As maligned a genre as progressive rock has been over the years, it has certainly proven a deep and diverse well from which many a musician has sought and, often in equal terms provided, inspiration. Yet it’s easy to see how its tendency as a genre towards sprawling, multi-part suites, pretentious classically-informed arrangements and fantasy/sci-fi-indebted lyrics may be more off-putting than not to the majority of the listening public. It certainly requires a very specific type of listener to take in these often overly-long, tedious instrumental passages, nonsensical lyrics and frenzied flights of virtuosity that have long been the hallmark of even the lowliest of prog rock bands.
Like one of their biggest inspirations, Primus is and has been something of an acquired taste. Much of this has to do with lead vocalist/bassist Les Claypool’s unorthodox approach to his instrument and adenoidal, nasally vocals. Yet as with a certain Canadian power trio, both Primus and Claypool in particular have long had their vehement defenders. Regardless of where one stands, the prospect of Claypool pairing with Sean Lennon carries with it an air of intrigue, one whose final results can largely be guessed at given the previous work of each. But there’s still an element of sideshow curiosity with anything and everything Beatles-related, even tangentially so.
Any time you have Claypool as a part a musical project, you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get: gonzo, trebly bass lines; cartoonish vocals; and absurdist lyrics. As with Rush’s Geddy Lee, these are Claypool’s most celebrated or derided traits, depending on where you come down (and admittedly, the lyrics coming out of Lee’s mouth are those of drummer Neil Peart). So while Claypool’s sound is a known entity, it is less so with Lennon, whose eclectic list of collaborators to date includes nearly everyone from his mother, Yoko Ono, to Cibo Matto to Rufus Wainwright to Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Since emerging as an artist in his own right, the younger Lennon has made it clear his tastes are omnivorous and his artistic vision seemingly boundless. So given his proclivity towards the avant-garde in his abstract approach to rock both solo and with his The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger project the gap between the two artists suddenly becomes that much smaller. Having toured together and found a similar artistic aesthetic and way of thinking about music in general, Claypool and Lennon shared an unlikely bond that has led us here, to their first release under the Claypool Lennon Delirium, Monolith of Phobos.
And thankfully, it is Lennon’s contributions to what Claypool has to offer that helps to temper the more Primus-y elements of the album. Meant as something of an homage to the glory days of prog, Monolith of Phobos carries with it all the requisite hallmarks of the genre. On the opening, title track, assorted atmospheric string scrapes and clattering reverberations litter the introductory moments before settling into a very Primus-like bass figure from Claypool. As soon as his vocals enter, with the oddly clipped emphasis on “Phobos,” the curious will either settle in for the remainder of the ride or checkout completely as the remainder of the album essentially follows suit.
While vocally they are an odd pairing; Claypool’s adenoidal whine and cartoonish approach standing in sharp contrast to Lennon’s more focused, harmony-driven style. Yet musically and instrumentally they prove themselves very much of a piece, each exploring the more outré elements of their respective instruments to create something that comes off as a cross between Primus and Tame Impala. “Cricket and the Genie (Movement I, The Delirium)” in particular sounds a little too much like Tame Impala’s “Elephant” to completely dismiss the comparison.
Similarly, Lennon’s “land of the free/and home of the naïve” on “Ohmerica shows off a bit of his late father’s penchant for trite sloganeering. While “Oxycontin Girl” is something of a modernist take on “She’s Leaving Home”, the song’s protagonist the primary focus rather than the clueless parents. It’s one of many instances in which the album both thematically and musically feels familiar. Closing track “There’s No Underwear in Space” plays like a cross between the Beatles’ own “Because” and Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”, less the vocal histrionics. As Claypool himself sings on “Breath of a Salesman”, “I’ve heard it all before.”
Regardless of the finished product, something this out there – relatively speaking – and high profile given its Beatles connection is bound to draw the attention of a far larger audience than either may have experienced alone. Having come together, however, theirs is a sound more an amalgamation of the two than one unique whole. Monolith of Phobos certainly has its moments and will likely appeal to those already firmly in the Claypool camp, but it’s not likely to win any converts this late in the game. Neither surprise success nor unmitigated failure, Monolith of Phobos is an artistic anomaly that, like this year’s election season, will find listeners ultimately settling for one side or another; it’s not that either necessarily likes their choices, rather it’s more they’ve been left with little option other than to settle with the results.