By Christopher Nosnibor
I write unashamedly as a fan first and a critic second when it comes to JG Thirlwell’s work. But it isn’t because I’m blinded by awe that this man can do no wrong; I’m blinded by awe because he can do no wrong. No fence sitting here: JG Thirlwell is the only artist I can name who has produced such a body of work that demonstrates such a staggering stylistic diversity while maintaining not only a basic standard of quality, but has without fail excelled and exceeded expectations every single time. His enduring appeal as an artist – and the man is a true artist, not only musically, but as the designer of his own album covers and in broader aesthetical terms – is equally attributable to his keen intelligence, his dedication, and his unswerving integrity. Even with a short-lived deal with Sony in the 90s, it would be impossible to accuse him of selling out.
Soak, the counterpart (or, as it’s referred to on the website, ‘sequel’) to 2010’s Hide is predictably brilliant. Immersive, by turns challenging and compelling, grandiose and intimate, it continues the trajectory of the Foetus releases of the last decade, while continuing to expand and explore new terrain. But while Flow and Vein were fairly straightforward remix albums to accompany Blow and Love respectively, Soak only features one remixed track from its predecessor, in the form of the Secret Chiefs 3 reworking of the album’s first track ‘Cosmetics.’ And while much of the material was recorded during the same sessions that yielded Hide, Soak is no second-rate collection of outtakes and cast-offs. As the three-year gap suggests, Thirlwell’s been developing the compositions to a point whereby Soak stands, and triumphs, as an album in its own right.
The very first track, ‘Red and Black and Gray and White’ slings it all in with bombastic brass and yes, we’re on familiar ground in many ways, but it feels good, and Thirlwell certainly doesn’t skimp on the drama. ‘Pratheism’ follows immediately after, and it too brings on the bombast with soaring choral tracks and monumental orchestral strikes and dramatic surges of strings. It sounds like it should have been on the soundtrack to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Of course it does. Ever since Hole in 1984, there’s been a sense of the filmic, the epic about Thirlwell’s work across his myriad incarnations. It came to prominence on Nail, and through his work as Manorexia, Steroid Maximus and of course, his scoring for The Venture Bros, the cinematic ambition of Thirlwell’s work has been a defining element of his unstintingly unique sound. Yes, whatever Thirlwell does, or has done – and he’s done a lot, from clanking electro-industrial sleaze as Wiseblood and Flesh Volcano to beautiful neoclassical compositions as Manorexia – remains somehow distinctly Thirlwell.
‘Warm Leatherette’ broods and stalks, orchestral strikes and stalking bass, JG’s subterranean vocals prowling around the lower end of the frequency scale, skulking toward the bottom of the mix while strings and horns burst into a catastrophic maelstrom.
‘Kamikaze’ is a remarkably simple piano-led pop tune with a deeply melancholy edge, reminiscent of ‘Paper Slippers’ from 2010’s Hide, to which Soak is pitched as a counterpart, and equally Beatles-esque in its use of melody (think ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by way of a reference point). ‘Spat’ also manages to convey an emotional depth, before riding off on a rampant burst of brass and swerving into stabbing drama, and ultimately, it’s a strong set that holds up against the best of Thirlwell’s recent work, either as Foetus or any of his other pseudonyms.
Thirlwell being Thirlwell, he’s not content to bring us one magnum opus, but two simultaneously. For many years his works have sounded like scores for films that don’t exist. Now he’s doing the work he was born to do, composing soundtracks for actual films. Not that this is by any means his first. Not only has he been scoring the cartoon The Venture Bros since 2003, but also provided the soundtrack to Jonathan Weiss’ film adaptation of JG Ballard’s legendary ‘novel’ The Atrocity Exhibition back in 2000.
Eva Aridjis’ supernatural thriller, funded via Kickstarter, is about a couple from New York who travel to Chiapas and have an encounter with a shape-shifting witch who is connected to them through events in the distant past, which they are unaware of. Such a synopsis warrants a soundtrack that packs a punch, without being corny, and there’s no doubt that Thirlwell was the man for the job. I will admit I haven’t seen The Blue Eyes, but the soundtrack has convinced me it’s a film I need to see. Lusciously orchestrated, with subtlety, brooding dramatics and incredible range of atmosphere, it’s everything you’d expect JG to deliver for a film score.
The Blue Eyes is nothing like the Venture Bros or indeed anything else JG’s done, including his recent Manorexia work. More subdued, more subtle, less overtly ‘action,’ it’s nevertheless a compelling piece of scoring and again evidences Thirlwell’s capacity to gauge and manipulate mood. ‘The Temple’ centres around a sparse, brooding piano (playing a motif that recurs variously and hauntingly throughout the soundtrack), which is subsequently joined by low, sonorous cello and later still, twitchy violins, before ‘Courtyard Dogs’ introduces military drumming and dark ambience, but turns, creating drama and suspense. ‘The Shack’ brings it all down to a low bass throb before those classic vibrato strings creep under the door, a slowly meandering horn adding depth, eventually building to a teeming crescendo… yes, it’s all there. A perfect soundtrack, that sounds and feels like a soundtrack, but also stands alone as a magnificent orchestral work that borders on classical in many places.
As contrasting and complimentary releases, Soak and The Blue Eyes are striking, supremely accomplished and totally absorbing. In short, nothing less than we’ve come to expect from the inimitable JG Thirlwell.
Soak and The Blue Eyes – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack are released by Ectopic Ents, and can be purchased here: http://foetus.org/content/shop