A lot of readers have been suggesting for years that we add the Swedish group Ghost (or Ghost B.C., as they were briefly called here in the States) to the Weird List. But we never did, because frankly, once you look past their costumed, pseudo-Satanic theatrics, their music is about as mainstream as it gets. Yeah, the guitars shred and churn in a vaguely metallic way, but they still make My Chemical Romance sound like Slayer by comparison. One of the tracks on their latest album, Prequelle, even features a saxophone solo — and not a screeching John Zorn saxophone solo. More like a Supertramp saxophone solo. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s just not even within shouting distance of weird.
But you know what? A band fronted by a Satanic anti-Pope called Papa Emeritus and made up of anonymous, masked minions called Nameless Ghouls playing what amounts to latter-day hair metal (minus the hair) is, we gotta admit, pretty goddamned weird. Especially at this point in the band’s history, when they’ve been at this for over a decade and managed to achieve something dangerously close to mainstream success while still seeming like an elaborate piss-take of metal’s fascination with Satanism.
The genius and/or huckster (depending on how you feel about Ghost’s shtick) behind all this is a guy named Tobias Forge, whose biggest claim to fame pre-Ghost was fronting a moderately successful Swedish death metal band called Repugnant. For years, Forge managed to keep his own identity in Ghost a secret, only speaking to press in the role of a Nameless Ghoul, even though he played Papa Emeritus onstage from the group’s inception. As word that he was Papa Emeritus began to leak out, he even tried to throw fans and press off by repeatedly firing and replacing Ghost’s evil lead singer with new Papa Emerituses (Emeriti?) — Papa Emeritus II, Papa Emeritus III and short-lived fan favorite Papa Emeritus Zero, who teetered onstage with a cane and an oxygen tank. All were played, of course, by Forge, and most Ghost fans seemed to be in on the joke — but it still added to the band’s air of mystery.
Early Ghost albums mixed galloping metal guitars, pop hooks and Forge’s oddly lightweight vocals (he sounds, not unpleasantly, kind of like a Swedish cross between Billie Joe Armstrong and Placebo’s Brian Molko) with the occasional church organ or medieval-sounding choir, making explicit the idea that they were literally worshiping Satan through their music. Think of it as anti-Christian contemporary rock.
Here’s a taste of their live show. We always suspected Satan was really into Carmina Burana and apparently Ghost think so, too.
In early 2017, Forge’s identity was officially revealed when four former Nameless Ghouls sued him, claiming they were all owed back pay, in some cases stretching all the way back to 2010, and that they were denied treatment as equal bandmates in the project. (Forge hasn’t responded to the suit’s financial claims, but has asserted that Ghost is essentially a solo project, as he writes all the music and is the group’s sole constant member.) The suit, as far as we know, is still pending — but that hasn’t stopped Forge from releasing a new Ghost album, Prequelle, and unveiling yet another lead singer character: Cardinal Copia, who in the video for lead single “Rats” seems less like a demonic clergyman and more like a gothed-out version of Jim Carrey’s character from The Mask, complete with some very Michael Jackson dance moves.
Not surprisingly, a lot of metalheads detest Ghost, which kinda makes us like them even more. Even though this line from a recent article by an angry metalhead for Vice is 100% accurate: “Their entire publicity strategy is like a teenager arriving at Christmas dinner with a face tattoo and then screaming, ‘GOD, LEAVE ME ALONE!’ every time someone points it out.”
I hope we didn’t scare you, gentle readers, by going silent for a few weeks there. You might even say we went “Oh So Quiet.” Why? Because we were agonizing over what artist would be worthy enough to be the 300th (300th! Christ, we’re old) addition to our Weird List.
Then, with the force of an erupting Icelandic volcano, it hit us: Somehow, 299 weird acts into this thing, we’d never written about Björk.
