A laidback Monday night in off-term Northampton, and there is plenty of room for Oakland’s Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to park their massive green bus right in front of the Iron Horse. Plenty of time, too, since a show listed for 7pm on the venue website will, apparently, not go on until 8:30pm. Chicago’s Tub Ring is sound checking when I stick my head in the door. While I am thinking about what to do next, a couple of other people look in, see the sign, and turn around.
One used bookstore, used record store, and coffee shop later, the show starts, an odd sort of bill with the jokey, style-shifting metal-rap-punkers of Tub Ring opening up for the far more theatrical and myth-conscious Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The link, it turns out, is Mr. Bungle’s Trey Spruance. Spruance produced Tub Ring’s third album Drake Equation, and also runs Web of Mimicry, the former label of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (SGM’s latest album was released by the End Records).
Up first, Tub Ring tosses every genre imaginable into its high-energy blender: punk, metal, new wave, rap, disco, and even some Middle Eastern whine. Singer Kevin Gibson and keyboard player Rob Kleiner are particularly aerobic, with Kleiner leaping up on his instrument at intervals and doing a fluttery splitz-kick on his return to earth. There is constant head-flailing, back-and-forth movement from the bass player, too, and the drummer, whom I can’t see from where I’m standing, sounds similarly frantic.
It is all terribly amusing for about 15 minutes—the sudden shifts from rinky-dink music-box melodies to adrenaline-pumping metal riffs, the turn-on-a-time implosion of keyboard-heavy new wave songs…the fact that, as Gibson announces, the whole band has grown mustaches for the tour so that they will look more like child molesters. But unfortunately, the set lasts much longer than 15 minutes, and the joke, that everything turns into a heavy metal song sooner or later, wears off pretty quickly. By the time they’re done, I’m flat-out bored. Even the keyboard dives seem a little repetitive.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, by contrast, is anything but boring. Scary? Mesmerizing? Perceptive? Theatrical? Loud? Yes, god yes. But dull? Never. Even the change-over is interesting, with oddly dressed, corpse-make-up-caked members of the ensemble putting together a crazy collection of instruments: included are a five-foot-long stringed instrument that looks a bit like a zither, various xylophones and malleted percussion, a violin, guitars, keyboards, silver pots and pans, and a bicycle wheel. The men in the band are wearing loose, natural-fiber tunics and dead-white make-up, their heads partially shaved, their eyes blacked out with purple, eyebrows accented with pencil. Carla Kihlstedt, the band’s lone female, looks less frightening and more festive. She seems to have wrapped some sort of party streamer into her two pigtails.
Once the considerable set-up process is over, the band disappears for a minute, then returns in parade formation, walking in wide circles around the stage as they play trombone, drum, flute, a melodica (I think), and a trumpet like a tipsy marching band. “Best parade ever,” someone yells from the audience. Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an entrance.
The main part of the show starts with a bleary trumpet solo, a baritone, and a creepily humorous spoken-word introduction from Nils Frykdahl, who looks, it turns out, even scarier in his make-up when lit from underneath. (Just like when you’re a kid and you light the flashlight under your chin to tell ghost stories—except there’s something really disturbing about Frykdahl’s teeth.) But he’s also sort of funny, in an apocalyptic way. “This song is for all the people who couldn’t come tonight,” he intones. There’s a beat, and he adds, looking around the room, “There are a lot of you.” The song is “The Companion” off SGM’s most recent album, In Glorious Times, and offers a ten-minute oscillation between Wagnerian choruses and scab-throated, metal-growl rants.
One of the adjectives you’ll hear most often in describing SGM is “frightening”, and, indeed, there’s something annihilatingly intense about their music. Still, it is just as often ethereally beautiful, sometimes funny, and other times touching and sad. “Angle of Repose”, also off the latest CD, is a frenzy of violin-sawing, Kihlstedt-keened madness, but with a core, somewhere, of nearly classical complexity. And “Crown of Salt”, for which Kihlstedt breaks out the almost subliminally low tones of a bass harmonica, is crushing and, in parts, delicately gorgeous.
This is a very moral band whose opening monologue pokes fingers at people driving through lovely Southern New England in giant, gas-guzzling cars, and whose respect for all the earth’s creatures permeates their animal-themed lyrics. In one of the evening’s most moving moments, bassist Dan Rathbun dedicates a song that is nominally about a great grey heron to his dying father. He notes his dad’s long, skinny legs and fabulous grey plumage and, in the song’s closing couplet, pleads, “Won’t you stay a little longer?”
It’s a melancholy moment, yet just a few songs before, the band had drawn giggles with its interpretation of reggae, inspired, Frykdahl says, by the bumper music during their set-up. The reggae is, at first, nothing more than a thundering bass-drum beat, Frykdahl and Rathbun grooving Kingston-style to an invisible melody and slashing out very occasional offbeats on guitar and bass. Like much of SGM’s work, the song finally turns into a metal frenzy, but not before slipping the crowd a sideways grin.
SGM’s newest album has only been out for a couple of months, so it’s not surprising that the crowd rallies hardest for a pair of cuts from the previous, Of Natural History. From the first choral harmonies of “A Hymn to the Morning Star” through the final, apocalyptic frenzy of “The Donkey-Headed Adversary”, everybody’s in the game, heads bobbing, bodies moving, a girl in front of me accomplishing some sort of sinuous free interpretive dance. That’s the end of the main set, but the band comes back for a very funny encore, all fractious, body-moving percussion at first, and then the front row—Frykdahl, Kihlstedt and Rathbun—lapses into an eyes-closed, syncopated snoring session. It’s as odd, as theatrical, as intelligently crazed as the rest of the evening, but an obvious closer…even metal-prog-avant-goth experimenters have to sleep sometimes.