There is a puzzle at the heart of Goat’s Requiem, but not an inscrutable one. The band’s imagery and presentation evoke the theatricality of pre-Christian European pagan traditions; the cover looks like May Day in The Wicker Man (1973); and the band’s music is animated by a protean creative spirit that moves with ease through disparate genres and traditions, exhibiting disarming skill for tapping into sounds both familiar and surprising. Their momentum is always towards the enlargement of the cultural picture. Although that sense of adventure sometimes results in indulgent and diminished returns, it just as often furnishes the listener with warm, inspired, and exuberant music.
Sub Pop is an ideal North American landing spot for Goat and a tip-off for perplexed audiences attempting to get a grip on their music. If there is a center of gravity on Requiem, it is 1990s alt-rock, as songs like “Goatfuzz” (with its repetitive light grunge motif) and “Alarms” (with its spidery lead guitar patterns) recall Jane’s Addiction in their more adventurous moods. “All Seeing Eye” shows them at a strength when simply holding still; the shuffling drums and conventional use of electronic guitar bring out the latent alt-rock tendencies. The tribal, psychedelic, and hypnotic groove-hunting style that underpins Goat’s music does not annex the dreaming spiritual transcendence of, say, “Three Days” by Jane’s Addiction, but the influence is apparent enough. Add the not-precisely-in-tune caterwaul of Goat’s nameless singer—who fully brings Perry Farrell to mind—and several pieces of the Goat puzzle have already fallen into place.
But it would be untrue to suggest that Goat is summarily demystified as a late 1980s West Coast alt-rock jam band. They shift through a variety of musical traditions on Requiem, and Afro-Caribbean, 1970s psych-influenced Anatolian rock, and African blues are among the most arresting of them. “Trouble In the Streets” is straightforward calypso music, whereas “Temple Rhythms” creates a wave of pulsating percussive energy; it’s a simple idea executed expertly. Others are harder to place either geographically or culturally. For instance, “I Sing In Silence” is an engaging and genuinely odd melange of styles and instrumentation, with acid rock lead guitar lines, flutes, and [presumably] a vibraslap. “Alarms” features an array of acoustic instruments, such as chiming and shimmering guitars and off-beat, out-of-sync, and somewhat off-key male and female voices. The impression left by the dreary and misleadingly titled “Psychedelic Lover”, however, is alarmingly slight, a breakdown in the band’s chemistry. It also opens pointlessly and rather annoyingly, with an Islamic call to prayer.
Sometimes their adventurousness yields sublime moments, though, such as on “Goodbye”, a solemn and rhapsodic eight-minute folk rock elegy that opens with soft melodic passages performed on a Kora, alongside one cleanly picked electric guitar line. Gradually, the two instruments are lifted gracefully onto percussive scaffolding that carries the listener along for almost six minutes. It’s a penetrating piece, at once melancholy and hopeful. But then it is followed by “Ubuntu”, an overly long and aimless but somehow over-determined instrumental track that includes sampled passages from their own World Music (2012) and scraps of dialogue characterizing African philosophy. So it goes with Goat.
A few critics have proposed that Goat’s use of anonymity in point of personality—and obfuscation in point of biography function—as a device for negotiating their liberal use of far-flung cultural and musical traditions. They are nameless and faceless; they are no one and everyone, and they are from nowhere and from everywhere. “World Music” is itself a common term, and although it meets the purpose of preparing the Western listener for the appearance of non-Western music, it reveals nothing except perhaps that the musicians are in fact citizens of the world and are performing their music as such. The mostly-female-but-still-rather-androgynous vocal performances add to the off-centeredness of the whole presentation. Also, I have not read any reviews or commentary that attempts to put Goat in the dock for cultural appropriation, and for that, I suppose, we should be grateful. The music itself is far from nondescript, and if judged from this angle, and on its terms, Requiem is a flawed, unique, and immersive experience.