Usually with this blog, we’re so busy looking under rocks and in the darkest corners of the internet for the most obscure, esoteric shit that it’s easy for us to overlook an artist of Björk’s stature. She’s sold millions of albums and headlined countless major festivals — including Coachella twice, which was two more times than any female solo artist had ever done it until they finally booked Lady Gaga and Beyoncé these past two years. She’s been the subject of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition and been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by that 145th most influential magazine in the world, Time. She performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics wearing a 10,000-square-foot dress — and somehow, that’s only the second most famous dress she’s ever appeared in.
But make no mistake — as famous and widely beloved as she is, Björk is goddamn weird. Over the course of her solo career, she’s released nine studio albums — not counting a self-titled release from 1977, made when she was 11 — that have gotten progressively more arty and abstract. Starting with 2001’s Vespertine (which featured contributions from our favorite weird electronic/musique concrète Baltimore duo, Matmos), each Björk album has existed in its own little universe, occasionally recalling previous Björk albums but really sounding unlike anything else — despite the fact that, at this point, there are literally thousands of artists out there who would love nothing more than to be compared favorably to Björk.
Most English-speaking audiences didn’t become aware of Björk Guðmundsdóttir until 1987, when her band The Sugarcubes scored a U.K. hit with “Birthday,” a quirky bit of Cure-like, moody yet danceable post-punk that was mostly distinguished by Björk’s astonishing vocals. The video, in which a tangle of emotions cascade across her elfin features with every shriek and growl, made Björk a star in a way that the rest of her band never quite caught up to — so it wasn’t a shock when they split up in 1992, paving the way for her solo career.
On her first album, Debut, it’s still Björk’s voice that commands the most attention — which isn’t a knock on her early music (or The Sugarcubes’ for that matter); it’s just extremely hard to write or arrange songs in a way that’s half as compelling as a full-throated Björk high note. Someone had the brilliant idea around this time to shoot a music video that’s literally just her dancing around the back of a flatbed truck as it slowly drives through the streets of New York. The camera never moves, but it’s one of the most iconic videos of the MTV era, because her performance is that passionate and kinetic. Music seems to possess Björk in a way us mere mortals never get to experience it.
If she’d continued to make songs like “Big Time Sensuality” — a bouncy piece of early ’90s electronic pop now forever known to more casual fans as the “dancing around on the back of a truck song” — Björk probably could’ve become the next Madonna. Heck, with her voice, she could’ve been bigger than Madonna if she’d been so inclined. But even on Debut, her experimental streak was already firmly in place — especially in other music videos like “Human Behaviour,” her first collaboration with the great Michel Gondry, later of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame. Imagine seeing this on MTV in 1993 and thinking, “Wait, is that the Sugarcubes girl? Is that a claymation hedgehog? What the fuck is going on?”
Over her next two albums, Post and Homogenic, Björk developed a reputation for sonic shapeshifting, tackling everything from industrial (“Army of Me”) to trip-hop (“Enjoy”) to chamber-pop (“Joga”) to big-band jazz (“It’s Oh So Quiet,” an old Betty Hutton chestnut taken into bonkers territory by Björk’s shrieks). She also cranked out a remarkable string of groundbreaking videos with some of the top directors of the ’90s, including Gondry (“Hyperballad,” “Bachelorette”) Spike Jonze (“It’s Oh So Quiet”) and Paul White (“Hunter”).
I’m tempted to just post like 10 of Björk’s ’90s videos here because they’re all so great, but if I had to pick just one (well, two, since I already posted “Human Behaviour”) to represent how awesome and weird Björk’s work was in this period, it would have to be “All Is Full of Love,” a spooky ballad co-produced by ambient/trip-hop artist Howie B with a video by Chris Cunningham, one of the all-time music video greats (also responsible for Aphex Twin‘s “Windowlicker” and “Come to Daddy” clips). The robots-in-love video is beautiful and sexy and still kinda disturbing even 20 years later, which considering how acclimated we’ve all gotten to this kind of CGI is a pretty remarkable achievement.
