Artist: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Label: Web of Mimicry
Producer: Dan Rathbun, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Cover art: Per Frykdahl
THE ITALIAN FUTURIST movement embraced the often-destructive march of progress, while the Unabomber railed against it with some homespun destruction of his own. On their second album, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum find common ground between these ‘two contradictory pillars of 20th C. Anti-Humanism’ to espouse their own theories on the future of humanity.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum don’t pick sides in this hypothetical argument. But they clearly have a soft spot for the Futurists. Founded in Milan in 1909, the Futurists saw the destructive aspects of post-industrial society as exciting and transformative, applying their love of speed, electricity and war to all forms of art, including music. Luigi Rossolo’s* Art of Noise manifesto called for the creation of a Futurist orchestra and the invention of new instruments inspired by machinery and designed to generate noises. He organised these into six different categories of noises including roars, whistles, whispers, screeches, metallic noises, and noises made by people and animals. Rossolo might well have been describing the homemade instruments SGM use on Of Natural History.
“A Hymn to the Morning Star” opens the album with loud snoring accompanied by a foreboding drone, its hum abruptly shattered by the barking of a dog. Throughout the album, engines chug, electronics twang and rumble, birds chirp and hillbillies ramble about “Funky Cold Medina”, among other topics. On the off-kilter wallop of “Phthisis”, SGM reference the Futurists directly, Carla Kihlsted and Nils Frykdahl beseeching the listener to turn away from the past, while the rubbery industrial march of “Bring Back the Apocalypse” ends with crackly samples of Filippo Marinetti reading from the Futurist poem “Zang Tuum Tumb”. There’s something ironic about a band in the early 21st century looking back a century earlier to talk about the future. These days, the Futurists’ Fascist sympathies and noisy machines seem equal turns barbaric and quaint next to the ‘compassionate capitalism’ and sleek electronics of the present day. Yet the future of noise, ephemerality and speed that the Futurists so keenly predicted has, in many ways, arrived.
Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, wouldn’t have liked our tech-enhanced present one bit. A math professor turned terrorist, Kaczynski killed three people and injured dozens more with improvised explosive devices between 1978 and 1995. In a series of manifestos, he railed against the inexorable march of progress. And to make his revanchist point abundantly clear, he fashioned IEDs in his Montana cabin using hinges and springs recycled from old furniture, hid them inside polished wooden boxes and sent them out into the world, targetting anyone inolved in technology, including airline pilots and academics. On the pummeling clatter of “FC: The Freedom Club”, named after Kaczynski’s non-existent terrorist organisation**, SGM quote lines directly from the Unabomber’s writings in a clarion call to ‘close our eyes to the glory of the machine’ and return to the ‘impossible dream’ of a pre-industrial past. As the last line implores: ‘let us go back the way we came’.
The Futurists were keen to let go of the past and blaze forward, while Kaczynski yearned to return there. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum use these contradictions as a springboard to ask questions about where humanity has been and where it’s headed. “A Hymn to the Morning Star” is an ominous lullaby about the coming of Lucifer, which segues amidst gargling screams into the pounding prog-metal of “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion”, a song about the inevitable triumph of nature over humanity. ‘Mankind is a plague!’ roars Frykdahl, a sentiment both Kaczynski and the Futurists wouldn’t argue with, although each had different ideas about the possible cure. Elsewhere, the loony nursery rhyme “The Creature” is a charming fable about capitalism, while “Babydoctor” is a fourteen-minute, post-rock epic that seems to have been written in praise of medical science, with oblique references to the ‘all-seeing eye’ of dental machinery manufacturers Pelton & Crane.
SGM let these disparate ideas rub up against each other while outlining their own philosophy in the liner notes. They suggest that the original museum took up study of natural history during the Depression, and arrive at the conclusion that humanity will cede the world to the lower animals: the arthropods and molluscs. Insects seem to be constantly flitting around the edges of the record, like the flies buzzing throughout “Bring Back the Apocalypse”, “FC: The Freedom Club” and “Babydoctor”. They’re there in song titles too: like the chattering, folky instrumental “The 17-Year Cicada” and album closer “The Cockroach”. A twisted piece of musical theatre, “The Cockroach” weds harp and choral vocals to a countryish strum and electronic chatter, while an aerosol can sprays and people cough and splutter. Whether Frykdahl truly hates the cockroach as much as the lyrics suggest, or he finds himself disgusted because he sees something of himself in the ‘loathsome crawling thing’, is difficult to say. But like all good art, Of Natural History doesn’t provide answers so much as it asks questions while sticking its tongue out and blowing raspberries into reason’s ticklish underbelly.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum seem ambivalent about both the Futurists and the Unabomber, embracing the absurdities and contradictions of their worldviews and sending them up like the true Dadaists they are. And yet, its easy to see something of the band’s own M.O. in these opposing philosophies. SGM’s bespoke instruments, such as the ‘sledgehammer-dulcimer’ and ‘spring-nail guitar’, are related to Kackynski’s homemade bombs as much as they are close cousins to the Futurist noise generators that Russolo named intonarumori. Like these noise machines, SGM’s music thunders, hisses, murmers, creaks, clangs and wails. And like one of Kackynski’s spring-loaded mechanisms, Of Natural History is a finely honed and explosive package. It won’t blow up in your face, but it might just blow your mind.
* The liner notes to SGM’s first album suggested that a Lala Rolo, said to be Russolo’s sister, was a founding member of the original ‘museum’.
** Kaczynski worked alone.
- “A Hymn to the Morning Star” – 5:40
- “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity Opens the Discussion” – 6:01
- “Phthisis” – 3:44
- “Bring Back the Apocalypse” – 4:10
- “FC: The Freedom Club” – 10:48
- “Gunday’s Child” – 6:56
- “The 17-Year Cicada” – 3:41
- “The Creature” – 6:00
- “What Shall We Do Without Us?” – 2:38
- “Babydoctor” – 13:59
- “Cockroach” – 2:12
- [Hidden Track] – 5:56
Listen on Spotify
Also check out…
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Grand Opening and Closing (2001)
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Live (2003)
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – In Glorious Times (2007)
- Free Salamander Exhibit – Undestroyed (2016)