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Posted on December 13th, 2010 (2:54 pm) by Joseph Bogen

Late career masterpieces are identified more often than they are created. Rolling Stone has given late-career albums by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones some of their highest ratings ever, even though these albums are all but forgotten within a few short years. Similarly, music critics appear to increasingly fawn over Nick Cave as his work becomes less imaginative and adventurous. But Jim Thirwell, a.k.a. Foetus, has actually recorded a late career masterpiece in 2001’s surprising and criminally underrated Flow. The album showed Thirwell both expanding his sound and tightening his songcraft. The album opened with a perfect industrial pop-song “Quick Fix” and ended with a twelve-minute epic nightmare, “Kreibabe”. Unfortunately, Flow seems to have represented Foetus’ peak. Released in 2005, Love showed some interesting musical development, but half of the tracks on that album left me cold. And Hide, released late this year, seems to indicate that Thirwell is even more bored with Foetus than ever.

I have to give him credit for choosing an attention-grabbing opener. “Cosmetics” opens with overlapping and dissonant operatic female singers. Opera has never sounded so assaulting. When the song finally kicks into gear, it’s an orchestral piece with electronic vibrations thrown in. Thirwell can barely be heard over the opera singers that accompany throughout the song. Given his choice of vocal arrangement, the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible. While I admire the creativity and complexity of the piece, there’s just not a lot for the listener to latch onto. There’s no consistent melody or even rhythm for most of the song. It’s still more enjoyable though than the three groaners that dominate the first half of Hide. The catchiest song on the first half, “Stood Up”, isn’t quite “(not adam)”, but it’s a lively electronic pop song that gives the album a needed jolt of energy in the first half. This one only depresses me because Crystal Castles is actually considered music while Thirwell’s creativity appears to be eternally ignored.

On Love, Foetus distanced himself from the abrasive noise and guitar-work that characterized his previous albums, while proving that his songs could be just as invigorating with more elaborate arrangements. Unfortunately, he also displayed a newfound desire for quieter, more restrained compositions that was un-matched by any ability to make them work. Hide is full of similar miss-steps. “Paper Slippers” eventually builds to a climax, but most of the song is oppressively morose. But at least that one has a compelling melody. It seems better as soundtrack music than an album track, but I can see it working in the right setting. The same cannot be said for “Here Comes the Rain” and “Oilfields” which are the bleakest tracks Foetus has ever released. Foetus has never been happy music, but I’ve never heard him sound depressed. There was a time when the lyric, “We’ll be watching the oilfields burn” would have been one of reckless abandon. This time, it’s just a reminder that everything will go up in flames.

The second half of the album manages to be a lot more successful. This is mainly credited to “The Ballad of Sisyphus T. Jones”, a song that manages to combine spaghetti western music, dance music and the orchestral into a magnificent and captivating pop song. Acoustic guitar gives way to trumpets that give way to a full orchestra. And then it all fades out and picks a new place to start again. There’s no point trying to predict where exactly he’s going with this song. You just have to hold on for the ride. Here, Foetus shows us that the unexpected isn’t always jarring or unpleasant. Sometimes, a song just keeps getting more awesome.

The second half also includes two songs that bring to mind Foetus’ earlier days. “Concrete” is two and a half minutes of non-musical weirdness reminiscent of his early noise experiments. And “Fortitutde Vincemus” is a bizarre forty-seven second song that will remind every Foetus fan of “Fin” off of his ‘80s masterpiece, Thaw. “You’re Trying to Break Me” is a solid mid-tempo sludge rocker completed by Foetus’ orchestral flourishes. For those that listen to Foetus for heavy shit, this will satisfy them. My only complaint with this song is that it feels like “You Taught Me How to Vibrate” part 2. But that was also one of Love’s best songs, so I can’t complain too much. The album then closes with “O Putrid Sun (For Yuko)”, a song that I’m truly struggling to describe. Foetus’ familiar growl is gone, and he’s accompanied primarily by strings and piano for the first half. When drums and bass come into the mix, it becomes quite beautiful. The only thing wrong with this song is that it’s over so soon.

While Foetus has remained mostly inactive for the last several years, Thirwell appears to be flourishing. He continues to release instrumental music as Steroid Maximus and Manorexia, and has been scoring the successful cartoon network series, The Venture Brothers. It’s not surprising that he would become increasingly bored with Foetus. Thirwell has also become almost exclusively a studio musician, so it’s not surprising that the arrangements would become more elaborate and impossible to perform live. What is surprising is that when he finally releases a new Foetus album after five years, it’s full of some of his darkest music ever. When he doesn’t sound ready to kill himself, Thirwell can still write and perform a great song. I hope he tries it more often.

Track List:

1. Cosmetics
2. Paper Slippers
3. Stood Up
4. Here Comes the Rain
5. Oilfields
6. Concrete
7. The Ballad of Sisyphus T. Jones
8. Fortitudine Vincemus
9. You're Trying to Break Me
10. O Putrid Sun (for Yuko)

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