February 1995 – album reviews – Laundry’s ‘Blacktongue’ (“a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid”)

20 Feb
Laundry: 'Blacktongue'

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’

Pity the aging hardcore punk purists. They’ll talk about the punk wars they fought in order to kill off prog rock, but they forgot that little pockets on each side of a war have a tendency to learn each others’ languages and swap cigarettes during lulls in the battle. Or that invaders tend to crossbreed with the invaded. In Britain at the beginning of the ’80s, the likes of Magazine and Cardiacs drew prog rock ambition back into punk energy. Over in the States in the ’90s, the second coming of punk was spearheaded by Kurt Cobain – a Robert Fripp fan. You can shout and proclaim your Year Zeroes all you like, but you can’t kill knowledge or the desire to grow.

Hence, in the here and now, the appearance of bands such as Laundry. Like the lunatic punk/prog/funk/freak metal band Primus (with whom they share their astonishing drummer Herb Alexander), they hail from the fertile Bay Area scene in northern California and have roots in art punk bands Grotus and Sordid Humor. But they’ll just as readily admit to drawing from European prog and art rock such as Can and King Crimson as from the usual suspects; the terrifying electro negativism of the likes of Nine Inch Nails, plus strange post-punk/psych experimentalists like Butthole Surfers. Laundry’s deep black, forbidding music (using similar instrumentation to the later, stripped down versions of King Crimson) plants itself in that dark and hellish area in which “alternative” and “prog” seem must suited to meet and surprise each other.

Musically at least, it’s an unselfconscious blend – a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid of ‘Discipline’ rock gamelan, gruff Nomeansno hardcore force, and Pearl Jam histrionics. The latter comes courtesy of former Sordid Humor drummer Toby Hawkins’ snarling Vedder esque baritone, while guitarist Tom Butler chops out minimal metal riffs or a Fripp-like mixture of metallic rending noises and compellingly ugly solos. The real strength, though, is in the rhythm section: Herb swaggering around his drums like a funkier, fluider Bill Bruford and the remarkable Ian Varriale playing phenomenally dirty, polyphonically funky basslines on the Chapman Stick (which has so long been considered an instrument for jazz technicians and art rock eggheads that it’s a revelation to hear it sounding as raw as it does here).

Despite the strong musicality of the players, this is far from an airy prog trip. This Laundry seems to be where the darkest, dirtiest stains on the soul are scoured out, or are wrung out by the mangle. The oppressed, threatening, dissatisfied feel of grunge, which forced a seething dysfunctional contemporary rage into the mainstream, still casts a long shadow over contemporary American rock; and Laundry are very much part of that.

And how. Toby Hawkins (although he seems to have escaped Trent Reznor’s pathological need to actively shock or destroy the sensibilities of his audience) is consumed by the sort of fuck-up negativity that even the most confrontational of hardcore bellowers or the darkest of grungers would find difficult to relate to. Recurrent images of disgust, physical and mental sickness pervade ‘Blacktongue’: Alice in Chains were a barrel of laughs by comparison. The harsh, paranoid sexual fable of the title track and the grinding depression/sedation rant of ‘Misery Alarm’ are just two examples: the fantastical psychosis of ‘Monarch Man’ (prefaced by colossal distorted cat purring) lays colourful musings of twisted beauty over a tortuously funked up Crimson-ic march, while the angel messenger in ‘Skin’ brings only word of freezing, disease, and sexual loathing.

Not light-hearted stuff by any means, and the unremitting bleakness of the album does tell against it. While the music draws on fury and darkness to swell its compulsive strength, the lyrical content – reading like notes from an agonised, hopeless therapy session – displays an unrelenting despair, misery and withdrawal from human life, without the leavening of humour and compassion that make such thoughts palatable. Consequently, many a ferocious burst of taut musical excitement is dragged down by the millstone of Hawkins’ suicidal roar.

There are some moments of relief, however. If you’re into the pattern side of Laundry’s music, there’s the disconnected Stick geometries of ‘Monkey’s Wrench’. If you’re looking for redemption in song, there’s ‘Canvas’, in which Hawkins (backed by Butler’s lilting arpeggios) breaks out of his doomy caterwauling to discover the possibilities of art therapy and achieve a measure of peace. “Try to make sense of your shadow, paint a picture of the way it should be, colours arranged carefully…/ Inside the frame on the wall, paint your heart under a waterfall / paint your world the way it should be, so you can understand what you see.”

Generally, though, Laundry are more interested in dysfunction than healing. And despite Hawkins’ self-flagellating attempts to build significance out of the topic, it takes the wit of a guest to really get things moving. “I can’t stand it for anyone to be more awkward, self hateful, stupid, or inappropriate than I am” crackles the sardonic, telephone relayed voice of Bay Area artist Don Bajema on ’19’. Over a marvellous brooding thudding riff (a slower, darker ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’), Bajema unwinds his cynical but concerned ideas: deliberate awkwardness, withdrawal and self humiliation may be his only logical response to and defence against a sick and ridiculous world, but it’s simultaneously an unwanted mask against those he truly loves, “the last people I would want to see me like this…” A disturbing confession, but one that rings so true that it’s easily the moment that makes the album.

Will Laundry clean up? Dubious – even deep-dyed grungers will have trouble with their uncompromising grimness and suspicion of anything approaching a tune; and Toby Hawkins’s obsession with depression and psychosis comes across all too often as self-indulgent droning and ranting, without the redemptive melodies of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. What draws the band out of this trough of misery is their brutal power, their brooding energy and the masterly rhythmatism of Varriale and Herb: the powerful spine of the music which tugs them towards the darker, unforgiving end of progressive rock, towards Hammill-esque heart-crushing and 21st century schizophrenia. Flawed and muddied by defeatism it might be, but ‘Blacktongue’ is still a potent (if still no more than potential) statement from a band in waiting.

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’
Mammoth Records/Prawn Song Records, MR0098 2 (35498009822)
CD-only album
20th February 1995
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Laundry online:
MySpace Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music

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