This week’s weird artiste makes most other so-called Goth bands look like posers by comparison. Anna-Varney Cantodea is so Goth she never performs “in front of humans,” preferring instead to save her striking, vampire/Butoh appearance for eerie photo shoots and the occasional blurry music video that flickers like a faded silent movie print. Her music is so Goth it defies easy categorization, mixing neoclassical, darkwave and synth-rock elements into long, lugubrious songs that occasionally erupt into densely orchestrated bursts of melodrama that would do Danny Elfman proud. She’s so Goth that her “band,” the Ensemble of Shadows, is apparently her nickname for the ghosts and restless spirits who crowd around her and provide inspiration for her work. Sopor Æternus is, in short, probably the Gothiest musical project ever.
Anna-Varney was born male and now identifies as a transgendered female. She took the name Varney from a 19th century Gothic horror novel, later adding the more feminine Anna and eventually the surname Cantodea, Latin for “I sing, Goddess.” She grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and her birth year is commonly listed as 1952, which would make her 61 or 62.
As a child, she had a vision of her future self in a train station, which she described thusly in an interview: “an ageless creature (of undefinable gender), all dressed in black, with a beautiful, kind of pennate black mohawk.” By 1989, the year she first began making music as Sopor Æternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”), she had apparently modeled her appearance on that childhood vision.
Her early music mixed baroque and neoclassical acoustic instruments with synthesizers and drum machines and was generally categorized as darkwave or a then-popular German Goth-rock subgenre called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (“New German Death Art”). But aside from sharing themes of death, despair and the occult, especially vampirism, Cantodea’s music bore little resemblance to that of her contemporaries. After parting ways with an early collaborator named Holger, she worked, by her own account, in near-total isolation, battling chronic depression to compose her music and only enlisting other musicians when it finally came time to enter the studio. She’s continued to make occasional use of synths, but mostly her work now is richly orchestrated chamber music, heavy on strings, horns and more exotic instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords.
Since releasing her debut album, …Ich töte mich…, in 1994, Anna-Varney has released about a dozen Sopor Æternus albums, plus EPs, singles, remix collections and a box set of rarities and demos. Many of her releases come in elaborate, limited-edition packages, accompanied by books of lyrics, stories and photographs—if you search “Sopor Aeternus unboxing” on YouTube, you’ll find at least a dozen videos of fans lovingly removing the shrink wrap from their prized copies of her work. Her latest album, Mitternacht: The Dark Night of the Soul, is due out Sept. 23rd and can already be pre-ordered in one of four different packages, offering various combinations of books, CDs, vinyl and T-shirts.
Anna-Varney remains fairly secretive about her personal life, but she does regularly advocate LGBT causes, veganism and animal rights. She’s really into numerology, specifically the numbers 2, 11, 13 and 4, although she won’t explain what they represent to her. She also won’t explain her interest the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter—she uses a combination of their astrological symbols as a glyph she calls Jusa on all her records, and they appear frequently in her lyrics (especially Saturn), but it’s unclear whether she feels a spiritual connection to them or simply finds them useful as metaphors for death and rebirth.
She’s a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (having set many of his poems to music, including an entire album’s worth of them on 2013’s Poetica: All Beauty Sleeps) and Rozz Williams, the lead singer of the goth-rock band Christian Death, who took his own life in 1998. In fact, she just visited Williams’ shrine at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in L.A. earlier this year. She wrote a blog post about it in which she mostly talks about how much she hated L.A., which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since everything about her music and appearance pre-dates nearly every aspect of this entire city. Still, I hope next time she’s here she’ll come for Dia de los Muertos, or visit the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. L.A.’s a great city for Goths, if you know where to look. But I digress…
We’ll leave you with a few samples of Sopor Æternus’ Goth-tastic music and videos. First up: 2010’s “A Strange Thing to Say,” the first part of her A Triptychon of GHOSTS (or: El Sexorcismo) trilogy. Much of this video was shot in, of all places, Montana, at a ghost town called Bannack. The carousel is in the decidedly non-ghostly Montana town of Missoula, where we can only imagine the townspeople were really confused to see a woman dressed up like Gary Oldman’s Dracula riding the plastic ponies.
