Formed in Scotland in the mid-’80s, Dog Faced Hermans began as a close cousin to the jittery, semi-atonal Ron Johnson Records sound, with a few curious fillips: vocalist Marion Coutts, a striking onstage figure with trumpet and distinctive gestures, sang curious intellectual-poetic lyrics (“Enzymes do the protein march/Hm baa hm baa hm baa hm baa,” began their first EP), and the band — Colin on bass, Wilf playing a drum kit augmented with metal scraps and Andy (later of the Ex as well) getting all kinds of strange noises out of his guitar — were liable to break into an old folk song. The disc collecting their first two EPs and a single finds them not quite in their groove, though it’s got a couple of DFH classics: the gleeful “Mary Houdini” and covers of “John Henry” and the WWII Italian partisan song “Bella Ciao.”
By the turn of the decade, they’d relocated to Amsterdam and released a superb single, the never-on-album “Time Bomb” (no relation to the EP). Their close association with the Ex resulted in a joint tour of Europe, a split cassette and “Stonestamper’s Song,” a tremendous collaborative single recorded under the name Ex Faced Hermans.
Mental Blocks for All Ages finds them stretching out a bit. Marion’s singing is more adventurous, the arrangements are ambitious and the songwriting is weirder and better, with one track inspired by a Kurdish singer and another adapted from a Vietnamese children’s song.
Hum of Life is a huge step forward. With the confident, abrasive tension that from then on defined their sound, the words split the difference between intellectual rigor and stuff that sounds great out loud (“Jan 9,” a fantasia about scientific ethics with Andy playing a roaring coda on electric viola, is especially brilliant), and Marion’s vocal idiosyncrasies (listen to the way she pulls and snaps on the title of “How We Connect”). They haven’t tired of esoteric covers, and essay 8 Eyed Spy’s “Love Split With Blood” and Ornette Coleman’s “Peace Warriors.” If the recording is a little flat, a lot of the same songs got more vibrant versions on the band’s next release.
Dog Faced Hermans were a spellbinding live band, and though they self-released a number of live cassettes, their only live appearance on disc was Bump & Swing, a walloping document of shows in Germany, Holland and the US. Live sound engineer Gert-Jan, who receives equal billing from Mental Blocks onwards, deserves it: Bump & Swing is crisp, loud and hot, acutely capturing ferociously intense performances. “Hear the Dogs” and “Human Spark,” especially, explode out of the speakers.
Those Deep Buds, the band’s final studio statement to date, is its masterpiece, an unbelievably powerful and resilient record with some of the best lyrics to ever appear on a rock album. (The best lyric belongs to writer Angela Carter, who unintentionally provided a staggering sentence for “Virginia Fur.”) The band members are nearly telepathically attuned, and you can tell how delighted they are to be playing so well. “Lie and Swell” and “Volkswagen” are just about giddy.
Following Those Deep Buds and a US tour, DFH went on amicable indefinite hiatus. Marion became a sculptor in London, and records occasionally. (Full disclosure: my label has put out a few tracks on which she sings). Andy joined the Ex full-time. Wilf moved to Canada to join Rhythm Activism. Colin reportedly runs a record store in Scotland.