Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Thrones - Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale

AOTM #81, February 2007ce
Released 2000 on Kill Rock Stars
  1. Oso Malo (4.28)
  2. Nuts & Berries (3.08)
  3. Manmtn (7.00)
  4. Acris Venator (2.18)
  5. Django (2.45)
  6. Ephraim (4.16)
  7. The Anguish Of Bears (4.11)
  8. Obolus (11.45 or 45.47)

Note: Considering Joe Preston’s Thrones project has, in the past half-a-decade of our Album Of The Month review series, regularly cropped up throughout main texts and footnotes, it’s more than a little remiss of me to have waited until this Review #81 before getting it together to devote an entire review to this Primal Mover and Earth Shaker. In truth, however, I’ve tried several times to write a review of Thrones only to give up halfway through. But when I went to see Thrones in Bristol last year, the experience was so liberating that I threw off all my previous fears and determined to set to and deliver just as soon as my new book was completed. I figured even if the review was merely average writing, y’all still needed to be clued into this super druid.

One Ubiquitous Motherfucker

Joe Fuckin' Preston

Thrones is a phenomenon, a one-man programmed Heavy Metal phenomenon in which a former member of heavy icons The Melvins and Earth has chosen to lead his audience to Endarkenment by the most circuitous and hazardous road imaginable. Not for Thrones the obvious Sabbath, Kiss and Alice Cooperisms of so many of his contemporaries. Instead, armed mainly with a hugely overdriven (and be-horned) BC Rich bass, a variety of Vocoders and multitudinous other vocal FX from deep within the ancestral sepulchres of Hanna-Barbera, Disney and AAP, plus sporting a truly religious attitude to drum programming that makes the Seventh Day Adventists seem positively Anglican, Joe Preston, on all of his Thrones recordings, bestrides a fertile river valley like some Mythical Being shod with giant-sized Seven League motorbike boots, on one side of him a mountain surmounted by a hilltop temple dedicated to The Residents’ DUCK STAB E.P. period (‘Sinister Exaggerator’, ‘Bach Is Dead’, and ‘Elvis & His Boss’ slowed to 33rpm) whilst on the opposing conical hill is situated a similar temple to the movie soundtrack of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (‘Theme’ and ‘March From…’). For although Thrones was forged in the same fires that have, over the decades, yielded such metal mental cases as Sleep, The Melvins, Earth, Sunn0))), Khanate and their boisterous ilk, Preston’s ‘band’ regularly strays far outside its ‘official’ stamping ground in order to gorge itself on tasty treats from entirely foreign sources, barfing up hairballs the size of Edgar Froese’s ‘Metropolis’ from his Krautglam epic double-LP AGES. Unlike many artists who spread their net so wide, however, the fundamental Thrones sound is comprised of such electro-fistfucking bowel-throb and tinnitus-inducing cymbalism that wherever Preston steers the project, the original influence is immediately transcended purely by the unique rendition of the so-called rhythm section (no one but Preston programmes drum machines with such a curiously caffeinated/ amphetamined/Maximum Strength Caffeine-free Dexatrim ear for detail). This obsessive tendency made his cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s Michael Moorcockian epic ‘Black Blade’ (released on the Southern Lord compilation DAY LATE, DOLLAR SHORT) nothing short of masterful, injecting a groove where previously there was none, and making the nightmare lyrics sound like his own personal experiences; moreover, on that same album Thrones dared to cover the single decent Ultravox song (‘Young Savage’1) ever laid on magnetic tape, proving to me his worth as a musicologist and Master Of Excavation (‘I wanna be anarchy… ologist!’). And another fucking thing, Preston’s brief time in The Melvins yielded their impossibly over-achieving (and impossible to follow) 1992CE masterwork LYSOL, a single 31-minute proto-doom blueprint of a track replete with another great cover of Hard Hearted Alice’s ‘Ballad Of Dwight Fry’ from LOVE IT TO DEATH.2

Melvins' solo albums:

King Buzzo

Dale Crover

Joe Preston

Also during that brief Melvins tenure, when Buzzo, Dale and Joe put out their own Kiss solo album-styled records3, Joe’s it was that copped the biggest feels with its massive side-long album closer ‘Hand’s First Flower’, a blueprint for future Thrones if ever there was one. Like all great artists, keeping track of the Preston oeuvre is a fucking nachtmare, as he hops from one non-corporate project to another, with nere a thunk for the poor impoverished collector, even jumping briefly aboard Matt Pike’s Bronze Age headbangers High On Fire, for Odin’s sake! Which is why this Album of the Month is being served up by me, your ornery but Pragmatic Motherfucker, promised to be your best way into the Temple of Thrones by way of the sacred twin EPs of ‘Spermwhale’ and ‘White Rabbit’, herein reduced to one CD album. In their originally-released format, the four songs from ‘Spermwhale’ were all written in celebration of bears (‘The Anguish Of Bears’, ‘Nuts & Berries’, ‘Oso Malo’ (bad bear) and ‘Ephraim’), whilst ‘White Rabbit’ contained the Buzzo-styled vocals of ‘Man Mountain’, the cover of Louis Bacalov’s amazing Spaghetti Western theme song from the 1966 Sergio Corbucci movie ‘Django’, the brief Space Invaders-sounding instrumental ‘Acris Venator’ and the forty-five minutes of ‘Obolus’ (more than half of which is a field-recording tail-out of cicadas clucking in the olive groves), named after those massive cumbersome rods that the Spartans used in Ancient Greece in place of money to stop people turning into Greedheads. Of course, Joe cunningly mixed up the running orders of both original releases for this new compilation, mercifully saving the cicadas to the end (I’ve asked Holy McGrail to fade it early rather than drive y’all bandanas).