Next: “In der Palästra” from 2007’s Les Fleurs du Mal, probably her most famous release. Incidentally, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the warning at the beginning of many of her videos advising that “it’s naturally fabulous, but shows NO signs of humour” is itself a bit of a joke. Many of Sopor Æternus’ best songs and videos have a definite element of camp to them.
Still don’t believe us that some of this stuff is supposed to be funny? Fine, we’ll leave you with “A Little Bar of Soap.” Slippy, slippy, slimy!
We owe thanks to many readers for helping introduce us to the tragic charms of Sopor Æternus: Andres, Rembrandt, Michael from Mexico, Cr0w, Denny, jeanbannon and I’m sure we’re forgetting a few. For someone who never performs live, Anna-Varney has quite the legion of devoted fans.
So as usual, we got something wrong when we first wrote about this week’s weird artiste, the inimitable Mr. Vast. We said he’s from Germany. But that’s not quite right. He is apparently based, at the moment, in Germany. But he’s British. His accent should have tipped us off, but we were probably day-drinking again. Anyway, our apologies to the entire nation of Great Britain for not properly crediting you with bestowing Mr. Vast upon the world.
Mr. Vast is the alter ego of one Henry Sargeant, an actor, musician and performance artist whose previous musical project was (or maybe still is—they’re still releasing music and Sargeant might still be involved) a jokey crew called Wevie Stonder. He relocated to Germany in 2005 and took a break from Art to become a Dad. (Not that those two occupations are mutually exclusive, but the hours are pretty brutal in both.) He returned to music in 2012 as a solo artist called Mr. Vast, making what I shall tentatively describe as tongue-in-cheek New Wave electro-glam-pop until somebody comes up with something catchier to describe his bizarre but surprisingly infectious tunes.
At his best, Mr. Vast reminds us a little of our current favorite Australian weirdo, Kirin J Callinan. Like Callinan, there’s something highly theatrical and fully formed about Mr. Vast, like he’s already a rock star and the world just hasn’t discovered him yet. Also like Callinan, he’s capable of being both unabashedly pop and slightly avant-garde, often in the same song, and doing both in a way that feels both fully committed and slightly tongue-in-cheek. Take, for example, “Teflon Country,” which might be a country-fried psych-rock parody, or it might be actual country-fried psych-rock, albeit one with a junkyard dog impersonation in the middle of it:
That’s from Mr. Vast’s one and only album, by the way, a brilliant, 14-track opus called Grievous Bodily Charm that we pretty much can’t stop listening to. It’s got sci-fi Afro-pop workouts (“Process of Illumination”), fuzz-toned heavy rock freakouts (“Henry the 8th”), Groove Armada-style downtempo makeout music (“Elemental,” which contains the high-five-worthy lyric, “The sangria made me angrier”). You can listen to the whole thing on SoundCloud and decide for yourselves if it’s a masterpiece. We’re leaning towards yes, but it might be the sangria talking.
We’ll leave you with a few videos, because that’s how we do it. First up: An extended experiment in toast physics called “Buttercide.” For the record, this is one of Mr. Vast’s weirder tracks, so if you can’t hang with it, don’t give up on him yet.
Next: The far funkier “Ease & Speed,” which we maintain is best described as Gary Numan meets Professor Elemental (I think last time we said Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer, but hey, po-tay-to, po-tah-to).
And finally, here’s a glimpse of Mr. Vast live and in concert. Well, it’s not so much a glimpse as a bit fat fucking eyeful. Not since David Byrne has oversized costumery looked so sexy.
So we kinda blew this one, guys. For the past three years, the weirdest hip-hop band on the planet has been Death Grips. And before we could get around to adding them to the Weird List, they broke up. Oops.
