The Toiling Midgets spawned from congress between the Sleepers and Negative Trend, two of the Bay Area’s most avowedly confrontational hardcore bands. Congruous to Flipper (two of whose founders played in Negative Trend), the new quintet boiled its songs down to their most primary elements, reassembling them if the mood struck but often allowing guitar solos to writhe somewhere in the middle distance as a disconnected rhythm cut in and out. For better or worse, however, the Midgets were distinguished almost entirely by singer Ricky Williams, a drug-addled, volatile-voiced figure of precarious mental balance.
Sea of Unrest, the only record released by the original lineup, shows Williams to be a truly “unique” talent. He uses an astoundingly powerful voice to invest songs like the disturbing “Trauma Girl” and the tortured “All the Girls Cry” (which obviously spent its share of time on Perry Farrell’s turntable) with everything from operatic flourishes to sotto voce street-person babble. Beneath (and occasionally above) Williams’ acrobatics, guitarists Craig Gray and Paul Hood unskein a particularly scraggy sheath of goth-inflected drone, characterized by haphazard circuits up and down the fretboard. The band parted ways with Williams (who died in 1992 after a long bout with respiratory illness), added guitarist Annie Unger and released Dead Beats, a portentous and quickly deleted all-instrumental album.
A decade later, original members Hood, Gray and Tim Mooney (a Sleepers veteran who went on to play drums in American Music Club) reunited to record Son, with AMC frontman Mark Eitzel as a suitably shirt-tearing stand-in for Williams. Harkening to the more excessive days of yore, Eitzel gnashes and wails through glacially paced, cavernous songs like “Faux Pony” and “Fabric,” the moments of duress set off by a handful of stately, enigmatic instrumentals like “Slaughter on Sumner St.” Bleak in the presence of beauty.
Williams’ theatrical vocals and desperate lyrics were the focal point of the Sleepers, a band whose harsh-but-crisp sound was reminiscent of early Joy Division (if that band had borrowed more from the Stooges and less from Sabbath). The Less an Object compiles most of the Sleepers’ extant material (plus a pair of otherwise unreleased songs) into a harrowing profile in excess.