#musicmonday – Manorexia: Fluorescent Radiation

It’s bloody horrible outside. The weather’s cold, wet and wild, and the sky is an uninspiring shade of grey. We spent the day shuffling around like zombies and waiting for five o’clock. It’s hard to get going on days like this, so I really need the right tune to pick me up.

Fluorescent Radiation, from Foetus’s soundtracky side-project Manorexia, is just such a treat. It makes me feel exactly like I’m being given a nice hot bath and a back rub after a really hard day – more overwhelming relief than mere enjoyment. With each alternately jarring and soothing stroke of the strings, it feels like knots of tension being teased out of my spine.

First Impressions: Foetus – HIDE

When I was eight years old, my mother bought me Grumpy Bear. Much as I adored him, more often than not the sulking blue plush would find itself launched at the slammed door in a fit of temper. Thus I came to associate that sort of frowny pout both with catharsis and the incorrigible urge to hug the bear-er.

JG Thirlwell has long inspired both, and his last Foetus album proper, LOVE, collected the sort of woobie anthems that bring out the Elmyra Fudd in the best of us. I think it’s a girl thing: when Bethesda Game Studios introduced us to the “god of madness” in Shivering Isles, the boys revelled in the darkly-comic horror while the girls developed mad crushes on Sheogorath (who bore such a resemblance to Thirlwell in its predecessor, Daggerfall). Foetus could be the soundtrack to that bipolar realm. It’s mood swing music in a way that is intensely soothing to us and alienatingly overbearing to everyone else: intense, vibrant, dark and moody, unforgettably beautiful, and sometimes bloody horrifying.

Of course, HIDE sounds crap on paper – the sort of spectacularly pretentious description (opera singers? Latin?) that would in most circumstances provoke you to roll your eyes and reach instead for something by Disturbed. Then again, a) all-time classics by Led Zep and Queen were just as inherently silly and b) Lydia Lunch collaborations aside, Thirlwell’s never made a bad record.

On first listen, HIDE sounds like a combination of three of my all-time favourite albums: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Levitation’s Need For Not and Cardiacs’ On Land and in the Sea. It has Floyd’s sense of scale, Cardiacs’ dramatic eccentricity and Levitation’s creeping, insistent paranoia. Even the sleeve art for HIDE echoes the Illuminati symbolism of Levitation’s underrated opus, but of the three, the closest parallels have to be drawn with Cardiacs. Sure, Thirlwell’s outlook is much gloomier than Smith’s, but each has inspired countless popular acts while remaining perversely ignored, except by an adoring base of lifelong devotees. Listening to HIDE tells me that, like Cardiacs, I’m going to love Foetus for the rest of my life.

Cosmetics kicks off with the famed opera bit, Abby Fischer belting out phased multitracked lines before crashing into the sort of shamelessly overblown classical-rock song that people from Norway are so keen on, if only it didn’t keep getting bored of the current time signature and bounding off in another direction. It’s the sort of music Mike Patton really ought to be making … except now we’ve got creepy robot vocals to back up the operatic warble and … wait! What the F***?! Did he just throw bhangra into the mix?

Just as we’re thinking HIDE is a natural succcessor to the glorious, punishing noise of GASH, Paper Slippers shows us Foetus’s sweet side. It’s a lovely blend of the Beatles’ Day In The Life and Floyd’s Us and Them, though the distorted guitars and drums put me in mind of OK Computer.

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6 Reasons You Should Be Listening To Foetus

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:

JG Thirlwell with hearts and kittens

… while being a Foetus fan makes me feel like this …

Monty Python dungeon guy

Ummm ... hello?

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.

Bunny finger puppet

Endless source of mischief

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. Continue reading

JG Thirlwell: Hide and Seek (Foetus interview 2010)

JG Thirlwell - still from NYC Foetus

[This article was originally published by Brainwashed.com. I used the name Anna Station as an allusion to the Novation A-Station.]

If you’ve listened to music in the past 30 years, or even turned on your television, you’ve heard JG Thirlwell. He’s released over 40 records under 19 different identities. He’s the Venture Bros guy. The MTV Sports voiceover man. The remix king. Foetus, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, Clint Ruin, Wiseblood, Baby Zizanie and DJ Otefsu. From no-wave to neoclassical, minimalism to math rock; JG Thirlwell makes noise sound like pop and classical sound like punk. From sound-sculpting with Nurse with Wound to remixing Pantera; from making a video with Karen O and Spike Jonze to writing symphonies for robots, Thirlwell has been around.

The gorgeous, pouting redhead swigging wine from the bottle in 1996 was not JG Thirlwell. It looked like him, sure, but this guy was all swaggering excess and seductive charm; the real JG Thirlwell is shy, cultured and softly-spoken. He’d made the switch several years before, but now the impostor had taken over. Fuelled by acid and alcohol, he had blistered his way across the various scenes of the ’80s and ’90s until almost destroyed by his own myth. JG Thirlwell is back now, and has spent the past decade making better music than ever. With a new album, HIDE, out next month, Thirlwell has agreed to tell all: about the man I met, about the man he is, and about the extraordinary music they’ve made between them.