As weird as Björk’s music videos could get in the ’90s, her music remained, for the most part, pretty accessible until 1997’s Homogenic, when she abandoned any overt pop elements in favor of a more dramatic, cinematic sound — lots of strings, slowly unfolding melodies and poetic lyrics that were evocative but oblique to the point of impenetrability (“I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl,” from “Bachelorette,” being the most famous and striking example). She doubled down on that sound with 2001’s Vespertine, on which she took the very cagey extra step of deliberately selecting only instruments that maintain their integrity, relatively speaking, when digitally compressed — celestas, harps, clavichords and “microbeats” made from found sounds, a technique also used by some of her collaborators, including the aforementioned Matmos and another musique concrète master, Matthew Herbert. (If you’re not familiar with Herbert’s amazing work, go watch this mini-documentary about his 2011 album One Pig right now. We’ll wait.)
A word about Björk’s collaborators, because she’s had a lot of interesting ones (Tricky of Massive Attack and Graham Massey of 808 State among them) and they inevitably get brought it up in any discussion of her music, including this one: That’s just what they are, collaborators. She’s fully in control of her own music and has been for most of her career — certainly since Vespertine, on which she’s credited as the sole producer on 10 of the album’s 12 tracks. But since she’s a woman and since of most of her best-known collaborators are men, they tend to get credit for her sound in a way that doesn’t happen with male artists — a double standard Björk herself has called out repeatedly in interviews. “With the last album [Kanye West] did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” she told Pitchfork in 2015. “I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats — it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album.” So let’s be clear: Yes, Björk chooses interesting collaborators to work with and they have some impact on her sound. But at the end of the day, most of that weird shit you’re hearing on her records is all her.
Since Vespertine, Björk’s albums have tended to be highly conceptual in nature. Medulla used lots of layered vocals (including some from Mike Patton, various beatboxers, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis) to express something about the human body: “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh,” she told one interviewer. Her next, Volta, was more percussive, featuring contributions from hip-hop producers Danja and Timbaland (yes, that Timbaland — who is now the answer to the trivia question, “What do Björk and Justin Timberlake have in common?”).
Her 2011 album Biophilia was arguably her strangest and most ambitious project to date — not just an album but a whole multimedia art project, with different apps for each track, and themes built around natural phenomena as metaphors for the human condition. She also experimented with various unusual and custom-made instruments — including a Tesla coil on “Thunderbolt” and something called a gravity harp on “Solstice” — as well as odd time signatures. Three of its tracks are in 17/8 time, which sounds like a music-school dare but does actually give tunes like “Crystalline” a pleasantly off-kilter, elliptical feel.
Biophilia also features what may be my all-time favorite Björk video, for the track “Mutual Core,” which is all about how human relationships are like plate tectonics, or something. Directed by a genius visual artist named Andrew Thomas Huang, it uses CGI animation effects to make what appears sand, rock and yarn perform an elaborate mating ritual.
Björk’s two most recent albums, Vulnicura and Utopia, were co-produced by a Venezuelan electronic artist called Arca who’s pretty amazing and weird in his own right; check out this video (warning: seizure-inducing strobes for days) for proof. His involvement seems to have pushed Björk into some of her darkest and most experimental territory yet. Here’s an especially far-out track from Vulnicura, “Family,” which also features production work from U.K. ambient/drone artist The Haxan Cloak. Creeping doom Björk is my favorite kind of Björk — though it takes a delightful, unexpected twist around the 3:08 mark.
Vulnicura was a breakup album, which could account for its dark tone. Utopia, released last year, is warmer and more hopeful (Björk called it, slyly, her “dating record”). But its music, which features a shit-ton of flutes, is just as bonkers. And its videos are, if anything, some of her weirdest yet. If you’re both repulsed and oddly turned on by this clip for “Arisen My Senses” (directed by frequent Arca collaborator Jesse Kanda, who specializes in creating misshapen, organic forms), don’t worry — you’re not alone. No? It’s just me who’s oddly turned on? OK, I can live with that.
