Ever since Kronos Quartet tackled Hendrix back in the ’80s, classically trained musicians have been trying to prove that their cellos and oboes are more than just museum pieces, good for wheezing out dusty old “Concertos in B Flat Minor” and not much else. So they trot out string quartet versions of Radiohead, or even Lady Gaga medleys for bassoon, and…well, okay, the Lady Gaga bassoon ensemble, the Breaking Winds, is actually kinda cool. But they’re the exception. Most of this stuff just sounds like a slightly classed-up version of Muzak.
So when a friend and reader named Josh (sup, Josh?) suggested that we check out his buddy’s “heavy chamber music” quartet, we have to admit, we were skeptical. Classical musicians doing heavy metal covers? Apocalyptica covered that territory 15 years ago. Moving on.
Then we actually heard Edmund Welles—which is a band, not a person (the name is a Monty Python reference…I mean, not that I would know that without having to look it up…okay, maybe I would)—and, well, let’s just put it this way: The bass clarinet is an inherently weird instrument. Put four of them together in one group, and it sounds like a chorus of demon cats in heat fighting over a chicken bone. A demon chorus whose eerie caterwaulings just happen to occasionally assemble themselves into passages from Pixies and Nirvana songs.
Edmund Welles is the brainchild of one Cornelius Boots (his given name? if so, his parents rule), who first conceived of the idea of an all-bass clarinet ensemble back in 1996, the same year Apocalyptica was giving Metallica the all-cello treatment. Boots liked heavy metal, too, but he also liked alternative rock, jazz, traditional American folk music, and even good old fashioned baroque classical music, the stuff the bass clarinet was invented to play in the first place. And he was determined to combine all his affections into a single, pulsating mass of bass clarinet awesomeness. This was such a uniquely weird concept that Boots worked on his Edmund Welles project in solitude for several years before finally assembling enough fellow bass clarinetists to begin staging public performances.
In 2004, the group released its first album, Agrippa’s 3 Books, which Boots himself has described as “Muzak for conspiracy theorists,” “inspired by occult philosophy and heavy metal music.” In addition to an original multi-part movement with titles like “Asmodeus: The Destroyer, King of the Demons,” the album also featured covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Sepultura and (no, really) Spinal Tap. They’ve since released a second album of original material called Tooth & Claw, which has cover art that would’ve made the late great Ronnie James Dio smile. Is the bass clarinet the Woodwind of the Beast? Well, now that you mention it, that’s kinda what it sounds like.
Inevitably, Edmund Welles have gotten the most attention for their covers, especially a very solemn reading of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Their original stuff is weirder and ultimately much more interesting, but we’ll give you their version of “Creep” here in the hopes that it serves as a gateway to some of the harder stuff. Sort of the way your local Philharmonic does “The Nutcracker” every Christmas in the hopes that you’ll buy season tickets and come back for some Bartok and Stravinsky.
P.S. Did we mention that Cornelius Boots has also released an album of “sound, not music” called Sabbaticus Rex, featuring “spontaneous, sustained sound structuring” with Japanese flutes, gongs and Tuvan throat singing? Well, he has. Just thought we’d throw that in there.