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Free Salamander Exhibit
Undestroyed Antonio Poscic , January 16th, 2017 21:30

It is hard to imagine these days, with rock and all its variations becoming limp mainstays in popular culture, that there was a time when the genre was in vital opposition of something – anything.

While Rock in Opposition, a collective and subsequent movement initiated in the late 1970s by prog revolutionaries Henry Cow, signified first and foremost a revolt towards the elites of the cultural mainstream, it also extended to include a broader social framework and engagement. As time passed and focus shifted, RIO suffered the fate of becoming a living fossil; a meaningless gentrified moniker for a variety of eclectic bands out of the left-field of so called avant-garde rock. A lazy misnomer for a certain progressive rock paradigm rather than any living, potent symbol.

Yet, there is something delightfully appropriate and timely in this partial resurgence of underground avant-rock sweethearts Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, a band formed at the turn of the millennia and often classified as RIO. While the stylistic lineage, fustian traits, and the sound of a thousand broken and convoluted vaudevillian miniatures and grotesques is shared between them and their progeny Free Salamander Exhibit, there is a renewed flame of revolt in the Oakland foursome’s debut Undestroyed. This music is dada in the flesh, brought from beyond the brink of foolishness, chronicling the ongoing collapse of the cultured Western world, and mimicking the buffoonery of emerging post-societal idols. Both a reflection and mocking deformation of our civilisation.

Unsurprisingly, Nils Frykdahl, Dan Rathbun, Michael Mellender, David Shamrock, and Drew Wheeler never show their conation clearly and instead appear insular in dreamlike narratives shrouded in layers of hermetic imagery and lyrical mysticism. But an angry, propulsive idea emerges behind the curtain. It seeps through the music from the beginning, through the right-angled, contused rhythms and Frykdahl’s theatrical, hissed vocals, the untuned jangle of home-built instruments, and the aggressive twists and turns of opener ‘Unreliable Narrator’. Millions of fragmented stories spring from the cut as it meanders into calmer territories, lowering the wagers, only to return with a haunting metallic wail. A devilish cry for help.

The segue into ‘The Keep’ then showcases the head-spinning, often overwhelming diversity of influences and genres – hysteric cabaret morphs through krautrock and math rock into thrash metal – that Free Salamander Exhibit toy with. Flutes follow the burrowing, uncertain heaviness and Frykdahl’s crooning whilst they disappear below levels of perception. It’s a sudden trip, a soundtrack to a surreal cartoon scene; fragile, insecure, and not quite of this world. Multiple narrative threads coexist and superimpose, both musically and lyrically, as the album evolves and dissolves. What starts resembling Residents-like eclectica, synths-and-horns goofiness of ‘Time Master’, transmutes into the wobbly and trudging metallic aggression of ‘The Gift’ that might as well be condensed into one of its verses: utopian cyber-hippie, this is your world now.

Conceptually, the record culminates with the threatening, glockenspiel-lead lullaby of the title-track ‘Undestroyed’. When they quote the same passage from Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings over and over again – I am undestroyed, my life is my sundance – the meaning changes schizophrenically, crumbling under the weight of the destroyed and skewed, splintered and distorted sonic soundscape. Whether this is ultimately a form of activism, an exploration of the human psyche and its interactions with society, a condemnation of Mammon, social injustice, and degenerated moral dimensions, or something else entirely is left to the listener to decide in a sort of mental “choose your own adventure”.

When comparing Undestroyed to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s releases, most obvious is the absence of Carla Kihlstedt, her incisive vocals, and deviously folksy violin lines that filled voids left by heavy riffs. Now there are phantom limbs in her stead, giving a sense of unwanted straightforwardness that in turn amplifies the rawness of the band’s approach. But that omission might also make Free Salamander Exhibit more palatable, even to those who considered, as I remember reading in a review, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum “simply unbearable”. While the eclectic concoction of styles and transitions from the serenity of berceuses to hyperactive tremolos still come at a cost of overall coherence, they also create fleeting moments of utter lunacy and beauty.

We are trapped in the flow of one of those obvious points of inflection that we’re predestined to fail to recognise as such and that we’ll be unable to prevent from cracking. We are observing the makings of an intriguing vignette, a violent historic anecdote, in some future Thomas Pynchon’s masterful novel. For better or worse, Free Salamander Exhibit have prepared a fitting accompaniment for us, their broken rhythms and clangy and out of place noises waltzing us into abeyance. Hazy delusions of carefully identified neuralgias that cannot be healed. Demented music as the only response to a demented world. And maybe that's all that's really left for us – the common folk, so powerless and lethargic – to delve into absurdity as the world around us seems to follow suit.