Since 30 March this year, I’ve made *counts* 1, 2, 3 … a ridiculous number of posts about Foetus. The 294th album, HIDE, was due today, but since it’s been delayed, I figured I’d talk to you guys. See, my problem is that media consumption is an intrinsically social activity – people like to discuss the things we like – but Foetus fans are unsociable buggers; not mean, just uncommunicative (no, not you, Kenny). The net result is that Foetus makes me feel like this:
… while being a Foetus fan makes me feel like this …
It wasn’t always thus. Back in the 90s I was signed into a club by someone saying “she’s met Jim Thirlwell” like it was some sort of credential, had made half a dozen friends before I’d hung my coat up, and spent the first few minutes answering questions on what he was like (an endearing blend of Hecubus from Kids in the Hall and Beetlejuice. He’s still very likeable, just different and rather quieter. The music seems to have followed suit.)
Now, my only option is to reel in a few of you people, because – well – I like you: you deserve better music. People ask me which Foetus albums they should be listening to, so I figured if I went through them you could pick them out yourself. Plus it would be good to talk about this stuff with someone other than Kenny and my bunny finger puppet.
So, here once and for all is a rough guide to why you should be listening, after which I’ll shut the f*** up about Foetus. At least until HIDE comes out, anyway.
TL;DR: My first uninformed impression of Foetus’s NAIL was that it sounded like Nick Cave fronting NIN as scored by Danny Elfman. After that, I figured he’d just thrown an entire warehouse-full of records into a blender and poured them into a mould marked “awesome”.
What to say: Most great artists have been underappreciated in their lifetimes.
What not to say: Oooh! Industrial! Does it sound like VNV Nation?
Suggested listening order: FLOW-LOVE-GASH-NAIL-(DAMP)-(VEIN)-(BLOW)-THAW-(MALE)-(SINK)-LIMB-HOLE-ACHE-DEAF
See also: My JG Thirlwell interview at Brainwashed.com
1. JG Thirlwell makes the best music by anyone, anywhere.
It works on three levels, and that’s what throws almost everyone because we’re not really designed to hold that much unprocessed information in our heads. The top level is noise, and that’s what will immediately scare off most people. Then there’s the melody, which reels in the fans, since even noisy Foetus is enjoyable to listen to. Taking the 1982 album ACHE as a prime example, it’s cacophonous and catchy at the same time, which makes it as unsettling as it is pleasing. The outcome of that is that you miss the third level, which is the intensely cerebral sophistication of a pop record made by a classical music fan. Beneath the noise is an intricate tapestry of samples – most performed by Thirlwell himself – that you’re unlikely even to notice unless you listen to LIMB first and pick up on those recurrent motifs.
Foetus has definitely mellowed of late, which just gives those giant arrangements room to breathe. Someone on YouTube described Time Marches On as “some kind of epic, demented pop song”, which it is.
2. It will make you feel better
The other part of the Thirlwell puzzle is his habit of holding up a giant mirror to the world. The lyrics are often downright shocking, which he explains is simply writing down his nightmares to exorcise them (some of those tracks are, admittedly, unlistenable), but even this catharsis works on multiple levels. “You don’t ever want to feel the same way I do”, he growls on one song, but if you do, it’s a blessed relief to know you’re not alone. Conversely, tracks like You Don’t Want Me Any More are pure woobie fantasy: “that character you want to give a big hug, wrap in a blanket and feed soup to when he suffers so very beautifully”, as TV Tropes defines it. As well as exposing social hypocrisies, he highlights our habit of saying mean things to ourselves that we wouldn’t even think about other people, which might make you a bit kinder to your reflection.
Of course, it’s not all misery and despair. Far from it: Foetus is famed for the funny. “I’d join the Ku Klux Klan just to get the uniform” is probably the archetypal lyric – sick, twisted, hilarious, and quite the opposite of what he’d really do. Then again, he doesn’t need lyrics at all to manipulate. Foetus albums tend to have instrumental tracks and the Manorexia and Steroid Maximus albums are all-instrumental, but they’ll transform your mood just the same.
Finally, if the manic glee of Wash It All Off – psychotic Beach Boys with a “supercalifragilisticsadomasochism” chorus – doesn’t put a giant grin on your face, there’s no helping you.
3. It’s surprisingly enjoyable
The name DEAF is no misnomer: Foetus’s 1981 album is a screeching, squalling racket that takes repeated listens to really appreciate. Stick with it, since by the second or third track you’ll have figured that it’s really quite good in its own noisy way. It’s mostly proto-synth-pop overlaid with those early industrial bangs-and-clangs typical of the post punk underground. It makes a lot more sense if you listen to LIMB first.
ACHE (1982) is much better, not just in terms of being much easier to listen to (yes, there’s still plenty of yowling and shrieking, but it’s more recogniseably melodic) and this time it’s more like a noisier Bow Wow Wow than an unearthly f***ing din.