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James George Thirlwell was born on 29 January, 1960 in Melbourne. He’s often called “Jim” but goes by “JG.” He spent 12 years at an all-boys Baptist school and hated it so much that he excelled for fear of being held back. He became withdrawn and antisocial – describing himself once as “a s***head” – and sought comfort in books, art and music.

When was the first time you remember really enjoying music?

JGT: My first musical memory is singing Viva Las Vegas to a little girl called Viva in kindergarten. I must have been three years old.

Who do you still love listening to now who you enjoyed hearing as a child?

JGT: I used to love The Monkees, particularly Mickey Dolenz’s smokin’ big band number Goin’ Down. The Monkees was the first group I ever saw, in Melbourne in about 1968.

JG’s Scottish mother took him to the UK from time to time, and he felt more at home here than Australia, where he felt culturally isolated. At 16, he graduated and spent two years at Art College where he found himself training as a teacher instead of the course in graphic design he had intended to take. Frustrated and unhappy, he amused himself with low-level mischief before fleeing to London, where his mother had once studied music. He’d packed a couple of bags, told his parents he was taking a vacation, and didn’t return.

JGT: I haven’t been there in over 30 years and I don’t miss that country. I will no doubt visit one day. I’ve never actually been invited to perform there but Kronos Quartet played the first piece I wrote for them there last year.

It was 1978 when JG arrived in London and found work as a buyer for Virgin Records. Through this he was able to keep a close eye on all new releases, as well as obtaining sound files and soundtracks on vinyl for use in samples. Example: he put a voice clip of Vincent Price on two tape loops to play back in and out of phase, Steve Reich style. He began chopping up tape clips and making charts of what pitch they’d form if he played them back at different speeds; a DIY primitive sampler.

Minimalist experimental acts like Reich, John Cage and Phillip Glass were his main inspiration, along with the post-punk acts of the day – but Thirlwell’s heart seems to be in classical music (particularly Bartok and Penderecki). He’s always claimed he “can’t really play anything well,” but he seems to compose well enough these days: he writes the music electronically and then sometimes works with an arranger to generate the score for each instrument.

On the documentary NYC Foetus (part of the LIMB release), it’s suggested that you like the impersonality of classical music. What made you decide to make (for want of a better term) rock music instead?

JGT: I never said I think classical music is impersonal, I think [sound engineer] Martin Bisi said that. I don’t think classical music is impersonal at all; I think it can be highly emotional. Just listen to the closing of Stravinsky’s Firebird – there won’t be a dry eye in the house! I don’t just make one style of music.

JG was particularly excited about post-punk experimentalism. He was inspired by the DIY ethic of the time – the tools to make your own music were available and anyone could do it if they had the ideas. He regularly went to see bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Wire, Scritti Politti, and Nick Cave’s group, The Birthday Party. At first he played with PragVEC and Nurse With Wound, but then sought to create his own music.

In 1980, he set up his own Self Immolation label and eventually forged a manufacturing and distribution deal with the fledgling Rough Trade to put out his records – each released under a variant of “Foetus” (Foetus Under Glass, You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, etc.) – a word he loved for its baffling taboo status and weird spelling, as well as its connotations of potential. Around this time he began working with Einstürzende Neubauten, financing and helping to assemble Stratagien Gegen Arkitekturen Volume 1. As his own manager, agent and publicist (as well as performing all the instruments and designing the sleeve art), he created the aliases to make the idea of selling his music more palatable. As he told in NYC Foetus, he didn’t want to be touting his music to people saying, “Please will you play my record?”

On the press releases he wrote, he pretended Foetus was Frank Want, Phillip Toss and two Brazilian statistics collectors; he claimed Scraping Foetus off the Wheel was Frank Want and Clint Ruin. Frank Want is credited on releases by Orange Juice and The The. (Matt Johnson’s one of his closest friends: he’s performed with The The playing synthesizer, guitar and even the kitchen sink.) These characters were inspired by the mythology The Residents built up surrounding their releases, and his early press releases advised “the Foetus family prefers to retain a degree of anonymity so the observer can have no preconceptions about the music via the appearance of the perpetrator, the artefact must be judged on merit alone…”

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First Impressions: Foetus – Limb

This is kind of a brief one because a. the liner notes tell you all you need to know and b. there’s not a huge amount to say about it.

Limb comes packaged in a plastic case (ugh! I’m always so wary of destroying the inner cardboard with those things!), a cute book of some of Jim’s graphic art, and two discs: one is the album – a collection of his early experimental minimalist music from 1980-1984 – and the other is Clement Tuffreau’s 2005 documentary NYC Foetus. I’ll mention the DVD some other time – suffice to say, I bought Limb for the DVD; the album and booklet were added bonuses. The DVD was worth buying on its own, even at import prices, and I really didn’t have any expectations of the album at all.

It just goes to show how unsatisfactory 30-second samples are when it comes to experimental albums. Yes, a brief tease can sell you a rock or pop album – hell, it certainly worked for Lady Gaga – but something like this sounds like complete b*llocks when split into tiny snippets. Do not be put off by the teaser sampler if you’re looking to try before you buy.

