Release Date: 11/04/97
Idiot Flesh, an experimental/performance art group from Oakland, CA are comprised of two future members of avant-garde band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Nils Frykdahl and Dan Rathbun, and thanks in large part to the stylistic choices, Nils’ flute playing and unique voice, and Dan Rathbun’s invented intstruments, this album happens to be the closest thing to SGM outside of that band (along with Nils and Dan’s more recent release under the banner of Free Salamander Exhibit, 2016’s Undestroyed).
If you’ve ever seen SGM or FSE live, you know what a trip it was. Idiot Flesh seemed to land even more on the performance art side though, featuring puppet shows, fire eaters, dance troupes, and marching band routines (guess they’ve kept that one). Of course, much like their other projects, this album is largely pretty dark and dissonant, but maintains the bands unique sense of vocal melody, which keeps their music from being completely inaccessible. In fact, I can’t think of a stranger band at the level of SGM’s popularity (though I do think that’s largely due to violinist/vocalist/songwriter Carla Kihlstedt’s influence, but I digress…).
The album starts out with a relatively fun marching tune of sorts before heading into familiar territory with the dark and dynamic, though often quite heavy, “Idiot Song”. Again, Nils simply has an amazing ability to come up with memorable vocal hooks over odd and challenging music. Perhaps the most familiar elements here are tuned homemade percussive instruments and, to my ears at least, Rathbuns’ invented instrument, the Bass Log. This also quite quickly sets this album apart from Idiot Flesh’s preceding album, 1993’s The Nothing Show.
“Teen Devil Worshipper” picks up the pace considerably and, if familiar with the related artists’ other work, you’ll see that vocalist/violinist/random other instrumentalist Gene Jun’s songwriting is stylistically quite different from the rest of the bands. I think this outside force is perhaps the one thing missing from FSE’s one release thus far actually – it being ostensibly a Frykdahl/Rathbun project only.
“Chicken Little” is one of the more erratic songs on the album. From moments of intense darkness to upbeat and silly… there’s even an upbeat Americana part towards the end before getting once again dissonant. The track also contains brief moments of work from composers Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, and Iannis Xenakis! The musicianship on this track is especially impressive.
“Twitch” picks up the pace a little bit and features one of Frykdahl’s more eclectic and aggressive vocal performances. Also, what would a Nils album be without a heavy dose of misanthropy?
I don’t know who performs the very-80’s-heavy-metal-inspired guitar solo on “Drowning” but it is a fantastic solo. Pretty much every 80’s metal guitar solo trope is contained during the course of the minute long solo, and it is quite emotive. One of my favorite guitar solo’s of all time in fact, which was a major surprise first hearing it and I’d imagine having never heard this album, or even listening up to this point, comes as quite the surprise.
“Motherfucker” is Dan Rathbun’s sole songwriting contribution, and as per usual, he delivers. This again, is quite an eclectic one. It’s almost like a response to “Chicken Little”. The strange thing here is this sounds most like Idiot Flesh’s previous work. It’s a solid track, but not one of the album’s best. It’s perhaps just a little too disjointed.
Covering The Residents is an insane idea only an insane (and insanely talented) band would take on. They totally nail their cover of “Bach is Dead”. It’s a shockingly faithful cover and it just fits really well on the album. This is followed by one of the more dissonant tracks on the album – Nils voice over a dissonant piano track over a chattering-crowd, which gives one the impression the audience simply isn’t paying attention at all. It’s a neat production choice.
“The Straw” is one of the most recognizably SGM-esque moments on here. Small wonder, given the flute parts are bound to remind one of said band, as SGM is likely anyone who discovers this bands introduction to these two gentlemen, and the flute parts are certainly going to grab anyone’s attention, given the lack of flute in popular, but especially heavy, music.
“Cheesus (Dance Mix)” is a hilarious and ridiculously clever mock radio commercial created by Jun. It’s like Arrested Development in radio commercial form. It always cheers me up. This is followed by another Jun-penned track “The People In Your Neighborhood”, which is by turns cheery (literally borrowing the melody from Sesame Street) and depressing, talking about pimps and crack addicts. Jun’s childlike voice and wonder-filled expressions makes the whole thing even more disconcerting.
The album ends with a reprise of album opener “Dead Like Us”, which lends to an overall sense of cohesion. To me, this is the album where Nils and Dan really started coming into their own and began strongly hinting at the excellent output they’d put forth with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Most assuredly, this album will most appeal to SGM fans, but it could potentially find an audience in other experimental music circles as well.
Highlights: “Idiot Song”, “Teen Devil Worshipper”, “Drowning”, “Bach is Dead”, “The Straw”, “Cheesus (Dance Mix)”
Purchase: Amazon (this album’s out of print and not available on streaming services)