Drummer Tim Alexander has drifted out of and back into Primus many times over the past two decades. He rejoined the band in the studio (for the first time in over a decade) for 2014’s full album cover of the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And this time he seems to be sticking around. That’s good because his tendency towards complicated, rhythmically active drum parts is a boon to the band’s new prog-rock-inspired concept album
The Desaturating Seven.
The record’s story is based on the 1978 children’s book The Rainbow Goblins by Ul del Rico, about seven goblins who literally eat the colors from rainbows. In the book, the goblins set out for the nigh-inaccessible Rainbow Valley, the last place in the land where rainbows still flourish. They are ultimately foiled in their attempt to drain the valley of its rainbows and colors. But the result is that rainbows are now cautious and no longer touch the ground.
The Desaturating Seven is a surprisingly concise (34 minutes!) seven-track album that effectively merges Primus’ 21st-century jam-band tendencies with ’70s prog-rock stylings while still maintaining the band’s core sound from the ’90s. The album begins with “The Valley” and some rare acoustic guitar, a simple, quiet melody that plays while Les Claypool sets the scene in a creepy voiceover. Claypool then comes in with his string bass, dragging his bow across the instrument in an equally unsettling solo. That gives way to pizzicato playing as Alexander gently fills in the music with percussion sounds. Claypool sings about the effect the goblins have on everything around them, “Filling the landscape with fear.”
This quiet start gives way to the marching introduction of “The Seven”, as Claypool and Alexander lock into a pounding beat together. The song then shifts to a much more active bassline in a herky-jerky 7/8 time signature, with Claypool and Alexander holding down the rhythm and melody and allowing guitarist Larry LaLonde to skitter over the top with interesting guitar work. This may be the song on the record that most resembles old-school Primus. With different lyrics, it would’ve fit right in on the Pork Soda album as the follow-up to “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” that didn’t actually show up until “Wynonna’s Big Brown Beaver” a few years later.
“The Trek”, which chronicles the goblins’ long journey over the treacherous mountains into the Rainbow Valley, is the album’s longest track at almost eight minutes. It switches back and forth between a spacey, tension-filled section and a funky, upbeat section with a twang and a bounce. This upbeat section finds the trio in perfect sync, laying down a groove that lets each person do their thing. Claypool plays a bassline and de facto rhythm guitar part simultaneously while Alexander utilizes his whole drum kit to support the bassline and LaLonde provides two separate guitar melodies over the top of the groove. The two distinct sections provide an interesting contrast, especially because the band stubbornly insists on going back and forth without really changing either one musically until near the end of the song. In the final minute, the groove becomes a straightforward march as Claypool ceaselessly chants “Over the very next / Over the very next / Over the very next” before landing on the word “hill” as the song comes to an end.
“The Scheme” and “The Dream” show two different sides of the band. The former is a hard rocking song that could once again be from an album that featured the band’s classic lineup. Alexander’s active drumming sets the track apart from any of the band’s material without him, even if it isn’t a particularly catchy song. “The Dream” is essentially a six-and-a-half minute jam, with spacey guitar and high register bass work dominating the song. Alexander doesn’t even play until the song is two-thirds over, and even then there isn’t any real sense of beat until the final 90 seconds of the song. It’s probably the most inessential part of the album, even though in the original book the dream sequence is one of the most fascinating parts.
“The Storm” starts quietly, with swirling bass from Claypool and drum and guitar accents from Alexander and LaLonde. It gradually builds into a heavier, hard rock section, then backs off before building again to the heavier section. Just as you think the song is going to hit the heavy bit for the third time, the band takes a hard left and slows down into a loping, oppressive groove. This groove allows room for explicitly math rock bits where the trio piles notes on top of each other in extended digressions. Eventually, the song backs off again and then pushes into an accelerating final sequence where all three players push their instruments faster and faster as the goblins’ attempt to capture a rainbow is ultimately foiled. The album finishes out with the brief “The Ends?”, a fractured restatement of the original riff from “The Valley” where Claypool lets us know the result of the goblins’ misadventure, “Now rainbow ends don’t touch the ground.”
This is the tightest, most focused album of Primus’ career. That’s not exactly a stunning statement, as Primus (and most of Claypool’s non-Primus material) has been built on a meandering, anything goes philosophy. The Desaturating Seven is completely focused on its adaptation of the source material, but musically it provides a jolt that reminds listeners of the band’s ’90s heyday. Freed from the constraints of cover material, Primus digs in and comes up with interesting stuff. If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that the album’s brevity may work against it. One wonders if Alexander’s prickly nature kept Claypool from working up more music for the album, or if the relatively small amount of story in the original book just made for a shorter concept record.