Grievous Bodily Charm
, June 7th, 2013 05:00
When Frank Zappa posed the question Does Humor Belong In Music?, in the form of an album title, he created a springboard which enabled hundreds of music journalists to open their reviews of 'amusing' albums by lazily referencing that same album title. And if you liked the way I had my cake and ate it with that preceding sentence, and came off as a bit knowing and twatty, then you might also enjoy the debut album by Mr Vast. His real name is Henry Sergeant, he's a Briton living in Germany, and if you've encountered his music previously, it'll have been as a member of IDM's cabaret wing, Wevie Stonder. From their name onwards, Wevie Stonder's apparent raison d'etre was to be as annoying as possible, like a bee inside your car or an itch inside your skull. Arguably no more so than, say, The Shadow Ring or Ceramic Hobs or other venerable goofs who invariably get dubbed "English eccentrics"; Wevie, though, stood out by being signed to Skam Records, which meant they (or, at least, their releases) mingled with Boards Of Canada and Gescom and other folks who were very keen to be taken seriously.
And so to Grievous Bodily Charm, which employs electronics here and there but is by no reasonable definition an 'electronic album'. Most songs follow an orthodox verse-chorus pattern, and are instrumentally rich. They are also in that comedy-not-comedy twilight zone where little on offer explicitly qualifies as 'a joke', but where nearly every line betrays a finely-honed talent for absurdism. In this regard, Mr Vast takes his place in a continuum which includes the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Zappa (of course), Ween (very much Ween), almost wholly forgotten Chicagoan duo Emperor Penguin, Matt Berry's Opium album and James Ferraro. Which, if you've been reading this with misgivings already, should just about confirm to you that you're going to hate it.
Much sport is to be had on Grievous Bodily Charm trying to figure out who, if anyone, Mr Vast is trying to parody. 'In Terms Of Ease And Speed' ("Skipping through the tripwires / Rolling up the hills / taking lots of liberties / To lots of little pills" – in case you missed the pun, like), which opens the album, is a sort of boisterous music hall funk, coming off like a less refined Ian Dury. Which is saying something. Its lyric "The bankers are on holiday / On all of your accounts" is one of the few indications this album might have been written or recorded in the last five years. Not in itself a problem, or a mark against Mr Vast, but some of the presumed targets for his cheerful zings are not exactly chained to the cutting edge.
'Process Of Illumination' tries out budget early-90s chart dance beats and inane relaxation-tape rhetoric: the only act I can envisage Sergeant having in mind for this one is The Shamen. Moving inexorably towards the current century, featherbrained compilation-ready chillout a la Groove Armada's 'At The River' is subverted for 'Elemental', which rhymes "sangria" with "angrier" and is about taking your partner on holiday in order to murder her. Mike Skinner is put through the Derek & Clive & Limmy pasta machine for 'Where I'm From', probably the album's most Wevie-like track and the conclusion to an indulgent-by-design 61 minutes. Immediately before it is 'Sticky' ("can't move my feet… Venus fly-trap"), which has rave hoovers and Prince vocals; I can't help but question the need for a jestery Prince takeoff at any time in history since Lenny Henry had a sketch show on the BBC.
So why, over the last two months or so, have I returned to Grievous Bodily Charm more than nearly every other late-spring album to cross my radar? Well, not only does it house a damn colony of earworms, they're the kind that, post-listen, seem so inexplicable as to tempt you back – just to confirm that you didn't devise them yourself, perhaps during that drooly state of morning lucidity just after you hit the snooze button for the first time. In my head, several times a day, I bark to myself "BUTTER BOTH SIDES, OR DON'T" – this being the concluding lyric to 'Buttercyde', a sort of disassociative industrial pop stomp. This has taken me no closer to understanding the thought process which places those words into a song.
Although Henry Sergeant has a thespian background, as far as I know he's never made an actual living out of his sense of humour; as such, it has likely not escaped his attention that people like Tim & Eric and (especially) The Mighty Boosh have become very famous by this means. There are fleeting moments where one can imagine a BBC3 commissioner nodding approvingly, which is as bittersweet as it sounds. "I was growing gills and webbing / But I still had sex appeal," is the choice couplet of 'Atlantis', which doesn't stop it being very easy to imagine it being sung by Noel Fielding.
Perhaps it's best to conclude by focusing on Mr Vast's most esoteric stylings, if this selfish bastard reviewer doesn't want him to be appropriated by the vulgar world of student-friendly TV comedy. 'Henry The 8th' begins with Sergeant, or perhaps the character he's chosen to inhabit here, wondering "Why are the bitches always best in bed?" in his Duke Of Stripeyblazerington posh voice, before an impressively cretinous metal riff enters the fray. Before Grievous Bodily Charm entered my world, I knew of no songs which dually channeled Peter Wyngarde and prolific Ohio sludge metal group Sloth. Now, I know of one.