Exeunt Joe Preston, pursued by a bear

Like its predecessor ALRAUNE, SPERMWHALE opens with the kind of statement that sends some gentle souls running out of the room, ‘Oso Malo’ featuring the kind of sledgehammer programmed drumming that can only make its point in a digital format, as the vinyl would inevitably jump all over the place. From the off, generic alien voices chunter to each other in a slowly descending staff elevator as the Preston horned bass charges down a spiral staircase armed with a claw hammer, attempting to block their exit, the merciless punctuations of programmed cymbals sounding as though – as he runs – he’s offing random flies and roaches (and taking out chunks of the wall simultaneously) with that same horrific weapon. ‘I’m pleased you appreciate good wine… have another glass,’ says an arch and cultured English voice, as ‘Nuts & Berries’ kicks off into a kind of Beethoven melody, horribly upended by bass crunch and catchy bastard Vocoder vocal refrain. For me, this is where the A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is at its finest, violence and aversion therapy and bass from the sub-basements of Berlin’s Bunker. The seven minutes of ‘Man Mountain’ (or ‘Man Mtn’, as it’s really named) follows, a raging vocal rant about something I can’t fathom, and propelled solely by the epic Preston bass riffage. Harmony vocals and a disturbed traditional melody lend the song a feel of compassion that makes the listener both disturbed and concerned… just what the fuck is going on here… and should somebody do something about it? The two minutes of ‘Acris Venator’ (Steadfast Hunter) inhabit a space somewhere between the opening of Amon Düül 2’s ‘Dem Guten, Schonen, Wahren’ from PHALLUS DEI and generic Moonlanding theme music, bleeping like an alien’s car alarm forewarning its owner that chav nere-do-wells are plotting its imminent seizure. Then, ‘Avon Calling’ tubular bells announce the arrival of ‘Django’, a programmed 6/8 Spaghetti theme sung in Spanish and propelled by ludicrously over-stimulated drum fills. ‘Ephraim’ is an almighty bass rendition of ‘lone bear lost in the woods’ music, Preston playing a mournful harmonized melody over a pulsing and woofing repeated sub-bass note, followed up by the crushing riffage of ‘The Anguish Of Bears’, again the programmed drumming busting your brain until the whole track opens out into a kind of sub-bass Mick Ronson orchestra of sweet harmonies… a drum break from the bowels of the Mother Earth heralds a screaming aeroplane disaster, before the main riff returns at half the speed and the track tails out in some truly sweet and fully-charged vocal/bass/percussion afterburnup. The album closer ‘Obolus’ commences with pure A CLOCKWORK ORANGE Teutonics, the multi-tracked voices and extraordinarily beautiful harmonies standing midway between Walter Carlos and Seventh Wave’s epic medley ‘Camera Obscura/Star Palace Of The Sombre Warrior’. This huge 3-minute beginning lasts just long enough for the ensuing Thrones riffage to throw us, as the sweet choruses continue, though now accompanied by the agents of sub-bass hell. This vocoded theme continues deep into a kind of doom take on industrial Krautrock, until the cityscape becomes enveloped in mists, and the darkness of nature takes over. The lone voice of an Ancient informs us that an era has passed, the gravel-chewing voice of some sub-sub-subterranean ‘Other’ agrees and the entire soundscape is taken over by the clucking of cicadas. It’s a truly fabulous finale to this epic voyage, and one that concludes far to soon. We can only hope that Joe Preston re-invigorates his Thrones trip in the near future, for his music is epically cinematic and effortlessly reaches the highs and lows of rock opera without ever needing to stoop so low as to tell any actual narrative. To Joe Preston, I cry: “Mein hairy, I salute thee and thy sub-basso profundo! Voyage onwards, Continental drifter, for we shall follow you wherever…”

Right fucking on!

  1. For those too young to know, the John Foxx-fronted early Ultravox had first appeared in 1975 as the Glam Rock post-Biba-styled Tiger Lily, recording for Gull Records. Their sole 7”, a horribly arch sub-Ferry version of Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, appeared back on the shelves in mid-77 just visible enough to embarrass the band, and Foxx in particular, who had formerly been trying to make it under his own name Dennis Leigh. In Liverpool, the audience contribution to the chorus of ‘Young Savage’ when played out at Eric’s punk club was “Spring cabbage… Spring cabbage!”
  2. LYSOL’s sleeve also proclaimed a version of the Coop’s ‘Second Coming’ from the same LOVE IT TO DEATH LP, but it turned out to be one of Buzz’s wind-ups.
  3. As an Englishman who’s been married over twenty years to a Yank, I’m still highly aware of how mysterious it is to we Limeys just how much Gene Simmons’ vocal style has informed the metal generations. As Kiss didn’t mean squat to my comrades, they always thought my wife’s Kiss and other Glamour Come Lately-types were cultural lowlifes. Being married to an American also forced me to re-evaluate such pop-whore bands as Slade and the Sweet, both persona non grata on the British rock pantheon, but lauded as the real deal in Detroit and L.A.

Album Discography
ALRAUNE (The Communion Label 1996)
DAY LATE, DOLLAR SHORT (Southern Lord 2005)

Singles & EP Discography
‘The Suckling’ (Kill Rock Stars 1998)
‘Reddleman’ (Punk In My Vitamins 1999)
‘Senex’ (Soda Girl 1999)
‘White Rabbit’ 12” (Kill Rock Stars 1999)
‘Spermwhale’ 12” (Kill Rock Stars 2000)