, enduring these banal lyrics is something of a Herculean effort.
For fans of Arab on Radar, Queen Hygiene II / Rough Day at the Orifice is an essential CD, as these two albums have been long out of print. Fans of experimental music, however, can do without this inessential reissue.