AMN Reviews: Thinking Plague – In This Life (2015 Remaster; Cuneiform Records)

In 1991, a friend and I were lamenting the relative dearth of interesting music in the U.S. at the time. During this discussion he told me about a Denver-based group called Thinking Plague that was “doing stuff no one else does.” Not long after, I tracked down a CD of their third album, In This Life, which had been released a couple of years earlier on Chris Cutler’s Recommended Records. Featuring songwriting by guitarist Mike Johnson, lyrics by vocalist Suzanne Lewis, the album was engineered by Bob Drake who also played drums, bass, and violin. From the first angular acoustic guitar riffs on Lycanthrope, I was hooked.

Now, the venerable Cuneiform Records, who have put out all of the Plague’s recordings since (as well as reissues of their first two albums), is releasing a remastered version of In this Life on October 2nd.

unnamedJohnson writes, “Thinking Plague means the disease of thinking in a society where too much thinking is considered as grounds for shunning…dismissal as out of touch with the ‘real’ world…the disease of the dreamer be she/he a scientist or a poet.”  In line with these words, the songs on In This Life have both intellectual and dreamy scope. Compositionally, the group has much in common with Cutler’s Art Bears, even having former Art Bear Fred Frith guest on one track. In addition to the above musicians, the group was rounded out by Shane Hotle on keyboards, Maria Moran on bass and guitar, Mark Harris on woodwinds, and Lawrence Haugseth on clarinet.

While Thinking Plague could have gone in a number of directions with this lineup, they focused on song-oriented avant-garde, albeit with elements of progressive rock and chamber music. But perhaps the most striking element of In This Life, aside from the songs themselves, is the uniqueness of each. Whether you listen to the swirling clarinet and piano motifs of Run Amok, the brooding deliberateness of Malaise, the haunting atmospheres and dense structures of Organism (Version II), or the poignant and evocative Love, each track is a stand-alone slice of dark Americana.

unnamed (1)Constant throughout all of these is the presence of Suzanne Lewis. Her vocals and vocal stylings, cadence in particular, are essential to her eerie lyrics and Johnson’s idiosyncratic compositions.

It was nine years before Thinking Plague would record a follow-up, and since then their output has been sporadic but noteworthy.  Good news for Plague fans however – the group just successfully funded a Kickstarter for their 7th album, which is being recorded now and is set for release in 2016. In the mean time, turn down the lights, and enjoy the rare beauty of In This Life. This is a top-ten, desert-island recording.

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