How can you not get a huge kick out of The Apes? The Washington, D.C. quartet shamelessly embraces every cheesy aspect of '70s progressive rock, from the bombastic music, to the fantastic album concepts. They wear costumes onstage. They use pseudonyms: Paul "Count 101" Weil (vocals), Amanda "Majestic Ape" Kleinman (organ), Erick "Jackie Magic" Jackson (bass), and drummer Jeff "Ronald Wolf" Schmid. They post MP3 clips of arguments during rehearsal on their web site. They play the heaviest music this side of Kyuss. And best of all, they do it with no guitars whatsoever, with nothing but a "Big Bottom"-esque combination of organ, bass, and drums.
The good old Hammond organ isn't used nearly enough in rock music these days. From John Lord's classic licks on all those Deep Purple albums, to Uriah Heep, to Steppenwolf, it was an integral part of that ultra-heavy sound of metal in its days of infancy, but was cast aside in the '80s (Paul Schaffer seemed to be the only guy who played it, so its coolness might have plummeted as a result), and in the recent stoner rock revival, has only been used minimally. The Apes, though, take the wicked, sinister sound of the Hammond and make it the centerpiece of their music, its thunderous, distorted notes sounding equally as effective as any killer riff by Tony Iommi. Of all the bands that The Apes sound like, the band seems to draw the biggest influence from Vanilla Fudge, whose sludgy cover of "You Keep Me Hanging On" remains to this day, one of the heaviest songs ever recorded. Like a lumbering beast rising out of the primordial ooze, The Apes' 2001 debut album, The Fugue in the Fog, was monstrously heavy, with endless, distorted organ, and pummeling, deliberately slow drumming, not to mention some relentless howling by frontman Weil. The 2002 EP Street Warz continued the onslaught, the band sounding even tighter.
The primary challenge among minimalist bands like The Apes, though, is to keep that sound fresh over several albums. The great '90s band Morphine did it, and if The Apes' new album Oddeyesee is any indication, it looks like they're well on their way to do so as well.
If their first album sounded like a concept album, but wasn't exactly clear whether it was one or not, Oddeyesee is a full-fledged, pompous, over the top, Epic Concept Album. The story is so gloriously ridiculous, it'll bring out the inner Rush fan in you: our heroes (the band) hop aboard an ark and sail down a river into a scary jungle in search of a mystical, two-headed butterfly, encountering such challenges as a couple of brains bent on world domination, an amnesia-inducing fog, nasty hunchbacks who like to play videogames, and a climactic encounter with an evil overlord called The Worwiz, who threatens to destroy the world with his nuclear arsenal. Really, I'm not kidding.
But that's just half the fun. The Apes make some musical strides on the new album, putting their debut to shame. The production by Punchy is much clearer than that of the debut, Weil's singing (which often greatly resembles the voice of Fu Manchu leader Scott Hill) is more out in the open, as opposed to being hidden by various effects, and best of all, Kleinman's organ playing isn't just the usual stomping, distorted sound that so dominated the debut. Her talents shine on Oddeyesee, often adding layers of harmonies and more gentle, ambient melodies to the songs, most notable on the lullaby-like instrumental "While the Majestic Ape Sleeps". And don't get me started on the fabulous disco coda in "Crystal Coco Tech".
Best of all, these songs rock. "Imagik" is led by a booming drum beat and bass line during the verses, as Weil sneers, "River splits your mind in two, visitors in these dead seas," before the whole band kicks it into gear in the choruses and bridge, only to come to a halt in the verses again, making the song sound like Deep Purple's "Highway Star", if "Highway Star" was a song about driving in a jalopy that kept stalling. "Aboard the Ark" is brilliant, one of the best songs the band has recorded, with a brutal beat, a memorable organ riff, and some of Weil's stoner rock vocals spewing strange, nautical-themed lyrics (I guess you could say it's like "Highway Star", if Deep Purple were singing about a boat this time): "Takes eight hands and wormwood trees, let the river control the speed." "Children of Brainbow and Brainbro" and "Gemini Butterfly" get into more psychedelic territory, while "Forest of Confusion" and "Worwiz's Modern Problems" rock harder than anything you'll hear all year.
As for how the story of Oddeyesee turns out, it's a bit hazy (most concept albums tend to be frustratingly vague), but there's no denying that this is one colossal, fun rock record. It goes on a touch too long (its running time is 52 minutes) and gets a bit stale around "Myops Coin Ops" (uh, that's the song about the videogame playing hunchbacks), but by the time you get to the seven-minute closing song "Drop the Bomb" and its mantralike chorus of "Worwiz got the bomb what you gonna do," your faith in All Things Ape is renewed, and you can't help but sing along like an idiot. From the debut album, to the EP, to Oddeyesee, there's a definite progression happening in The Apes' sound, and if this keeps up, we just might be in store for something even cooler than this. In the meantime, though, sit back and dig the hell out of this one.