Thanks to modern technology, any chump with a studio can now open up the bomb bays and drop sonic megatonnage. That’s the easy part. Nailing targets and causing serious devastation, however, is a job for professionals, and no one in modern rock wrecks shit with a sharper balance of artistic control and unmitigated power than J. G. (Jim) Thirlwell, whose unmatched skill in sculpting audio thunder into theatrical monuments of bludgeoning agility is positively Zeus-like. His records — issued under endless insignificant variations on the Foetus name (as well as Clint Ruin) — are stunning in their intensity and fascinating in their impenetrable density. Few musicians can guide a record through a horrorhouse of galloping cacophony with as firm and delicate a hand. Over the course of his first fifteen years of art terrorism, a career whose only watchword is extremism, Foetus has introduced many intriguing elements (big-band swing only the most unexpectedly amusing among them) into the basic cauldron of boiling noise without seriously rethinking his approach. With fewer hummable songs than a Milli Vanilli compilation, Foetus’ lie-back-and-enjoy-it-or-die records are pure expositions of sensual overload. Suffice to say, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Cop Shoot Cop and all those who sail on such roiling waters owe this courageous innovator their first-born in recompense for the violent audio lessons of his vinyl teach-ins.
The Australian expatriate spent years living in London before settling in New York toward the end of the ’80s; his music took a while to reach these shores as well. The only thing to do with Hole, Foetus’ first American release (1985), is to jump in and pray for survival. The LP has a little of everything: industrial cacophony (“Clothes Hoist”), high political drama (“I’ll Meet You in Poland Baby”), spare crypto-blues (“Sick Man”), demented surf music (“Satan Place”), something ugly built on a swing beat (“Water Torture”), Neal Hefti’s Batman theme and lots more, all played at a confusion level that makes Christmas Eve at K-Mart seem placid. (Although the first US edition added a bonus 12-inch EP of songs from 1985 singles by You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath and Foetus über Frisco, the 1995 CD omits the added material, some of which had already turned up on the Sink anthology.)
Nail is another strange voyage into Foetus’ fevered world. From the soundtrack-styled opening (“Theme from Pigdom Come”), through a generally cinematized concept collection of high-octane rants, Foetus layers sound on sound, injury on insult. “!” is the album’s existential high point, but such vehement audio orgies as “The Throne of Agony” and the ’40s-jazzy “Descent Into the Inferno” provide plenty of clever lyrical invention.
Included in two mixes (one with horns and a backing chorus), the title track of Bedrock (most assuredly not about Fred and Wilma’s hometown) is a vituperative and deliciously vulgar rap sneered over swinging acoustic bass and bongos, with an industrial-strength rusty-door guitar solo for extra heat. Two of the other tracks — “Diabolus in Musica” and “Shut” — are one slow-starting instrumental that revs up to noise concrète (complete with machine guns, metallic clangs and animal sounds) strong enough to peel layers off a boulder at a hundred paces.
Broiling up an explosive sonic smorgasbord in a free-fire zone, Foetus outdoes himself on Thaw, an album so intense that it makes the previous platters seem like knuckle-cracking tuneups. His arsenal here includes automatic weapons, clanging metallic percussion, a symphony orchestra and virulent lyrics about suitably violent subject matter spewed out in a voice so shredded it would give Freddy Krueger the willies. For dynamic tension, Foetus suddenly drops back amid the onslaught to whisper a verse or two over acoustic piano and string bass (in one case, sitar and tabla). Oppressive in the most rewarding fashion imaginable, Thaw — which concludes with the charming “A Prayer for My Death” — is the fantasy score to an unimaginable film no one should ever have to see. Bravo!
