Foetus: Love, Flow and other great moments

My formidable great-aunt believed that age was some kind of impertinent insult. It’s probably the best way to look at it. Take Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell, for instance.

JG Thirlwell, 1987: foetus.org

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Despite hanging out with Marc Almond, Nick Cave, and Jim’s then-girlfriend Lydia Lunch, young Thirlwell didn’t fit into any particular scene. Calling himself “Clint Ruin”, he spent the mid-1980s being broadly lumped into the post-punk no-wave group of experimental musicians with whom he occasionally collaborated – though mostly Thirlwell would bash his own tracks out on a synth, tape them and sing over the top – making for an odd kind of karaoke for early live performances.

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JG Thirlwell & Nick Cave, 1983: foetus.org

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In 1985, he released the album Nail. I first heard Nail in 1995, when a colleague of mine told me to “hear it and weep”. I heard it and … Well, hear it for yourself. No, seriously, do that. Click ‘play’ now!

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(Descent Into The Inferno, Nail: live on The Tube, 1985)

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There’s a fine point between catchy and chaos where all the best songs lie – think: Nine Inch Nails’ Head Like A Hole, Bowie’s Scary Monsters, or even Radiohead’s Climbing The Walls. Nail walked that tightrope all the way to the other side. Foetus was an odd kind of rebellion – the sort of equal-opportunities misanthropy that hates absolutely everyone in equal measure: all crooned in a beautiful, snarling sub-Elvis baritone and topped off with a caustic swing-jazz electronica.

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JG Thirlwell & Trent Reznor, c. 1995: foetus.org

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Through remix work and collaborations, Thirlwell developed a reputation as a “pioneer of industrial music” – though only one other act, Raymond Watts’ group Pig, combined those sounds in roughly the same way.

In 1995, Foetus released Gash, which was yet again an album released at the wrong time. Had Nail come out in 1989, Foetus would have been as big as Ministry. Had Gash come out in 1999, the band mightn’t have been much bigger, but the music would have made a lot more sense. As densely-layered and genre-mashing as NIN’s later The Fragile, 15 years on it still sounds fresh as a daisy. Hammer Falls, for example, starts off with a slow bhangra beat and then lurches into the heaviest rock this side of Soulfly – and that’s before you get to the trumpet solo!

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(Hammer Falls, Gash: audio-only)

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Still, it all went a bit wrong after that, and that’s when I lost interest. Thirlwell fell into a spiral of addictions and writer’s block, and having presumed him as tired and irrelevant as his industrial comrades, the last couple of albums passed me by.

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JG Thirlwell & Jacob Kirkegaard, 2004: foetus.org

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Everyone’s allowed to be old at 50. “Dorian Gray in reverse”, he sings – perhaps as an allusion to wearing his past addictions on his face. It’s fair to say that the years have not been kind to him – and equally fair to say that he’s not been kind to the years. The tragedy is if you sound it, too. Some bands should just have given up years ago. Others, like Ministry, are making records as good as they ever did that just sound the same as they ever did. The pioneers have stopped … pioneering.

I’m not really surprised I was so un-curious about new Foetus material, however much I loved them back in the day. I wasn’t just failing to check it out; I was actively ignoring it. Too many disappointments from other bands had fuelled my lack of interest. Please, just let me remember them the way they were. When they were new and exciting and made music that mattered. Let me remember when they weren’t catering to a demographic or just plain out of ideas. Let me remember them as they were – wild, sexy and brave – and not sad, tired, frail old men.

Trouble is, Thirlwell has a habit of defying expectations.

A random tweet reminded me of Nail, and I remembered my Foetus collection was on vinyl, and so considered which tracks to replace cheaply through Amazon’s excellent downloads service. I found the familiar names quickly enough, but Flow and Love weren’t names I knew before. I googled them and was surprised to see how well-received they’d been. The phrase “his best album in 16 years” was enough to make me check out Flow, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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(Mandelay, Flow: audio only)

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The colossal Mandelay would be the stand out track on most albums, but it’s just an album filler here. It sounds a bit like what would happen if Cardiacs were possessed by Can and Velvet Underground and then turned really evil.  The twitchy orchestral syncopation of Suspect is both classic Foetus, and something that little bit different. It’s clearer, bolder, brighter-sounding; but darker and dingier than ever.

If Thirlwell had suffered the indignity of growing old, the passing years had at least conferred on him the gravitas of maturity. He could write rich, orchestral-laden “soundtrack” albums without sounding like a ridiculous art student. Something had happened to industrial music in 2000: while most of the bands went down the road of bland, dancefloor-friendly techno-pop, a few started throwing in breakbeats and rich, organic sounds behind stark, untreated vocals. This was the route Thirlwell took, though as usual, he couldn’t be pinned down to any one genre.

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(Time Marches On, Love: promo video)

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The last proper Foetus album, Love, from 2005 was even more of an oddity. Too much to take in through even two or three listens, it’s the aural equivalent of a David Lynch film. Not the rubbish ones, either. Sure, the singing-in-French might be a bit much – as is the apparently deliberate atonality on some tracks: it’s just not easy on the ear – but at the same time it’s compelling and compulsive enough to make you want to go back for more.

Remember My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and how you couldn’t hear the vocals, and the guitars made it sound like the record was broken? Yet, somehow, in spite of its difficulty you just wanted to listen to it over and over? Love is a lot like that, but almost the opposite: startling in its clarity. Elements of math-rock, breakbeats and broad electronica vie with the more familiar sounds that you’d expect from a Foetus record. It’s at once poppy and catchy and disquieting and uncomfortable.

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((not adam), Love: promo video – caution: mild nudity)

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If I had one wish in the last few years, it was to hear something – anything – that was new and different, to make me feel like music was alive again. Jim Thirlwell still has that absurd self-belief that made him sing karaoke to his own songs back in ’85, because he is completely convinced that what he’s doing is important. He’s quite right. It’s certainly the freshest, most exciting thing I’ve heard since Radiohead’s In Rainbows – if not the whole decade.

Thirlwell’s manifest refusal to play by the rules makes the meanderings of a middle-aged man seem more current and relevant than ever. He’s not desperate to stay popular – or even to be liked – but is driven by the remorseless need to create. He can’t defy time, but that doesn’t mean he has to suck. In that rebellion, at least, he’s afforded a dignity that has escaped his peers, and is still making the most beautiful, most extraordinary music.

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Post script: What I said about Jim being “old at 50”? I’d like to retract that statement. Been listening to his music every day from that day on, and every day I feel reinspired by it. That face there? That’s the most beautiful f***ing face I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s made me young again.

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5 comments on “Foetus: Love, Flow and other great moments

  1. Pingback: Albums that actually changed my life « Reinspired

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Posts March-September « Reinspired

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