1984’s HOLE is the apex of early Foetus – the era of manic synth hooks over clanking-bits-of-metal percussion. It’s certainly more accessible than either DEAF or ACHE, though considerably darker in content. Stand-outs are Iggy spoof Lust For Death, Nick Cave teaser Sick-Man, and the brutally funny Cold Day In Hell. The sheer eclecticism of influence – as much 50s rockabilly as post-punk – is what makes it as cute and spiky as a baby hedgehog.
4. It’s the reason your other favourites exist
If there’s one word that’s consistently used to describe Foetus, it’s “pioneer”. Released in 1985, NAIL is still widely regarded as Foetus’s finest hour. I’ve described it more fully here, but it’s a radical departure from the first three albums. Thirlwell’s ear-splitting yammering by now softened into a gorgeous, gravelly Elvis impression, the music sounds like both Danny Elfman’s twinkly orchestral soundtracks and NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine – which would still be impressive even if it didn’t appear the same year as the first and four years before the latter. The only way you could possibly improve on NAIL is to perform it with an orchestra.
1988’s THAW features the sort of raw, straightforward noise that fans of Ministry and its ilk can easily hook into, interspersed with what would become the foundations of Thirlwell’s instrumental projects Steroid Maximus and Manorexia. The result is a little chaotic and disjointed – lurching unpredictably between styles – but there are some great songs here, and the opening and closing tracks are unforgettable.
SINK (1990) and MALE (1992) are a great way to experience the oddities and rarities – the former pulling together the early singles, and the latter featuring songs by side-project Wiseblood, some exceptional cover versions, and some arguably superior renditions of earlier Foetus tracks. MALE is appropriate use for the words “a blistering, pummelling powerhouse of rock”. SINK reveals just how ahead of his time Thirlwell really was.
5. It’s gloriously epic rock music
GASH (1995) contains four of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life. Hammer Falls, Mutapump and Steal Your Life Away combine devastating arrangements with powerful rock hooks in a way that would shame Led Zeppelin, and Slung is a stunning 11-minute jazz number. That’s before we even get to the ear-pleasing single Verklemmt and the pretty They Are Not So True. Thirlwell’s voice is incredible on here – he roars like a wounded animal. While THAW‘s experimental noodlings often felt like biting into an apple and finding it tastes of orange (you might like orange but you wanted apple), GASH provides no-nonsense rock – but here classical elements underpin the songs in a way I haven’t really heard before. It’s sorely in need of remastering, but remains what would have been the crowning achievement in anyone else’s discography.
FLOW (2001) has the same magic as NAIL: it’s simply jaw-dropping. Musically it’s probably the most immediate thing Thirlwell’s done – just a collection of awesomely hard-hitting (though not necessarily loud) takes on the broad rock category – but there’s something very special about each of the songs here, and the thoughtful arrangements and instrumentation. The sound is generally warm and organic – even the very electronic noise of Need Machine – and it seems ever more ridiculous that he’s playing almost everything himself. It’s an eclectic yet highly accessible album – usually the place I suggest the curious to start. BLOW is its remix album, featuring the oft-used Charlie Clouser mix of Quick Fix.
6. It’s still getting better
LOVE (2005) is even more accomplished than FLOW, taking a detour from the hard-and-heavy to explore things like French folk, math rock and 60s soundtrack music. It’s still highly accessible, with broadest appeal to indie/alternative fans. Aladdin Reverse, Miracle and Thrush are the stand-out tracks, though overall it’s just a fine symphonic pop album with a lot of weirdness going on. VEIN is the remix album.
DAMP (2006) is LOVE’s “satellite appendix” – outtakes and rarities that didn’t make it onto the album. I Hate You All is the famed big band commission for Japanese artist Atsushi (who was in Schwein with Sascha and Raymond from KMFDM) but there’s also the incredible Not In Yr Hands, infectious jazzy dancefloor number Hemo the Cuckold and live favourite Sieve. DAMP would be the pinnacle of any other career: that it’s viewed as one of the weaker Foetus albums says much for FLOW and LOVE.
LIMB (2009) is a collection of tracks Thirlwell wrote between 1980-1983. He’s polished them up, even finishing up Sjogren’s Syndrome some 26 years after starting it – which is of course the best thing on here – and packaging them in a beautiful release that includes an art book, extensive explanatory liner notes and a full-length documentary DVD. LIMB fits both at the beginning and the end – it’s like the spine of Foetus music. The rock, blues, big band and electronica that defines the “Foetus sound” is just the epidermis; once you hear LIMB you see the classical/experimental basis that threads every song together from DEAF to DAMP. The tracks here would be equally at home on ACHE or the last Manorexia album.
Having come full circle, it’s going to be interesting to see where Foetus goes next. It might be so dreadful I stop talking about him for another 10 years, or it might finally net him the recognition he deserves. I guess we’ll find out pretty soon, but in the meantime, give some of these tunes a listen. If you love music at all, there’ll be something for you.