I’ve seen Björk live twice — once at Coachella in 2007, where I remember her playing a massive light-up keyboard that I can’t seem to find any video of, and once here in L.A. at a festival called FYF last year. I found both performances to be a little underwhelming — but to be honest, I didn’t really “get” Björk in 2007, and even since coming to her appreciate her music more, I find it hard to connect with at festivals, where many of its subtleties get lost, in my opinion. Not that my opinion matters — at both shows, thousands of fans around were eating up her every move. And anyway, it’s not the job of an avant-garde artist like Björk to be a crowd-pleaser. She’s always defied expectations, both with her music and how she presents it — and if sometimes punters like me don’t “get it,” that’s par for the course.
Maybe I would have felt differently about her FYF performance if it had featured the woodland creature flute army she brought with her to a recent appearance on Later … With Jools Holland. It was her first TV performance in eight years and a great reminder that, no matter how high she ascends into the pantheon of contemporary musical artists, Björk remains weird as fuck.
Weird music lost one of the greats this week. Glenn Branca, who probably did more for the electric guitar than anyone since Les Paul, died on Sunday, May 13 of throat cancer at the age of 69. He leaves behind a beautiful, occasionally terrifying body of work that stretches back to the earliest days of New York’s No Wave scene right through to his recent experiments with traditional orchestras and 100-guitar symphonies. Any number of guitar- and noise-based bands we’ve written about in the past, from Boredoms to Sunn O))), owe him a huge debt.
Branca was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1948 and got his start in the arts doing experimental theater in Boston. Like a lot of creative misfits of his generation, he was ultimately drawn to New York, where he formed a band called Static, later renamed Theoretical Girls, with a conceptual artist named Jeff Lohn. With Branca and Lohn on guitars, Lohn’s girlfriend Margaret DeWys on keyboards, and future Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers on drums (they usually dispensed with bass, though sometimes took turns playing one), Theoretical Girls helped define the short-lived No Wave scene that took the primitivism of punk rock and gave it an arty, dissonant twist. Only a dozen or so songs by Theoretical Girls were ever recorded, but they show Branca’s early interest in rock instrumentation as blunt force object, with a furiously percussive quality that builds and builds on every song until it makes your heart race.
Even before Theoretical Girls broke up in 1981, Branca had begun his own solo experiments, starting with a two-track EP in 1980 called Lesson No. 1 on which he combined No Wave with the avant-garde minimalism of composers like John Cage and Philip Glass, jamming around a single chord with a small orchestra of musicians to achieve a sound that was harsh but also somehow weightless.
He followed that up a year later with what many regard as his masterpiece, The Ascension, which used four guitars in various alternate tunings — including one played by future Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo — to create all sorts of crazy dissonance and unexpected overtones. It’s a brilliant piece of experimental art, but on another level it works as just a great, balls-out rock record, with moments that could pass for Television or The Stooges and other moments that still, to this day, don’t sound quite like anything else anyone’s recorded with electric guitars as the dominant instrument.
We hardly ever embed full album streams because everyone’s got the attention span of a cat on speed these days. But if you’ve never heard The Ascension, stop whatever you’re doing, crank up your good speakers, and blast this shit. (If you’re on the fence, maybe it’ll help to know it was one of David Bowie’s favorite records, which might explain that weird Tin Machine phase he went through a decade later. Or not.)
In later years, Branca continued to experiment with harmonics by building his own instruments — most famously, a double-bodied beast he called a “harmonics guitar” (seen in the photo above, and in this short video clip) that, according to its creator, could play “up to 32 to 64 different harmonics on each string depending on how it’s tuned.” (Side note: In 2015, Branca put the harmonics guitar up for sale on eBay, where it sold to some lucky bastard for a measly $787.) He also made “mallet guitars” designed to be played with drumsticks, like a zither or dulcimer, as well as developing his own tuning systems and harmonic theories.
But he always returned to his first love, the guitar. In a fascinating video interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2014, he talked about getting his first guitar at 15, which was so crappy, with strings an inch off the fretboard, “I had to squeeze the music out of the thing” — an experience that seemed to set him up for the drastic guitar experiments he would conduct later in life.
