Once upon a time I visited the local artsy coffee shop to sit and smoke a few cloves and down some mochas. It’s the kind of place that’s filled with angsty teens wearing black, classic albums from Joy Division, Ministry, and maybe a little KMFDM blast loudly through ceiling-mounted speakers, and the walls are hung with drawings and photographs taken by the shop’s patrons, which are for sale for often ridiculous prices. I didn’t make it a point to spend time there, but they did have good coffee and they happened to be one of the only places to buy cloves in Denver after 6 pm.
On the particular evening in question there was a band playing in the main café area. Musically, the act consisted of a badly tuned acoustic guitar, some bongo drums, and a few assorted percussion instruments. I think there may have also been a tambourine. The singer, dressed in the uniform black, did his best to imitate Ian Brodie filtered through Robert Smith filtered through Ian Curtis and sang horribly written lyrics of lost love and pain and isolation. All in all, a typical coffee shop band.
But what made them stand out was the fact that this band, whose name I didn’t bother to remember, featured a dancer, a crazy man dressed in gypsy rags. He gyrated to the rhythm of the bongos, occasionally picked up an instrument to rattle it for a bit, and made these whirling dervish loops through the tightly packed tables, his eyes rolling back in his head and his tongue lolling out. The real highlight of his performance, however, was the thick, red candle that he carried around with him as he spun. During particularly dull moments in the songs, this dancer would tip the candle to the side and pour the hot wax over his bare chest, or his face, and during extra special moments, into his mouth. If not exactly a show-stopper, the dancer definitely overshadowed his acoustic-goth companions by focusing plenty of the eyes, and embarrassed laughter, on himself.
All in all, this mystery band was just plain awful. Although they passed out flyers announcing some show at a later date, I’m pretty sure no one who caught the advance act bothered to see them again. But if there’s one positive to having seen such an act, it’s that it raises the question of “bad art” and its appreciation. Sure, the music was bad, the lyrics were painfully adolescent, and none of the musicians could play, but that’s pretty much the lowest common denominator among young bands, especially coffee shop cabaret acts. It was that crazy dancer and his hot wax interpretations that pushed the band over the edge into the extreme deep end of the pool. If something so terribly bad could be taken so seriously by those who perform it, then perhaps it is art after all. Perhaps it transcends its origins backwards, and should be valued as kitsch, and revered by the cult of irony that makes kitsch objects and practices much loved.
What does this have to do with the Lepers? Nothing and everything. The very first time I played this album, I thought immediately of that mystery coffee shop band, not so much because they had a similar sound, but because the Lepers are equally obtusely terrible. The best description I can think of? One part goth, one part dark metal, one part avant-garde experimentalism, one part noise punk, one part overblown bombast. The Lepers is the work of drummer Ken Brock and guitarist/singer Owen Cleasby, who recorded this album in the basement of a bar, a sonic element that adds to the murky, muddy texture to the songs on the disc.
Musically, this album is as much about space as it about the walls of noise the band creates. Songs will plod slowly along with faint, hollow beats on Brock’s drums, keeping a lethargic rhythm with lightly plucked notes on Cleasby’s guitar, and then will all of a sudden burst into screaming guitar feedback and assaulting vocals. Vast expanses of these long songs are basically empty, creating a bleak atmosphere. With the exception of “Love Is Out on the Town” and portions of “Hanging the Lepers”, what would be considered traditional song structure is thrown out the window, concentrating on creating an emotional response to the barren spots between notes rather than the cacophony of guitar sounds. The influence of John Cage is discernible, especially in “Flood Letters”, which begins with a standard rock-and-roll “1, 2, 3” and is then followed by a few seconds of dead space.
Lyrically, the words are just as bleak as the music. Most of the songs seem to deal with death and pain and isolation, just like any good goth or metal band should. Songs like “Wasteland” and “Dead Romantic” seem par for the course. But some lines actually wind up being unintentionally funny, like the following from “When the Party’s Over”: “And we won’t take any chances by leaning out of the windows / I don’t want to see you get killed before we make it back to the bedroom / So excuse all this nonsense if it seems too profusive / I’m not trying to overshadow our problems by being too sentimental”. All this nonsense, indeed. The plainspoken lyrics of “Hanging the Lepers” have to be heard in order to be truly appreciated.
But on the other side of the coin, there’s a very real sentiment behind all of this. The Lepers are completely earnest in their endeavors, and from time to time that earnestness is actually endearing. There’s probably even an audience out there for the Lepers, one that will hear the reflections of a long tradition of twisted and tormented goth music fueling the band. And in many respects, the things that they do so badly, they also do so well. Is this “bad art”, or just a band whose experimental urges and mopey depression turned out a sketchy, sometimes boring and often unlistenable album? Should I let that little grinning goblin of irony convince me that I actually like what I otherwise find awful? I don’t know, but for my money, the Lepers could do with a crazy gypsy dancer who pours hot wax in his mouth.