On amusement park rides there’s nearly always a prelude to the real kick waiting just around the Styrofoam wall. It is the clickety clackety upward stumble of the roller coaster that suddenly careens down and down and down. Or maybe it’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the town, slamming through hay carts and finally careening into the unblinking high beam of a locomotive. The first time I laid ears on the Frog Brigade, I head snapped back to childhood visits to Disneyland and a ride inspired by the reckless roadwork of a well-dressed Toad. Sitting quietly in the shadow of Snow White’s castle in Fantasyland, this attraction, an original from 1955 based on a section of The Wind In The Willows, wends its way through a mixed up street chase and finally one emerges with spots before their eyes into Hell. That’s right: Hades, the dark below, the eternal furnace, Bubba’s Bad Boy Basement. Hot steam assaults you as headless chickens with pitchforks dance around. Ghostly winds claw at your ears and you begin to question whether Walt should have been allowed near children at all. Before any real terror can creep in, the vintage looking car emerges into the sunlight and laughter of the park. Purple Onion chugs along a similar track, one where the giddy and the insanely black link arms and dance a nutty jig.
A pair of inscriptions on a coat of arms rests above the entrance to Mr. Toad: “Toadi Acceleratio” and “Semper Absurda.” Speed and a trust in the ridiculous, as suitable a maypole to prance around as any. In his first solo effort after Primus, Les Claypool has bells on his toes and lifts his heels high. It has the same mad, mad, mad charm of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band or primo Bonzo Dog Band. Folk melodies and jaw harps box step with free jazz in a fun house. Tiny demons roam loose, whispering “Simon Says” instructions in a voice that befits the Lollipop Guild. The rowers keep on rowing and they certainly are not showing any signs that they are slowing...
Les conjures up a profound sense of place in these (56:11) minutes. It’s something cinema auteurs have done for decades but the music world rarely manages. Within moments one finds themselves inside a unique vision. Think Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, and John Waters. You know you’re visiting their planet with just a casual look around. Purple Onion brings to mind a widescreen collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Spike Jones.
Except no one else besides Mr. Claypool could have come up with this. It is an engorged scallion cultivated by a genuine crazy. The glimpses into Les’s mind on this record move along the lines of the aforementioned Captain Beefheart or Bruce Hampton, himself a Colonel like Les. Even cartoon score king Carl Stalling seems a worthy forefather to this one. The journey moves through a disquieting, wholly captivating range of moods, from glee to anger in seconds flat. High and low culture grabs a whiskey and shouts their views at one another. Pointed politics fence with silly phrases and it’s anyone’s bet as to who the winner will be.
“David Makalaster” may be the sing-along anthem the doomed have been waiting for. Two versions of the song give a range of possible interpretations. Could be it’s about singing while Rome burns or maybe the singer is truly pissed off by the state of things. One things for sure, the chorus digs into your brain like a hungry rat:
We live in a world
Where all you have to do
Is sit around and dream
About the things that make you happy
About the things that make you smile
Lay back, relax
Apathy’s back in style
The whole mess moves around at an alarming rate, splashing color every which way. Broad strokes give way to light speckles. All the volume and juice that can be wrung out of their instruments is poured into every cut. An ill sonic palette prevails from the admittedly virtuoso bass playing of the leader to the sharp lashing of Eenor on guitar, the bell like tones of Mike Dillon’s vibraphone or the sweet breath that sax marvel Skerik blows into almost every track. All of them Frog Brigade touring mainstays and all collaborators in the Revolutionary sense. Visitors find new corridors in their playing when called into service. Warren Haynes delivers fierce, awesomely controlled slide guitar on “Buzzards of Green Hill” making me wonder where the man with three active bands keeps finding fresh angles. Gabby Lang plucks a dirty, Arabic blues on the wondrous good “D’s Diner.” And there’s the space age gypsy screech of Ben Barnes’s violin on the album closer, “Cosmic Highway,” a road song for the family that abandons the Earth.
That’s the end and that’s as good a spot as any to leave off. Light that patchouli cone, put on the huge thrift store headphones you don’t use nearly often enough, reduce the brightness to a few sputtering candles and set off boldly. This psychedelic grower (as the English like to say...) rewards the careful ear. As you make your way along the grooves of the disc feel your cares drift away. This is a product of Rancho Relaxo Studios after all. Like Bobby once sang, we might be going to hell in a bucket but at least we’re enjoying the ride. Now we just hum a different tune:
The moon is rather dreary
Since we singed our minds
On the cosmic highway to the sun
But it’s okay
A thousand tiny voices softly say
I wanna go, I wanna go
Onward, outward, upward to the sun
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