None of those experiments was more gob-smacking than his symphonies for 100 guitars, the first of which was performed at the base of the World Trade Center in New York in June of 2001, just a few months before 9/11. Subtitled Hallucination City, Branca’s Symphony No. 13 was noise taken to its most sensory-overload extreme, as those 100 guitars flooded seemingly every frequency in the full sonic spectrum, creating a locust-swarm wall of chiming, droning overtones that, one imagines, must have left the audience feeling like they really had just hallucinated the whole thing.
In that Louisiana Museum of Modern Art interview, Branca says, “I don’t believe in this concept of objectivity. I hate it. This idea that we should all think the same way about things as the rest of us. That’s bullshit. We all see things in our own way and that’s a subjective idea.” To that end, he spent his entire career making music that, he hoped, would be ambiguous or even disorienting enough that each listener could respond to it in their own, totally subjective way. There are very few lyrics in Branca’s music, and never any overt messages, “so that the conscious mind — the one that’s been ingrained in us since we were children — would be broken open and allow us to have more access to our subconscious. Because we’re searching for: Exactly what is this that we’re listening to?”
With that, we’ll break your mind open with one last Branca composition: the first movement to his final 100-guitar symphony, No. 16 (Orgasm), captured here in Paris in its 2015 premiere performance. Rest in peace, Mr. Branca, and thanks for all the noise. May a choir of dissonant angels sing you into the void.
We’re big fans of breakcore here at TWBITW. Whether it’s the tongue-in-cheek, piss-take version favored by Anklepants, the booty bass hybrid pioneered by Otto von Schirach or the “baroquecore” classical-meets-glitch mayhem of early Igorrr, breakcore is just inexhaustibly weird. So I’m not sure how we managed to avoid adding genre godfather Venetian Snares to The Weird List, but we’ll fix that right now.
Snares, as he’s known to fans, was born Aaron Funk in Winnipeg, Manitoba — a Canadian city where there’s so little to do (one Venetian Snares album is actually called Winnipeg Is a Frozen Shithole) that young Aaron used to entertain himself by riding his bike around looking for objects to bang on, recording the sounds on a boom box, then playing those sounds back into another boom box to layer them on top of each other. “Then I would do cut-ups or pause-ups of those tapes to create a more startling rhythmic effect,” he told Trebuchet magazine in 2004. “A strange ritual in retrospect.” No kidding.
From those early cut-up experiments, Funk graduated to using OctaMED and Cubase to produce the increasingly intricate, assaultive drum programming for which he’s still best-know. Venetian Snares never met a 4/4 tempo he couldn’t twist into something that sounds like a drum machine having a seizure. Here’s an aptly titled taste of his early work, from 1999.
You can hear some Aphex Twin influences in there, as well as other mid-’90s acts later associated with the breakcore tag like Alec Empire and Nasenbluten. But even at this early stage, Venetian Snares (he came up with the name because his densely cascading snare rolls sounded, as he put it, “like running a pencil down Venetian blinds“) was clearly on some other shit.
From there, Snares’ sound mutated from album to album almost as unpredictably as his drum breaks. He chopped up jazz and pop samples on Higgins Ultra Low Track Glue Funk Hits 1976-2002 and The Chocolate Wheelchair Album; played chicken with orchestral music on 2005’s mind-blowing Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (Hungarian for Born Under a Bad Sign); and collaborated with Austrian producer Rachael Kozak, best-known under her alias Hecate, on an album called Nymphomatriarch made up entirely of sampled sounds of them having sex. (Surprisingly, despite its highly unusual genesis, Nymphomatriarch is actually one of the least bizarre-sounding things in Aaron Funk’s discography. Less surprisingly, Kozak’s role in co-producing the album has often been met with sexist condescension in the media, prompting her to write a lengthy blog post in 2016 defending herself.)
More recently, Funk has undertaken what may be his most unlikely collaboration yet: teaming up fellow Canadian Daniel Lanois, best-known as U2’s co-producer (with Brian Eno) and creator of his own starkly beautiful ambient music, featuring lots of pedal steel guitar. Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois, which just came out this month, takes that steel guitar and juxtaposes it against Snares’ fractured breakbeats to often startling effect. It’s not the first time glitchy electronic music has been combined with pedal steel — that honor, to the best of my knowledge, goes to Luke Vibert, aka Wagon Christ, who did an album called Stop the Panic with British steel guitarist B.J. Cole in 2000. But where that album went for a jaunty, tropical vibe, Lanois and Snares come up with something way more eerie, experimental and unexpected. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year so far, weird or otherwise.
