Bay Area power trio Primus proved that punk music did not succeed in killing off progressive rock; if anything, in Primus’ hands, the two meshed pretty well. Once described as Rush on crack, the band invigorated the musicianly ambitions and literary pretensions of ’70s art- metal with an intricate instrumental frenzy closer to Metallica (for whom singer/bassist Les Claypool once auditioned) or late-period Black Flag than the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a cutting, streetwise lyric attitude distinguished by Claypool’s Zappaesque wordplay. The searing quality of Primus’ early club shows is ably captured on Suck on This, initially issued on Claypool’s own Prawn Song label. There are moments, like the breakneck finish of “Frizzle Fry,” when Primus sounds like a crowd-surfer’s King Crimson (circa Red) fueled by thumb-slapping Funkadelic bass. Raw but promising stuff.
Claypool’s idiosyncratic singing and trebly, bullish bass dominate the group’s attack on Frizzle Fry, which reprises five songs from the live record. But the studio debut also effectively showcases drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander’s tight, frenetic technique and guitarist Larry LaLonde’s aggro-fusion chops. Cleaner sound and extra production touches (a few guitar overdubs, some neat vocal trickery) also enhance the abrasive kinetics of the songs. Meanwhile, Claypool gives good wordplay — lively metaphor-hopping laced with prickly social complaint — in his stream-of-consciousness stoner’s blues “Spegetti Western” and “Harold of the Rocks” and the droll protest of “Too Many Puppies” and “Pudding Time.”
Primus actually gets leaner and meaner in both sound and worldview on Sailing the Seas of Cheese. Claypool’s rubbery, agitated basslines underpin the dark argument of paranoiac warnings like “Here Come the Bastards” and “Sgt. Baker” (“I will rape your personality…Strip you of your self-integrity”), while LaLonde’s riffing is shaved down to a corrosive, hand-drill whine. Comic relief is provided in the a cappella shower song “Grandad’s Little Ditty” and Tom Waits’ vocal cameo on “Tommy the Cat,” a gravelly, motormouthed rap in which he sounds like a psychotic auctioneer with tuberculosis. But a thick air of betrayal and impending violence hangs heavy over the songs and the group’s tense playing. As corporate rock of the early ’90s goes, this record is deep, grim and anything but cheesy.
The holding-pattern EP Miscellaneous Debris is aptly named, a five-song collection of covers running the gamut from a brittle, overaccelerated remake of XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel” to a quick stab at an old Meters instrumental and a rough excavation of Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” It’s all very amusing if you’re a serious Primus fan; otherwise, this is the sort of thing best left to concert encores. Notable exception: a nifty rendition of the Residents’ spookhouse rhumba “Sinister Exaggerator.”
Pork Soda actually debuted in the Billboard Top 10, a remarkable achievement for such an idiosyncratic combo. On “Welcome to This World,” the hyper-funk rattle and dizzying velocity of Claypool’s bass part suggest a homicidal cross between Bootsy Collins and Jaco Pastorius. Ironically, a slight predictability has crept into Primus’ winning, weirdo ways on this album. Claypool’s melodramatic yelping sometimes blurs the shades of black humor in his lyrics, leaving one extended gag. Also, while LaLonde’s guitar playing is more full-bodied than on Sailing the Seas of Cheese, the power-trio format has its tonal limitations. For all the inspired complexity, the herky- jerky time and tempo changes don’t always provide enough variety. Still, there is a contagious energy to the hectic interplay on “DMV” and “Nature Boy.” Meanwhile, the eerie, low-key dramatization of suicide in “Bob” shows that Primus realizes that not everything worth doing is worth overdoing.
During an extended working vacation from Primus, Claypool reactivated the Prawn Song label and cut a side project under the name Sausage featuring original Primus guitarist Todd Huth (whom LaLonde replaced in ’89, and who has more recently been leading Porch). With drummer Jay Lane, Claypool and Huth resurrected some of their early, unrecorded material for Riddles Are Abound Tonight. For an ad hoc reunion, it’s really good, with an emphasis on brisk, fluid jamming and less of the jokey vocals that dominate Primus records. If Sailing the Seas of Cheese is Primus’ moshpit variation on the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money, the Sausage album is kind of Claypool’s Hot Rats. (Other Prawn Song releases have included albums by the Charlie Hunter Trio, Alphabet Soup, Eskimo and Laundry, a band featuring Tim Alexander.)
Produced and engineered by Primus at Claypool’s home studio for a reported $5,000, Tales From the Punchbowl (also issued as a visually enhanced CD) is a mixed cocktail. The first track, “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats,” is a lot better than its title suggests — a seven-minute wigout of bulldozer rhythm and sizzling Robert Fripp-style guitar. But the extent to which Primus are prisoners of their own mischief is evident in “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” a ripsnorting rocker with some greasy countryfied guitar; it became a novelty hit mostly because of the allusion (intended or otherwise) to a certain actress’ genitalia. As funny and pointed as the band can be in song, there are times when you can’t help but wish that Primus were just an instrumental combo.
In 1996, Claypool released a solo album (Highball With the Devil) and Tim Alexander left Primus.