I have to admit that I was actually hoping this would suck, since I’ve spent more on Thirlwell’s back catalogue than is sane or healthy lately. What can I say? I’ve bought maybe 10 albums in 10 years; to my thirsty ears, I’m like one of those dessicated vampires in a movie who’s brought back to life and has to dine on 50 people before they can utter a word.

The simplest thing to say about Limb is that it’s not what I was expecting. I imagined the sound of a hamster being tied to a kettle drum and beaten with a mallet. That happens on, like, one track. Industrial Go-slow is, I regret to say, absolute bobbins. If you’re going to sit there arythmically banging on bits of metal, the likely outcome is that you’ll just sound like someone banging on bits of metal.

On the other hand, the rest of the release at least partially answers my question of “why would such a fan of classical music bother with rock music anyway?”. Put simply, this is a classical album, albeit one that mostly uses the instrumentation of contemporary electro music. Or, since samples didn’t really exist back at the time, Jim noodling around with a tape recorder, playing it back at different speeds to create proto-samples. The liner notes – for each track – explain all the innovative techniques he used.

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Last impressions: Foetus – Nail

Yes, I’m still banging on about Foetus, because even though virtually nobody has heard of Jim Thirlwell, he’s about as important to music history as Syd Barrett or Ray Davies, so you really need to pay attention. This won’t by any means become a Jim Thirlwell blog, but while he’s on the forefront of my consciousness, I really think you should check him out. Specifically, you need to start with Nail.

I heard this little gem from 1985 a whole decade later when a friend at work gave me a cassette tape of the album. To put things right, I recently bought the mp3 for a whopping £6.99 – available from his own site or Amazon – which is probably less than it would have cost me to buy the album 15 years ago.

Nail sounds dated now – of course! – but there’s been a lot of care and attention paid to how the sounds are layered that still sounds impressive given the limited resources and age. I’m pretty sure it was an influence on NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine, which came out four years later. Everything about Nail indicates “labour of love”, however hate-filled the lyrical invective. I’ve been playing it to death lately, so I’m just going to share a little “walkthrough” for anyone who’s not heard it yet. It’s a concept album of sorts but f***ed if anyone knows exactly what was going through Thirlwell’s head at the time.  Nail is an incredible achievement, and one you really need to hear.

The opening track, Theme from Pigdom Come, sounds like the missing Danny Elfman theme from Batman (which, again, came out four years later) – all twinkling percussion and soaring synth-strings, both epic and playful. Thirlwell re-scored his instrumental project Steroid Maximus with a live orchestra: he really needs to do the same with Nail some time.

The Throne of Agony is to me the same as that Can track is to Everett True. It’s the song you can’t get past; the one you keep going back to. It’s the Casablanca of songs – practically perfect in every way. The lyrics are achingly clever (“gimme a break/start at the neck”) and totally indicative of the album: a gallows humour that tempers the ferocity of the misanthropy and self-disgust. It randomly switches in and out of Mission Impossible before gaining momentum – all the while his voice lurching from off-key growl to pretty Elvis impression. It’s this tension that makes it exquisite – both beautiful and ugly; perched between catchy rockabilly hooks and outright chaos.

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First impressions: Manorexia – The Mesopelagic Waters

Basically, it’s an imaginary soundtrack to a video game (which makes a bit change from an imaginary film soundtrack). I’m sure that’s not his intention, but it’s certainly what immediately comes to mind on first listen. The instrumentation is predominantly strings, piano and drums, though brass and other sounds make an occasional appearance. It was pretty easy to get hold of this at Amazon (I love Amazon so much!) and £6.99 wasn’t much of a risk. I already knew I’d have a fair chance of liking it from the 30-second previews. Coming from JG “Foetus” Thirlwell, that means it won’t outright suck: it’s a lot like buying a Bethesda game – the question is not whether you’ll love it, but how much.

Armadillo Stance

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This is real soundtrack music – the sort of thing you might expect to hear in a really good game. If I mention Jeremy Soule, I’m not doing anyone a disservice – I loved what Soule did on Guild Wars (particularly Nightfall) and this has the same sort of ultra-evocative ambience, as well as being really beautiful. I already want to hear it again before the track’s even finished. It’s like being in a hot foreign country late at night – you can almost hear the crickets. Strings are bowed and plucked over quiet bells and the odd piano chord. It’s just not in a hurry to get anywhere, but it’ll leave you fascinated rather than bored. It makes me think Thirlwell could do a really amazing Elder Scrolls soundtrack; it reminds me slightly of the Daggerfall explore music, only this is very warm and organic.

Canaries in the Mineshaft

This one sounds like the moment where a detective in an old-fashioned movie is rooting around for some intriguing bit of information. Maybe noir; it’s quite romantic with those weeping strings. Then comes some surprising clashing dissonance on the strings before it’s back to the main theme. I’m still very interested to hear where this is going. Towards the end, it changes direction and then suddenly ends – clever, Mr Thirlwell, very clever.

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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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