It’s not like they were toiling in obscurity. If anything, I think we were inclined to pay less attention to them because they were getting so much goddamned attention. Nothing that hyped, that embraced by the mainstream—signed to Epic Records, downloaded over 124 million times on BitTorrent, named one of the best albums of 2012 by NP fucking R—could possibly be that weird, right?
Wrong. Death Grips were a defiant, aggro, unheralded mix of rap, punk rock, noise and electronic glitch that almost gets more mind-blowing the longer you listen to it. And for their short lifespan, they churned out material at such a breakneck pace that even now that they’ve broken up, they’ve still promised fans one last double LP later this year, to go with three full-length albums, an EP and a mixtape, all released over the course of about two and a half years.
They were also totally uncompromising in the way they managed their career. Yes, they signed to a major label, but when that major label wouldn’t release their second LP, No Love Deep Web, less than a year after their first one, they leaked it themselves via BitTorrent (hence that record-breaking number of downloads), complete with cover art featuring the album title scrawled across a half-erect penis. Not surprisingly, Epic Records dropped them shortly after that little stunt.
Then came their breakup last week, which they announced via a scribbled note on a dinner napkin, posted on their Facebook page. “we are now at our best,” the noted began, “and so Death Grips is over. we have officially stopped.” This just weeks before they were scheduled to embark on a massive North American tour opening for Nine Inch Nails. Most of the 5,000-plus comments on the breakup note are variations on this one: “WHY?????” But Death Grips clearly felt they never needed to explain anything they did to anyone.
So what happens now? The band’s most famous member, freak-of-nature drummer Zach Hill, will probably go back to any number of his other projects, the foremost of which is his experimental math-rock band Hella. Producer/keyboardist Andy “Flatlander” Morin will probably make a synth-pop album. Tattooed frontman MC Ride can probably do anything he damn well pleases now, although it’s hard to imagine him ever coming out with anything that matches Death Grips’ intensity.
For those (probably few) of you who still haven’t experienced Death Grips in all their craziness, we’ll leave you with a couple of videos. The first features one of the glitchier moments on their debut mixtape, Ex Military:
Now here’s “No Love” from No Love Deep Web, which captures their balls-out live show. Kinda sucks that these guys may very well never perform together again, doesn’t it?
Finally, we must end this post with a shout-out to the many readers who tried to convince us to pay attention to Death Grips sooner: Patrick S., KrazyTrilla, Matt S., Frostoriuss and Steffon R. You guys totally called it. Death Grips is dead, long live Death Grips.
So we had bad news and good news this week regarding our first-ever Weird Band Night. You know, the one happening Friday, July 11th at the California Institute of Abnormalarts here in Los Angeles, that you’re totally gonna be at? Oh, you live in different time zone? Excuses, excuses! If you’re not there, you’re dead to us.
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh right, bad news and good news. So the bad news is that one of our headliners, Haunted Garage, had to bow out due to, uh, personnel issues. Or more specifically, bass player issues. In fact, if you happen to see Haunted Garage’s ex-bass player in line at Starbuck’s, and you happen to have a sudden uncontrollable urge to, oh I don’t know, pull his pants down, point at his junk and laugh laugh LAUGH hysterically…well, who are we to tell you what you can and can’t do at Starbuck’s? It’s a free country.
So that’s the bad news. Pretty bad, right? For a minute there, we were sure Weird Band Night was dead in the water. Now for the good news: We have ALREADY found an awesome replacement for Haunted Garage in the form of groovy ghoul rockers The Rhythm Coffin. Imagine The Misfits meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets a zombie Ramones cover band and you can see why the reanimated corpse of Weird Band Night is going to be even more fun than its mostly animated original incarnation.
Here’s just one of The Rhythm Coffin’s many dance crazes that are sweeping the underworld.
And here’s a song they do about coffee, which is basically just “Coffin” with two different letters. I just blew your mind, didn’t I? But if you think that’s crazy, get a load of this video. Who knew the undead drank coffee? Finally, something to look forward to in the afterlife. I thought it was all just clouds and harps and shit.
