Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Residents - Eskimo

The Residents
Eskimo


Released 1979 on Ralph
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 25/11/2001ce


The Residents make concept albums, or as John Oswald puts it: ‘unified and inter-referential aggregates’. Don’t let this put you off, though. The Residents have been saving the concept album from its worst excesses of bombast and self-indulgence for over two decades now. Each Residents album is a ‘unified aggregate’ in that each starts from an idea which holds the 45 minute journey together. What is so significantly different about The Residents is that they use the initial idea as the springboard for some of the most perplexingly fascinating music you are ever likely to hear. The Residents’ world is a mischievous place where even their own heroes and influences are frequently unceremoniously slaughtered in cover versions of uncompromising oddness. The Residents also manage to avoid accusations of kookiness and weirdness-for-the-sake-of-it, by virtue of their apparent conviction that this music is not difficult. It’s actually normal, as long as you have Residential ears on. Resident ears don’t make the listener feel like a kook at all. They reveal instead a David Lynch-ian world inhabited by grotesques and simultaneously silly and frightening characters, events and emotions. Welcome to the sound of pop and rock music as heard through the filter of a severe ‘flu fever in a darkened room.

So, to ‘Eskimo’. The Residents are arch myth-makers, and of all their albums this one seems to have the greatest amount of myths and legendary stories attached to it. I won’t go into the foggy rumours here, as you can find out far more about this elsewhere. Suffice to say though, that one story has it that The Residents, in dispute with their record company, ran away to England with the master tapes of this recording, that they thought it was possibly pushing too far into pretentious territory and that it almost never saw the light of day. Thank goodness it did, as it’s my favourite Residents album, or at least the one I play most. Every winter it comes out to chill me to the bone with its ice-cold invocations.

Unlike most Residents albums this tells its story not song by song, but as one long tone poem. Although divided into six tracks, the album plays as a whole, and in the liner notes the listener is told that ‘Eskimo should be played in its entirety. A relaxed state of mind is essential’. Instead of relying on the music to tell the story, liner notes are provided, which the listener is encouraged to read along with the music.*

The whole album is an ethno-forgery of enormous proportions. Eno has said that this album was instrumental in the formulation of the general idea for ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ in that he wanted to create a psychedelic vision of Africa in a way that, with this album, The Residents had evoked a psychedelic vision of the North Pole. The Residents are alleged to have constructed many of their own instruments for this recording which were supposedly tuned to Eskimo tunings (a definite nod to Harry Partch), and one of this album’s strengths is the difficulty of identifying the instruments being used.

Side One begins with ‘The Walrus Hunt’. A biting synthesised polar blizzard wind blows and is continually blowing throughout this album, rising and falling as we travel through this unforgiving terrain. Just as you think you’re about to find yourself hearing ‘Sense of Doubt’ from “Heroes” an ominous mammoth tusk horn line circles around evoking slow trudging through horizontal blizzards. Group falsetto chanting begins, sounding like a mantric listing of arctic deities. Icy, watery sounds conjure up images of hunters paddling canoes through ice-cold water. Then the muffled sound of struggling and the walrus-kill mix with the sound of excited tribesmen. The arctic wind rises segueing this track into ‘Birth’. Watery drumming and more chanting follow, as a strange wind instrument plays a haunting figure round and round. The wind rises and the group ritual is replaced by a stratospheric synth-line which evokes the loneliness and cold isolation of the landscape. The tribesmen are soon back, chanting and slowly drumming in vigil, along with the haunting synth line as an elder then chants an invocation over an expectant mother whose labour groans give way to the sound of a crying new-born. We leave the mother and child’s igloo to return to the frozen wind. ‘Arctic Hysteria’ begins with a lone Eskimo chanting whilst picking at a seal-gut stringed instrument. As he speeds up the wind gets stronger and stronger until it is an ear-piercing screech: swirling, pulling and biting. The whole thing disappears down a synthesised vortex, as group chanting and muffled drumming begins again. Icicle-drop and distant generator synth fade in, as a huge, mechanical Western snow-eating machine looms. The wind screeches again, as the tribe begin chanting in a more westernised version of their dialect. The lone Eskimo with his strange strings re-appears, only to be whited out by a digital blizzard. The whole tribe convene for a celebratory chant and dance in ‘The Angry Angakok’. Various male members of the tribe shout to be heard, as the women and the wind compete for aural dominance. The sounds of western technology intrude once more, before a strange atmospheric phenomenon whips up a throbbing snowstorm, sending the tribe running for their igloos.

‘A Spirit Steals a Child’ starts with the omnipresent wind, as a tribal gathering results in very strange music involving clapping, various percussion and stringed instruments, and the chanting of the people. The cries of a child are replaced by hallucinatory spirit voices flying around. The tribe’s chanting becomes dominant again, lead by a burly leader and fading away with the words ‘We don’t know how to pray…’. Next the sound of barking and whining dogs and whips as men speed across the ice, accompanied by an urgent musical figure. The tribe’s leader invokes the power of a deity, and the hallucinatory spirit voices re-appear. ‘The Festival of Death’ begins with the tolling of a bell and a twisted drum-machine rhythm is accompanied by tribesmen whistling in imitation of the wind. A full-on Death Dance begins with the whole tribe singing or playing in unison. Songs are sung and played on various instruments of indeterminate origin, the words occasionally hinting at comprehensibility. A pretty conclusion is drawn as marimba lines and synths play a greeting to the approaching glistening spring sunshine.

This album has a strange integrity to it which presents an intriguing incongruity between the evident ‘forgery’ status of its recording and its almost believable anthropological roots. It really does sound like someone has spent a whole winter of research in the North Pole to achieve this. It’s not a Residents cartoon vision of Eskimo life at all, you really do feel like you’ve tasted what it’s like to be there when you’ve listened to this album from beginning to end, even if it is undeniably through the eyes of a group of the strangest musicians you are likely to find in any record collection. This album is also packaged in one of the most beautiful covers of any record I have come across. Lacking all reference to group name or title, it says what it is merely by looking at it. The Residents in tuxes, eyeball heads and beautiful black and white cardboard cut-out iceberg and northern lights scenery, all with a fifties Hollywood sheen. I love it so much it’s the only record sleeve I’ve framed and hung on my wall.

For me ‘Eskimo’ is The Residents’ finest flower. For a chilly, dark winter’s evening listen to this album with the lights dimmed, and a fertile imagination. Oh, and as they say themselves in the liner notes, ‘warm clothing or a blanket should be within easy reach.’

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* I have not looked at these notes whilst reviewing this album, so as not to end up simply regurgitating this imagery. Consequently, my interpretation of what I heard sometimes diverges significantly from The Residents’ original intentions.


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