Coventry-born drummer Martin Atkins segued from looking at the back of John Lydon’s head in Public Image Ltd. to pursuing a flaky ’80s pop-to-hip-hop solo career as Brian Brain. Unexpected Noises — mostly his own work — is of little consequence, an attempt to be anarchic and funny rather than anarchic and glum. Biggest problem here is the poor production, which leaves the sound muddled and flat.
Five years later, Atkins emerged from a period of inactivity and returned to the concert circuit and vinyl world not as Brian Brain but in a group by that name, with original Go-Go’s bassist Margot Olavarria. Fun With Music! is a four-song 12-inch recorded in New York. Brain’s body may be in America (the cut-up tribal chant of “U.S.A.” is a jaundiced cultural appraisal) but his brain is on clean living: two of the numbers push anti-drug- use messages. Interestingly, the ex-PiLer does a song called “Happy?” two years before the band’s album of that name.
The subsequent Time Flies album (which sounds a bit like a modernized cross between Captain Sensible and John Otway) reprises a pair of songs from the EP and adds eight more, all recorded with Olavarria, guitarist Geoff Smyth and others. The rhythm-heavy hip-hop/massed-drums tracks — with jungle ambience, found sounds and other sonic ephemera keeping things appropriately offbeat — are a bit short on melody, but not concept or wit. Atkins isn’t a great singer, but he has a lively mind and an absurdist outlook to keep things stimulating even when the music drags.
Atkins joined Killing Joke and later took to the road with Ministry. The everyone-in-the-pool talent roster he encountered in that last endeavor became the template for Pigface, a floating industrial crap game to which the adopted Chicagoan has devoted himself (and the resources of his Invisible Records label) in the ’90s. Regularly drawing on some of the same co-conspirators but featuring an ever-widening cast of guests, each Pigface release is a recombination lab super-session of intriguing possibilities, voluminous contractual permissions and godawful caterwauling racket. If often a victim of concept over content, Pigface does spew up a thrill or two often enough to make its records more than post-industrial curiosities.
Spoon Breakfast and Gub (conveniently combined on the latter’s CD issue) announce Atkins and Ministry drummer William Rieflin as the band’s nucleus (a partnership that promptly ended); participants include Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Paul Barker (Ministry), Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), Chris Connelly (Revolting Cocks), En Esch (KMFDM) and David Yow (Jesus Lizard). Steve Albini, who “engineered” this freewheeling calamity, plays guitar, bass and oscillators. For all its unabashed self- indulgent awfulness, the record does contain some promising items, like Reznor’s guitar-and-keyboards-free “Suck” and Connelly’s song-like “Point Blank” and “Little Sisters” (especially the “Tonight’s the Night” remix). Otherwise, Pigface offers lazy, pointless and horribly recorded percussion breakdowns — worse than sitting through a drummer’s (no, make that two drummers’) soundcheck.
Welcome to Mexico…Asshole is an atrocious live album that sounds like it was recorded by audience members on broken cassette recorders. (Some Gub material is actually damaged in the process.) A version of “Stowaway,” a song from Connelly’s first solo album, is well played but too crudely recorded to be worth hearing; without Reznor singing, “Suck” does. Two thumbs down.
Fook gets the Pigface juggernaut back to the safety of a studio hangar with a sense of creative mission and a stellar cast: besides Connelly, En Esch and Ogre, there’s Andrew Weiss and Chris Haskett from Rollins Band, Flour, Jesus Lizard bassist David Sims, Mary Byker of Gaye Bykers on Acid, Paul Raven of Killing Joke, Lesley Rankine from Silverfish and others. Pigface’s first proper effort is an excellent synthesis of ideas and influences; the collaborative songwriting and shifting permutations of players produce everything from harsh industrial charges (“Alles Ist Mine,” “Seven Words”) and bone-crushing heaviness (“Auto Hag”) to sound collages (“Insemination”) and dramatic cello-burnished rock restraint (“Ten Ground and Down”). Silverfish’s “Hips Tits Lips Power!” (pulled from a song originally entitled “Big Bad Baby Pig Squeal”) is potently jizzed up with two bassists, electronic effects and samples. If by no means consistently good, Fook is surprisingly cohesive through all the tumult, and an indication that Pigface might not be such a bad idea after all.