So thanks for rescuing Weird Band Night, The Rhythm Coffin! See you on July 11th.
To Western ears, there are few sounds eerier than the low-frequency groans and drones of traditional Tuvan throat singing. A technique also known as overtone singing, its mechanics have been widely discussed elsewhere and we won’t get into all the specifics styles and variations here. We’ll just say, when practiced by masters of the form like Albert Kuvezin, it’s basically the vocal equivalent of a really cool sleight-of-hand trick. He’s singing in two different frequencies! And one of them is, like, super-super-low! How the hell does he do that?
However he does it, Kuvezin has helped popularize the Tuvan style of throat singing through two groups: the more traditional Huun-Huur-Tu (which he quit shortly after helping to form the band in the early ’90s), and Yat-Kha, which mixes traditional Tuvan and Mongolian folk instruments with guitars and electronics. His original partner in Yat-Kha was Ivan Sokolovsky, a Russian avant-garde musician and composer who found lots of creative new settings for Kuvezin’s highly distinctive take on throat singing (which he calls “kanzat kargyraa”). Here, for example, is the title track from their 1995 album Yenisei Punk, a dizzying mix of flamenco rhythms, rock guitar and Kuvezin’s hypnotic chants:
Actually, Sokolovsky had quit Yat-Kha by the time of Yenisei Punk; the project is now primarily Kuvezin’s, along with a rotating cast of supporting drummers, bassists, guitarists and players of more traditional instruments like the morin khuur. But Sokolovsky’s influence over the band looms large.
Yat-Kha’s most famous release is probably 2005’s Re-Covers, an eclectic collection of Tuvanized versions of popular rock songs, from “Ramblin’ Man” to Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” When we shared their amazing version of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” last month, several readers noted that the Yat-Kha version of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” is even more powerful—and you’re not wrong, people, but that track is unfortunately only available on subscription sites like Spotify. So you’ll have to settle for their version of Iron Butterfly’s ridiculous proto-prog-rock epic, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which is not as awesome as “Levee” but definitely gets bonus points for being one of the weirdest uses of throat singing ever, especially when they give the song a little bit of a Johnny Cash-style boom-chicka-boom cowboy rhythm.
Yat-Kha hasn’t released any new music since their a 2011 live album, Live at the Stray Dog. But they still tour pretty actively, at least in Russia and Eastern Europe, and will hopefully get back into the studio again one of these days. Until then, we’ll leave you with this live video from a 2013 performance in Poland. Is it just us, or does Albert sound a bit like Rammstein‘s Till Lindemann when he’s singing in rock mode? Now there’s a collaboration we’d like to hear.
(Note: Banner photo lifted from the website of Judd’s Hill Winery, a Jewish-owned winery in Napa, which we hear is very nice this time of year.)
Of the various orders and species of weird bands, one of our favorites is the Band Dedicated Beyond All Reason to an Incredibly Specific Joke. These can’t be one-and-done bands; they’ve got to release album after fucking album, for years and years and years, all based around the exact same premise. Within this little subcategory, you’ve got your Zambonis (all songs about hockey), your Beatallica (all Beatles/Metallica mashups) and your Previously on Lost (all songs based on the TV show Lost). Today, we are happy to add to the Weird List another Band Dedicated Beyond All Reason to an Incredibly Specific Joke: Meshugga Beach Party, a Jewish surf-rock band from San Francisco. “Meshugga,” for those of y’all who aren’t part of the tribe, means “crazy” in Yiddish, so these farkakte bastards live up to their billing. They’ve been mixing “Hava Nagila” with “Miserlou” since 2003. 2003! The only thing I’ve been doing consistently since 2003 is disappointing my parents.
But, I hear you say, gimmicks schmimmicks: How’s the music? Well, I gotta tell you, it’s ain’t half bad. Head meshuggener Mel Waldolf has been playing surf-rock for 20 years and even composed music for Spongebob Squarepants and My Favorite Martian, so he knows his way around a twangy solo. And the rest of the band can rip the curl right with him. (Is that how surfers talk? I’m neither Jewish nor a surfer, so I’m flying by the seat of my tuchas here.)