But if that’s not odd enough for you, I’ll leave you with the title track from Snares’ 2014 album, My Love Is a Bulldozer. Just when you thought Aaron Funk’s music couldn’t get any more off the rails, he starts singing about his dick.
A few months ago, we received an email that began with the words, “Greetings Weirdest Band in the World from The Current Earthly Embodiment of Lord Mandek Penha!”
Lord Mandek — or The CEE, as he seems to prefer to be called — went on to explain that he is the leader of a North Korean-based cult called The Church of Sarrean Alignment (C.S.A.), which recently relocated to Melbourne, Australia because, you know, recruiting new members for your cult is tricky when you’re based in the most closed society on the planet. He’s also now trying to launch himself as a pop star, because I guess that’s the best way to recruit cult members nowadays, or something. Actually, I’m not entirely clear on what the music has to do with the cult and vice versa, but it doesn’t really matter when it leads to wonderfully bizarre music videos like this one:
Mandek Penha may or may not be the creation of an Australian performance artist, but rather than speculate on his identity, it’s far more fun to buy into the elaborate mythology he’s created around Mandek Penha and his church. Apparently the Church of Sarrean Alignment dates back to 1350 and exists to spread love and fight the evil influence of an ancient race of beings called The Hish’ry Cosh’ry, who spread Hidden Negative Energy through their many emissaries on Earth, the Hish-Pigs — whose ranks include Rod Stewart (saw that one coming) and, uh, Louis Armstrong. (Sorry, Lord Mandek, we here at TWBITW will forever love Satchmo. Does that make us Hish-Pigs?) I would’ve assumed Bon Jovi was definitely a Hish-Pig, but judging from this video, he’s actually a high priest in the C.S.A.
There’s way more about Mandek and his cult church on his website, but the cosmology is way too complicated to fully explain here. Suffice it to say the C.S.A. promises eternal life to all its followers in an alternate world called South Sarra — black-and-white Nikes and Kool-Aid consumption optional, one hopes. Also, The CEE is currently seeking Brides (and really, what cult leader worth his salt isn’t?) that he can impregnate to bring forth into the world the Future Earthly Embodiment. Through mechanisms that aren’t quite clear to me — possibly because I haven’t yet joined the church and achieved enlightenment, or possibly because I am unwittingly a Sarrean Interloper — it’s apparently already known that this next Current Earthly Embodiment will be female. In fact, she already has her own EP, Our Future: The Next Earthly Embodiment, which came out back in 2012. Here’s a video from it, which also provides a glimpse of Church of Sarrean Alignment educational methods.
If you want to join the Church of Sarrean Alignment, you can, of course. Here’s a list of current members, ranked according to their level of enlightenment, or something. And here’s a registration form for new church members, which asks them to list their strengths and weaknesses and “accept the total spiritual authority of The Current Earthly Embodiment, and every Embodiment of Lord Mandek Penha for the rest of our time on Earth.” The form doesn’t ask you to send money, which is just one of several clear indications that despite some superficial resemblances to Scientology and the people in that crazy Wild Wild Country Netflix documentary, this is definitely, totally not a cult. Look, Lord Mandek even got a bunch of his followers to make a video called “We Are Not Cult” to prove it.
There, don’t you feel better? I know I — wait a second, is that longtime friend of the blog Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin in there doing the “We Are Not a Cult” dance? Holy shit, it is! Petunia, for the love of pete, get the fuck out of there!! IT’S A GODDAMN CULT!!!