Washingmachine Mouth is a sample-heavy remix record which drastically unlaces some of Fook. The walloping, distorted “I’m Still Alive,” for example, eliminates nearly everything but the titular vocal sample and becomes the light, trancey, traffic-passing “Flowers Are Evil”; other overhauls, like the seven-minute “Satellite-Needle in the Groove (No Damage Done),” are far denser. The seven-track disc also includes a couple of leftovers, like the rocking “Cutting Face.”
Truth Will Out is another live album, recorded clearly at two shows in late ’92 and early ’93 with Genesis P-Orridge (Psychic TV), Ogre, Esch, Weiss, Hope Nicholls (ex-Fetchin Bones, more recently of Sugarsmack) and Jim Marcus (Die Warzau) among the notables. P-Orridge’s tape-library contributions provide color, but this incarnation — lacking Connelly and Rankine, for two — hasn’t got a suitable vocalist or a strong stylistic director. (It does, however, contain an overabundance of seasonal bonhomie and political satire that gets in the way of doing the songs.) Drawing freely from previous work (“Suck” yet again; “7 Words,” “Hips, Tits, Lips, Power,” “Point Blank”), finding a place in its porcine heart for a brief a cappella “Jingle Bells” and building an entire song around a sample from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Pigface squanders perfectly good recording technology on rarely worth-it performances.
Shonen Knife, Flea, Jello Biafra and Michael Gira (Swans) are the freshman class on Notes From Thee Underground, a P-Orridge-influenced outing that knocks down the industrial walls to explore droney pop (“Chikasaw”), chop suey funk (“Hagseed”), crazed backwoods rock (“Magazine”), rock-hop (“Fuck It Up”) and sample-damaged Led Zeppisms (“Think”). In something of a Brian Brain flashback, Atkins takes a rare vocal turn and plays piano (as well as “orchestra”) on the theatrical “Psalm Springs Eternal.” Organizing the company’s complementary skills track by track, this is easily Pigface’s most accessible and rewarding barbecue. Soowee!
Notes From Thee Underground was followed by another remix collection, the truly uneven thirteen-track Feels Like Heaven. If you can get past the ringer — a hysterical new recording of Reznor’s “Suck” sung with gutless pop conviction by Taime Down (of Faster Pussycat) over ambient psychedelic sitar backing — there are other memories to be either amusingly distorted or stultifyingly repeated. Rankine’s “Chikasaw” gets thrice deconstructed (including a loopy hey-where’d-the-song-go? interpolation by Youth); the incalculable overkill of “Steamroller” comes back twice, once covered in electronic blips and mechano-man voices. Among the rest, a few are, if not improvements, at least credible extensions, but too much of Feels Like Heaven is tedious and redundant.
Atkins has also occasionally worked solo among samplers and synthesizers as Bizarr Sex Trio. The eponymous five-song debut (originally issued in an edition of 700 as a 12-inch with hand-screened covers but subsequently made available on CD and cassette) is typical Chicago industro-dance nonsense: electronic beats, looped found-sound phrases, keyboard strains and random noises. Careless Use of Knives, another five tracks stretched over a half-hour, is sillier and more inventive, but comes no closer to having real applicability in any field other than acid-trip stimulation or answering-machine filling. For all the promise of its title, “Your Pregnancy Begins Now” merely hammers home phrases like “Sometimes we need to see a doctor” and “careless use of knives.” Oh well.
The Love Interest was a one-off of Atkins, Connelly, Sims and singer Mary Lynn Bowling; “Bedazzled” is a four-mix single of the Dudley Moore composition for the 1968 movie of the same name, given a big beat, a pop vocal and sample seasoning. The basic performance is stylish enough, but it could have been an album track. One version is plenty.