As previously mentioned, Meshugga Beach Party have been around for over a decade, so they’ve released a ton of music, including a Hanukkah album because hey, everybody loves that “Dreidel, Dreidel” song, right? Their other titles include Let’s Go Shlepping! and Twenty Songs of the Chosen Surfers. Most are available via their website, at prices that won’t make you plotz.
By the way, lest there by any confusion: Meshugga Beach Party is in no way affiliated with these guys. That’s a different and much more goyim kind of weird band. Although I’m sure they call their mothers every week, too.
We’ll leave you with MBP’s most famous track, which is indeed a mashup of that song people play even at non-Jewish weddings as an excuse to carry the bride and groom around on chairs, and the Dick Dale track made famous by the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
When Charlie Salas-Humara started his Panther project in Portland, Oregon around 2006, he wasn’t really expecting it to become his main gig. The goal, he said later in a video interview, was “mostly just to irritate people.” Legend has it that for Panther’s first gig, he showed up to an acoustic singer-songwriter night with a drum machine. I’m sure he succeeded in pissing plenty of people off at that gig and others since, but he also produced some of the most entertainingly awkward, tongue-in-cheek electro-funk of the late ’00s. Especially on Panther’s first album, Secret Lawns, on which Salas-Humara comes off like Demetri Martin doing a Beck parody.
Beginning with their second album, 14 KT God, Panther became a duo, thanks to the addition of drummer Joe Kelly. They also signed to Kill Rock Stars, which is hardly the biggest label on the planet but was a pretty huge step up from the tiny Fryk Beat imprint that put out Secret Lawns. Perhaps inevitably, Panther’s KRS output became more accessible, sounding like the work of an actual band rather than a Prince stalker alone in his bedroom. But they still had a knack for quirky videos like “Birds That Move,” from their 2009 swan song EP, Entropy.
As far as we’ve able to discern, Salas-Humara hasn’t released any new Panther music since Entropy. He’s been busy with numerous other projects, including a solo synth-drone joint called Grapefruit; an experimental five-piece called Regular Music that once released an album in the form of a tiny speaker housed inside a CD case; and Sun Angle, a sort of post-rock/punk/cumbia fusion trio. Together it adds up to one of the weirdest and most unique bodies of work we’ve run across in ages, although none of it tops the brilliant absurdity of Panther’s finest moment, a song and video called “You Don’t Want Your Nails Done” that we’ve featured before and will now feature again, because we love it so.
We found this week’s weird band right in our own backyard. One of their videos was even partially shot in the parking lot of the 99¢ Only Store right down the street from Jake’s house. Actually, we found them in our inbox from a reader named William, because we don’t get out much. Which might be just as well, because Foot Village is not the kind of band you’d want to bump into in the dark parking lot of a 99¢ Only Store.
Foot Village is a self-described “drum-n-shout assembly” that makes insanely intense music almost entirely out of percussion and vocals. We’ve covered a lot of other drum-heavy bands on TWBITW over the years—starting with the granddaddies of them all, Boredoms and Crash Worship—but what Foot Village does with this limited palette is pretty special. Sometimes their songs are like invocations of dark, primal forces, and sometimes they’re like a schoolyard beatdown after a drug deal gone bad. In fact, one of their heaviest gut-punch numbers is actually called “This Song Is a Drug Deal,” and it has a video that’s like a William Burroughs short story set at a Coachella after-party.
Foot Village’s music would be intense enough on its own, but they have a knack for making equally intense videos, even when they don’t rely on gobs of black paint to make their point. Here’s the aforementioned 99¢ Only Store video, a disturbingly fresh spin on child abduction set to a thunderous war whoop of a song called “New Jersey.”
And finally, here’s a glimpse of their balls-out live show, filmed at L.A. noise-rock mecca The Smell.