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Kingdom Of Not
Journey To The Far Side Of The Room Ben Graham , June 21st, 2013 05:45

I'm aware that this could be a difficult sell; like you I'm sure, anything that could be described as "quirky" or "whacky" immediately has me reaching for Timmy Mallett's Mallet and smashing an effigy of the Barenaked Ladies into smug, smirking chalk dust. Likewise, with the exceptions of arch-miserablists Half Man Half Biscuit, Jake Thackeray and Viv Stanshall, comedy in music is almost always a terrible, soul-sapping thing - as opposed to humour and unintentional ridiculousness, which remain the lifeblood of truly great genius clowns like Nick Cave, Morrissey, or the Cult.

But get past that tired pun of a title; get past the fact that yes, this is a deliberately funny record, sung by a man in an exaggerated, "I think I'm going slightly crazy" voice, and peppered with skits and asides. Perhaps focus instead on the fact that the band take their name from a Sun Ra track, and that the spirit here is darkly surreal and strange, rather than merely observational and "off-beat." This is an album about death, demonic possession, childhood trauma, death, paranoia, death, self-loathing, death - and life. It gets under your skin, and into your brain. It is an odyssey of oddness, and an Iliad of illness (in the hip hop, as well as the medical sense). It's worth hunting down.

"Just a minute and I'll show you how it works," intones vocalist Budd Underwood, before 'The Wounded Stag' staggers in, like 'Papa Oo Mow Mow' dragging itself through an uphill swamp. 'The Girl with the Demon in her Head' is a cautionary tale of dysfunctional love, religion and mental illness somewhere between The Exorcist and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. "Crosses in the hall and crosses in her bed won't drive that little demon from her head." Like the actual track 'Kingdom Of Not' and much of the album, it resembles the Incredible String Band fronted by Crispin Glover. In this song "the girl in the casket" pleads "turn me over, my make-up is a mess" before things get really strange, and all the spirits of all the dead that ever were, "back to the first amoeba that ever divided" return "to laugh at the suffering of man."

In fact, Kingdom Of Not is largely the creation of award-winning playwright and performance artist Dan Carbone, who has been terrorising fringe theatre audiences around San Francisco and the Bay Area since the mid-90s. He's also worked with underground film legends George and Mike Kuchar, and his low-budget sci-fi short Dot was a staple of late-night US cable TV in the late eighties. The songs on Journey to the Far Side of the Room worked their way up through assorted shows and performance pieces over the last decade, before Carbone took on the identity of Budd Underwood and teamed up with guitarist / musical director Andrew Goldfarb, AKA the Slow Poisoner- also a writer of bizarro fiction, a comic book artist and a songwriter-performer in his own right. These two form the core duo of Kingdom of Not, although the album also features a notable special guest in Billy Bill Miller on "electric sawed-off piano (autoharp)." Miller was the founder of the cult Texan dark psych ensemble Cold Sun (recently reactivated and working on a new album), and was the core member of Roky Erickson's 1970s backing band Blieb Alien, AKA The Aliens, inventing the "horror rock" genre and playing on such stone classics as 'I Walked With A Zombie' and 'Two-Headed Dog.'

Mastered by Kramer, Journey to the Far Side of the Room also has something of his old band Bongwater about it, as well as the quixotic ramblings of Pere Ubu's David Thomas, who the band have previously opened for. 'A Raft Made of Bones' is a lysergic sea shanty the likes of which the Doors might have recorded, if Jim Morrison had been replaced by Tiny Tim, while 'I Want you to Die' ("you can do it if you really want to!") is a catchy mariachi march with something of the flavour of Ren & Stimpy about it. A vicious, distorted autoharp solo from Miller takes 'Radio Beam In Your Dreams' from unhinged Violent Femmes style folk punk to bad trip psychedelic territory, with Carbone / Underwood scarily insisting "I can see you in your dreams." Similarly, 'Sleeping' repeats the title over and over until this most innocent and natural activity is imbued with such terror that you're never going to risk dozing off ever again.

Perhaps the album's centrepiece is 'Debbie And The Demons,' a showstopping gothic Grand Guignol relating the unstoppable advance of a horde of world-devouring monsters, who become almost a universal archetype of overwhelming terror, rooted in some buried childhood fear. Growling wah-wah guitar accompanies the repetition of familiar advertising slogans, and what one initially takes as a somewhat irritating, throwaway comic device in fact serves to link "the demons" to media-induced anxieties. "I hate myself. Do you hate yourself? Maybe we can hate ourselves together," is the only advice offered on the hypnotic 'The Beetle is Alive,' which also references the moon landing and 2001: a Space Odyssey placing itself unobtrusively in a specific setting of a late 1960s childhood, which in fact is the root of all these songs wanderings through imaginary landscapes and waking nightmares. Fed by trash culture and fairy tales, spiked by violent, half-understood intrusions from adult reality, Journey To The Far Side Of The Room reads like a coded account of a traumatised but imaginatively liberated childhood, though I've probably only scratched the surface of possible interpretations. There is a happy ending of sorts, however, in the Frankenstein-like conclusion of 'Cables To The Ace': "Look at you! You're dancing!" We've survived to adulthood; we've made it across the room. We can afford, now, to look back, and even laugh.

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