Oh yeah, I almost forgot the most important part, and the whole reason The CEE graced us with his email communiqué in the first place: Mandek Penha has a new album out! It’s called Our Present: The Current Earthly Embodiment and it’s available now via Bandcamp for a mere $20, which includes a poster and Lord Mandek’s undying (no, really, he’s a multidimensional immaterial being who lives forever) gratitude. I can attest that playing it on repeat does not automatically indoctrinate you into the Church of Sarrean Alignment, but it does ward off Hidden Negative Energy. And Rod Stewart. I haven’t seen him once since I started listening!
I’ll leave you with the final track from Our Present, “Must Reach IMZ,” which gives you a pretty good idea of the overall vibe of the album — alternately melodramatic and catchy synth-pop, punctuated by lots of choral vocals and the occasional sax solo. Oh, and “IMZ” are an ancient alien race and the sworn enemies of The Hish’ry Cosh’ry. Followers of Mandek Penha will eventually merge their DNA with that the IMZ, or something. Sorry, I’m not good at explaining religious stuff. My entire religious upbringing consisted of my parents giving me an illustrated children’s Bible on my 10th birthday and saying, “Let us know if you have any questions.”
Lots of punk bands go through members faster than they go through safety pins, but usually it takes them a decade or three to rack up truly impressive, Social Distortion-like numbers. The Verboden Boys, however, have amassed a small army of members in a much shorter span of time through a method far more intriguing than the usual drug overdoses and “creative differences”: They’re a franchise punk band, with chapters in cities all over the world.
Founded in 2015 by Dennis Tyfus, a Belgian artist, musician and head of punk label Ultra Eczema Records, and fellow musician Josh Plotkin, the original Verboden Boys chapter was based in Antwerp and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, played one gig — with Tyfus on “too loud vocals and synth” and Plotkin on drums — before breaking up. But fear not, for that one performance — all 14 minutes of it — lives on thanks to the Internet gateway to immortality that is YouTube.
Tyfus’ franchise concept behind Verboden Boys lives on, too — sort of.
Originally Tyfus laid down some ground rules each chapter had to follow: no songs longer than two minutes, all songs had to pull from the same list of titles (though beyond the titles, they could apparently sound like pretty much anything) and all chapters had to perform on the same day. Amazingly, he appears to have pulled off that last rule on May 18, 2015, the date of the Antwerp chapter’s first (and only?) performance. A Verboden Boys playlist on YouTube, put together by the Tapeways label, is full of performances by other Verboden Boys chapters apparently playing on that same day, mostly elsewhere around Antwerp (the Deune and Borgerhout chapters) but also in Melbourne, Montreal and, of all places, Easthampton, Massachusetts. I spent three years in grad school not far from Easthampton and I can assure you that even though the Pixies got their start in that corner of the world, it is one of the least punk-rock places you can imagine. So rock the fuck on, Easthampton chapter of The Verboden Boys. You’re like a punk-rock Alamo out there amidst the leafy splendor of rural New England.
Since 2015, there hasn’t been much activity in Verboden land — with one notable exception. Earlier this year, The Verboden Boys’ Belfast chapter released an album called Band From Reality (The Complete Demos) that takes the basic template of Tyfus’ original — shouty, over-driven synth-punk — and amps it up roughly 5,000 percent, until almost every track is just a few seconds of shrieked vocals, short-circuited synths, blast beats and random noise. The whole thing can be listened to in just over 17 minutes — or seven if you skip “Never Die,” the 10-minute closing track that’s basically an ambient, post-coital comedown from the violent ear-fucking of tracks like “Homeless With a Drum Machine” and “Nazi Synthesizer.” Among the things they’ve tagged it with on Bandcamp are “terrorcore” and “synthetic hypergrind,” both of which are pretty apt descriptors.
Verboden Boys (Belfast Chapter) were introduced to us by Chris Storey from Doggy Bag Records, the label that had the balls to unleash this stuff upon an unsuspecting populace. Even Storey wasn’t quite sure what had become of all the other chapters, but noted that, “to my knowledge, the Belfast chapter is the most unhinged.” We’d have to agree.
