AMN Reviews: Idiot Flesh – Fancy (1997; Vaccination Records)

download-2One of the downsides of virtualizing your record and CD collection is that you can’t just look at it anymore – instead, you are staring at a user interface for a searchable database on your computer or mobile device. Still, every so often you manage to come across an album that you fondly recall as a favorite, but haven’t heard in years. Recently, that happened for me with Idiot Flesh‘s third and final album, Fancy. Enjoy this AMN retro-review.

Trying to pigeonhole this group is an exercise in futility. The closest comparison would be their contemporary, Mr. Bungle. Clownish, theatrical, punk-influenced experimental rock with disturbing themes and dark humor is the norm on all of their albums. As for influences, listen carefully and you’ll hear strains of The Residents, King Crimson, heavy metal, modern classical, Captain Beefheart…the list goes on.

Despite being a four piece, Idiot Flesh moves seamlessly between power chords, avant chamber rock, and even approaches being orchestral. The group consists of Nils Frykdahl and Gene Jun on guitars, Dan Rathbun on bass and Wes Anderson on drums and percussion. But their instrumentation also includes flute, castanets, violin, cello, trombone, marimba, bassoon and found objects. All four members contribute vocals. Fancy also includes around 10 guests on vocals and additional instruments. The emphasis here on vocals is not by accident. All 13 tracks feature singing to some extent, many including large choral elements, and assorted background spoken-word craziness.

If we are going to start anywhere, it has to be with the 9-minute Chicken Little. The group gives writing credit to Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, and Bela Bartok. But just dropping those names won’t necessarily given you a lead on the direction of this track. Complex heavy guitar themes with intricate bass / drum parts are predominate. Interspersed are silly lyrics, and occasional flute and violin breaks.  In the middle of the track, the group partakes in a semblance of a country / western hoedown, fiddles and all.

But Fancy actually begins with a demented circus piece, Dead Like Us, featuring bouncing horns that belie the dark content of the choral singing. Following this is Idiot Song, another clown-rock piece with slow atmospherics. The album also includes Twitch, a grinding industrial-influenced piece, with shouted, distorted vocals and staggered rhythms. Drowning explores a slice of an addict’s life. The lyrics on all of these tracks tell disturbing stories of disease and death, recurring themes for Idiot Flesh.

To that point, Teen Devil Worshipper explores the sicker side of the group while telling the (unfortunately true) story of a list-obsessed ritual murderer. Here, the vocalists chant through the lists in the first person, not unlike the Dead Kennedys would do when personifying deplorable acts. Other tracks that include the group’s twisted sense of style (though in a more humorous fashion) include Cheesus (Dance Mix) and People in Your Neighborhood, the latter a funk and blues oriented, sarcastic take on Sesame Street.

Needless to say, Fancy is not a happy album. Funny at times, possibly offensive, and ridiculously creative, but not pleasant.

Frykdahl and Rathbun went on to form Sleepytime Gorilla Museum with Carla Kihlstedt.  The same three, along with Anderson, contributed to early Charming Hostess recordings.  All members have more recently been involved with avant-garde stage productions and performance art.

Fancy is 20 years old. Does that make it an oldie? Or a classic? Regardless of categorization, no efforts aside from those from Mr. Bungle come close to the twisted sounds that emanate from formally-trained minds and limbs of Frykdahl, Jun, Rathbun, and Anderson. A desert island disc indeed.

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