Following Thaw‘s release, Thirlwell formed Foetus Corruptus — borrowing Raymond Watts from the likeminded Pig, plus members of Prong and the Swans — for a European tour, documented on the double-LP authorized bootleg, Rife. Expanding the group (and giving it the even more glamorous name Foetus in Excelsis Corruptus), he recorded the more readily available Male at CBGB in November ’90. The double-CD extravaganza features violinist/guitarist Hahn Rowe (ex-Hugo Largo), guitarist Norman Westberg (Swans), bassist Algis Kizys (Swans) and drummer Vinnie Signorelli (Unsane). If the show sounded anything like the record does, it’s amazing how convincingly Foetus can re-create his studio density and intensity on stage. Highlights include four Wiseblood numbers (the instrumental “Death Rape 2000” and the elephant-noises “Stumbo,” “Someone Drowned in My Pool” and “Honey I’m Home”), “Free James Brown (So He Can Run Me Down)” and “I’ll Meet You in Poland Baby,” held aloft by Rowe’s skillful scraping and Nazi samples provided by David Ouimet of Motherhead Bug. Applause hardly seems like the appropriate response, but there it is.
Pursuing Thaw’s cinematic byway, Steroid Maximus is Thirlwell’s instrumental project of would-be film scores. The brassy, garishly atmospheric music on Quilombo and Gondwanaland (which have a couple of tracks in common) is stunning in its mischievous diversion of traditional concepts, from the ominously brilliant titles (“Phantom Miscarriage,” “Ogro,” “The Trojan Hearse,” “The Smother Brother”) to the nervy instrumental invention. Employing a slightly more restrained dynamic range than usual, Thirlwell delves into Wagnerian orchestration, exotic ethnic elements, blaring big-band swing, continental drift and found-sound constructions to deliver extraordinarily convincing and resonant accompaniments to whatever he’s seeing in his grotesque imagination. First rate. Both records feature Lucy Hamilton, Raymond Watts and Voivod drummer Michael “Away” Langevin. Quilombo also employs Spoiler’s Lin Culbertson and Hahn Rowe, while Gondwanaland finds equally unspecified uses for Roli Mosimann and Don Fleming.
The Sink compilation digs all the way back to the very beginning (1981’s “OKFM,” by the nascent Foetus Under Glass): 20 tracks from all phases of his glorious career. While the set contains some rarities and loads of great music, dubious selection logic reproduces nearly all of Bedrock and both sides of Foetus Art Terrorism’s 1984 single “Calamity Crush” b/w “Catastrophe Crunch,” the flip of which is merely an instrumental scratch remix. No home should be without it, although it’s safe to say that any dose of Foetus is an equally good starting place for neophytes: he’s extremely consistent (either a major shortcoming or exactly the opposite) in both standards and practices.
Finally swept into major-label clutches in ’95, Foetus spewed up Gash, a magnificent chopper of industrial gruesomeness, vintage horn jazz (check the eleven-minute extravaganza “Slung” for snappy music your grandparents would not condone), sly samples and what can only be described as the string-laden lullaby of hell. Presumably working with the first big studio budget of his career, Foetus gets it all in the grooves, lashing together an eclectic collection as advanced and ambitious as anything he’s done. The lyrics — non sequitur fever-dreams that rattle around politics, violence, current events, geography and religion — never display enough logical cohesion to imply conviction. Under the jokey title “Verklemmt,” he heaves out ideas willy nilly: “By day I strangle chickens/And field your dirty looks/Investigate your chimney/There’s a Chernobyl rain/Apply the strongest sunblock/Cos it’s mother’s day again.” (Given three remixes and joined by three other tracks, the song was issued as Null.) Occasionally, however, this full-service institution — eager to offend in word as well as deed — sticks his finger in the socket and pulls out a most dubious turnip like “Mighty Whity (Bring Me the Head Of…),” which posits a violent encounter from the perspective of a black murderer. Unique.
Wiseblood is a duo of Clint Ruin and Roli Mosimann, assisted on Dirtdish by Robert Quine, Hahn Rowe, Norman Westberg and Phoebe Legere. While the core pair shares the writing, Foetus’ vocals guarantee the usual growled litany of sexually charged insanity (e.g., “The Fudge Punch”). If the album lacks a full load of explosive Foetus audio dynamite, it still packs enough ugliness and venom to corrupt a monastery. The reissue adds four 12-inch tracks.