If you’re interested in starting a new Verboden Boys chapter of your own — well, you can probably just go ahead and do it. Asking permission isn’t very punk, now is it? But if you want to be all up-and-up about it, you could try sending a message to Dennis Tyfus via his label as firstname.lastname@example.org. Who knows? Maybe if enough new chapters spring into action, he’ll even revive the Antwerp original.
[Note: This post originally neglected to mention Josh Plotkin as co-creator of the Verboden Boys concept. Sorry, Josh!]
Even in a genre where having multiple aliases is practically a job requirement, few hip-hop artists have cycled through characters as frenetically as Kool Keith. Over the course of his 30-odd-year (emphasis on “odd”) career, he’s rapped under the names Black Elvis, Big Willie Smith, Dr. Dooom, Keith Korg, Poppa Large, Mr. Nogatco and (my personal favorite) Underwear Pissy, to name but a few. But his weirdest and most beloved alter ego is the one under which he recorded his now-classic debut solo album, Dr. Octagonecologyst, in 1996: Dr. Octagon.
Produced by Dan the Automator, who would go on to work with everyone from DJ Shadow to Gorillaz to Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom project, and featuring turntable wizardry by DJ Qbert of Invisibl Skratch Piklz fame, Dr. Octagonecologyst sounded like nothing else happening in hip-hop at the time. Over trippy sci-fi beats that were as likely to sample Kraftwerk or Bartok as Whodini or Kurtis Blow, Keith rapped seemingly stream-of-consciousness nonsense that, upon closer examination, revealed the mythology of his Dr. Octagon persona: a shapeshifting alien surgeon and gynecologist from Jupiter, with green and silver skin, sent to Earth to perform medical experiments on humans and bang the occasional nurse. It’s surreal, filthy, funny and as dense with pseudo-scientific jargon as a William Gibson novel.
Ever restless, Keith killed off Dr. Octagon just a few years after Dr. Octagonecologyst with a new, harsher character, a deranged serial killer named Dr. Dooom who murders Doc Ock in the first 40 seconds of his “debut” album, First Come, First Served. Keith stepped back into the Octagon, so to speak, with the The Return of Dr. Octagon in 2006, but Dan the Automator and Qbert weren’t involved and the good Doctor, unhappy with both the production and his label at the time, disassociated himself with the album before it was even released.
But this week, the dynamic trio behind Dr. Octagon reunite to bring us Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripulation, the first proper Octagon album in 22 years. Are they as unhinged as ever? Damn right they are.
A little more about Kool Keith, for those not familiar: Born Keith Thornton in the Bronx in 1963, he came up in hip-hop’s formative years as part of Ultramagnetic MCs, whose 1988 album Critical Beatdown is one of those records you probably know even if you think you don’t. Even in those early days, he was always considered slightly unhinged — so much so that when he once joked during an interview about spending time in a mental hospital, everyone assumed he was serious. In addition to being a dizzyingly nimble rapper, he’s also a gifted producer and multi-instrumentalist — and of course he does all that under yet another pseudonym, Number One Producer. He allegedly once said that because of all his otherworldly alter egos, “I don’t even feel like I’m a human being any more.”
Speaking of those alter egos, it’s worth noting that Dr. Octagon is hardly Kool Keith’s only outlet for weirdness. He’s also explored sci-fi themes under his own name (for example, on Black Elvis/Lost in Space, his only major label album), dabbled in cannibalism and necrophilia with his horrorcore group Thee Undertakerz, and indulged in some serious scat play as Underwear Pissy — remember him? (“Leave a bag of horse shit on your dresser” has to be one of the greatest, most random threats in all of hip-hop.)
Moosebumps is streaming over at NPR (we’re sure Ira Glass and Terry Gross are big fans) and available for pre-order (or purchase, depending on when you’re reading this) here. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with an amazing video from Keith’s last solo album, 2016’s Feature Magnetic. This track, “Super Hero,” features another brilliantly weird rapper called MF Doom, one of many MCs Keith has influenced over the years (a list that also includes Eminem, Busdriver, Del the Funky Homosapien, Atmosphere and even Insane Clown Posse — and yes, Keith has played the Gathering of the Juggalos).