Flat Earth Society: ISMS

Adrien Begrand

Little did we know that a bunch of Belgians were up to something so unbelievably freaky.

Flat Earth Society


Label: Ipecac
US Release Date: 2004-11-02
UK Release Date: 2004-11-15
Amazon affiliate

Listening to Flat Earth Society is like hearing Carl Stalling score a film adaptation of a James Ellroy novel. One listen to "De Vrachtwagen 1", the opening track from the new Flat Earth Society compilation ISMS, is all you need in order to get a good idea of just how insane, yet compelling this music can be. Starting off with a foreboding, sustained double bass note and an eerily playful, undulating melody by either a synth or a melodica, you can picture an opening title sequence of a 1940s film noir, stark white titles superimposed over a dark, murky street. Trumpets erupt in a swanky fanfare, but the classy feeling is negated immediately by whimsical clarinets and crazed snare drum syncopation, as if mimicking the footsteps of a cartoon character who has happened to sneak onscreen. Murky yet effervescent, sinister yet whimsical, this is the one big band record that's made for anyone who thinks they don't want to own a big band record.

And what more perfect home for an outfit as strange as Flat Earth Society, than Ipecac Records? Mike Patton's brilliant little record label already has its own resident jazz fusion outfits in Trevor Dunn's Trio Convulsant and the dastardly demonic Fantomas, so why not a little bit of old-fashioned big band, tweaked just enough to scare the pants of stodgy traditionalists? Formed by bandleader/primary composer/clarinetist Peter Vermeersch in 1998, and over the course of four very well-received albums, the Bruges, Belgium outfit has earned the reputation of being one of the most experimental, yet accessible avant-garde jazz ensembles in Europe. It's one thing to try to take the classic sound of big band into an altogether new direction, incorporating the influences of more latter-day artists, including Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, and The Residents, but to take such a sound, and present it all in a very fun, strangely warm, and weirdly beguiling package that's able to simultaneously command the attention of discerning jazz aficionados, indie rock geeks in search of something their blogging friends haven't heard of, and children with strong senses of humor, is another thing entirely.

Until now, each of Flat Earth Society's albums had been available in Europe only, as any curious North American listeners were forced to shell out the cash for overpriced import copies, but thanks the always ingenuous Mr. Patton, who took the time to lovingly assemble what he felt would be the definitive introduction to the band's work, music fans on this side of the Atlantic can now find out for themselves just why these Flemish musicians are so fascinating. Culled from those four albums, ISMS is a 19-track, hour-long piece of inspired musical lunacy.

Fans of the crime thriller genre will get an absolute kick out of "O.P.E.N.E.R.", which achieves a scintillating balance between darkly dramatic and kitschy, peaking with an inspired solo section, before coming to an intense, cacophonous conclusion. "Pune" is just as crazed, but wildly different, with its traditional Oriental tones sounding as if performed in the cantina scene from Star Wars, and if that weren't weird enough, a kazoo solo and surf guitar included for good measure. Two brilliant tracks from the 2003 album The Armstrong Mutations are loving, but highly demented tributes to Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz; the raucous "(Little) King Ink" combines early jazz and primal rhythms, meshing an obscure Armstrong composition with Nick Cave's classic 1981 Birthday Party composition, "King Ink", Tim Wouters' impassioned lead vocals matching Cave's vocal theatrics. Meanwhile, "Funeral & Binche" is an excellent evocation of the classic New Orleans funeral dirge, but then, midway through, erupts into a ridiculously incongruous, John Philip Sousa-style march, as free-form trumpet solos whirl around the rigid melody. It's fantastic.

Patton deserves a lot of credit here, as he's been able to bring this bizarre, yet ingenious band to listeners who otherwise would not have looked for it in the first place. It's just the kind of freakazoid jazz that not only any fan of Fantomas, Mr. Bungle, or Bohren & der Club of Gore would enjoy, but most importantly, it's guaranteed to thrill anyone looking for instrumental music that's way, way, way left of the mainstream.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.