Deerhoof are scary. What they have done on their latest release, Reveille, is reimagine the “Dies Irae” as populated by little furry things. These are the first words spoken on the album by Satomi Matsuzaki: “The trumpet scatters its awful sound over the graves of all lands / Summoning all before the throne / Death and mankind shall be stunned / When nature arises to give account before the judge”. One way of reading “nature” in this verse is in an abstract sense. But in the pseudo-cosmology created by Deerhoof on this album, it is specifically the animals that will be judging humans.
With an album titled “Reveille”, and songs named “Sound the Alarm” and “Hark the Umpire”, the band seems like it wants to wake us up (puny humans that we are) and realize that another world populates ours. To borrow other titles, “The Eyebright Bugler” could be alerting us to this fact, as is “The Last Trumpeter Swan”. But why would these creatures care about us? The answer’s probably given in the title of the song quoted above: “The Magnificent Bird Will Rise”. We’ll all have to pay at the final judgment, but a phoenix will arise from our ashes.
Although Reveille is not technically a concept album (there’s no futuristic society here bowing under the weight of a totalitarian regime, nor is there any mythology to extrapolate from its lyrics, which are either incomprehensible or nonexistent), its first two songs provide a peek into the ways that Deerhoof creates musical order from chaos.
“Sound the Alarm”, which begins the whole shebang, sounds like a broken jack-in-the-box being wound up, all creaks, bells, and indeterminate vocals. This sound collage fades away, and “This Magnificent Bird Will Rise” opens with the above spoken prophecy. Huge Keith Moon-style drums blast in on the word “stunned”. An organ line pulsates through the beat, followed by a cacophony of Pete Townshendesque windmilling guitar and a squall of squeaks and feedback. Everything drops out after a few seconds, except for Matsuzaki’s do-do-do-doos and a pair of drumsticks clicking together. Guitars, bass, and drums come back in the mix while Matsuzaki sings the word “tuba” (as in “Tuba Mirum”, another “Dies Irae” reference), stretching it to seven syllables. She disappears and a Casio bloops out her do-do-do-doos over a more feedback-saturated version of the instrumentation from the beginning of the song. A split second of pregnant silence follows, and then the sticks click off before more guitar stabs erupt, punctuated after a few bars by ba-ba-ba-bas from Matsuzaki. As before, the Casio replicates her notes after she’s silent. From this point, the song essentially begins again, with the pulsing organ and the instrumental interplay that began the song. But instead of the silence that originally accompanied her doo-doo-doos, the instruments this time around seem to want to play ahead of the singer—like they just want to kick out the wham—rather than be quiet; they strain and choke and produce a racket that makes her second invocation of the word “tuba” (accompanied by the Casio) all the more thrilling. And once she exits again, the Casio replicates her sung do-do-do-doos; the song continues to its end, with a coda that noisily repeats the interplay from the beginning of the song. Only the organ line remains as a buried-in-the-mix point of reference for its listeners.
Phew! Well, as an introduction to the album, the first two songs work well to anticipate musical elements that appear elsewhere: the lack of traditional verse-chorus structure, the almost-the-same-but-not-quite quality of the songs’ sections, the quiet-loud interplay, the dynamic use of instruments to punctuate a feeling or word, the noise that gives way to melody and vice-versa, the way the vocals and the keyboards echo each other and are often indistinguishable from one another. From the dirty rock opening of “Punch Buggy Values”, where a “chorus” features the words “beep beep” over chugging guitars and frolicking organ; to the eight-minute guitar and synthesizer drone of “The Last Trumpeter Swan”, it’s clear, although not from a cursory listen, that Deerhoof knows how to construct songs. (Members John Dietrich and Greg Saunier attended Oakland, California’s Mills College and its avant-garde music program.)
Despite sounding experimental at times (the ominously jazzy, minimal feel of “Days & Nights in the Forest”, the distorted eeps, harmonica, and disjointed drums of “No One Fed Me So I Stayed”), this album is strangely engaging. It’s even blatantly poppy at times, like on “Holy Night Fever”, which moves from a spastic intro to a juke-joint rave-up, or on the gentle, drum machine folk of “The Eyebright Bugler”.
This poppy-but-“out” aspect of Reveille is best felt on “Frenzied Handsome, Hello!” The clashing/clanging instruments in the beginning give way to the beautiful harmonies of Matsuzaki singing, “Ask me all about the world! / All about the worms!” and a middle section whose beautiful tumbling-waterfall keyboards sound like the end-credit music for a mutant Walt Disney movie where the animals triumph over their human oppressors and run amok across the now-deserted landscape. (It really is tempting to read this release as a concept album; such a reading would probably explain that this album actually is the lost soundtrack to a mutant Walt Disney movie.) Rather than ending on this triumphant note, though, the song concludes with the guitar running through a chord progression similar to the one that began it. It’s almost as if the triumphant animals, in their gamboling joy, forgot about that last damn human on earth, who’s absolutely dead-set on practicing his instrument.
This is maddening album. But it’s absolutely a rewarding one.