October 1995 – live reviews – Organ presents Poisoned Electrick Head + Sleepy People @ The Monarch, Chalk Farm, London, 17th October (“another little banquet of progressive strangeness”)

20 Oct

Another little banquet of progressive strangeness is being laid on for us by those fine people at ‘Organ’ – unusual nourishment, as usual.

Newcastle’s Sleepy People are another from the expanding pool of bands under the giddy influence of Cardiacs. Those beloved warning signs are present: bizarre stares, a manic focus on the sort of music that ransacks your brain while it entertains you, frantic stop-start rhythms, and an obsessive love of cramming: cramming enough melodics for forty songs into the space of one, squeezing a whole orchestra’s-worth of sound into the kitchen-sinker of a rock band’s line-up. They don’t exactly look like your average clutch of prog-rockers, either. Two sane-looking people handling the rhythm section, some unholy cross between Bernard Cribbins and Sparks’ Ron Mael on synth, two impassive women doubling-up flutes and backing vocals, a singer who looks like the monster under Suede’s bed and a dead ringer for Uncle Fester Addams chopping away on guitar. More tea, Vicar?

The music itself starts out as Hammer Horror prog-punk and veers off to uncharted places: foggy treated flutes, yelping digressions, hallucinated carousel tunes, folk-classical suites composed by crazed cartoonists. I try and fail to write down coherent descriptions. The closest analogy to Sleepy People’s music is the glorious noise which you get when you knock over the music cupboard and everything falls out. If you can imagine that full-tilt chaos with intent and lunatic melodies, you’re halfway there. They announce songs with cheery, cosy titles like Home is Where Your Telly Is and Mr Marconi and His Unusual Theory, and they could write about paint drying and make it sound like the most fantastically surreal thing in the world. A band to cure the terminally bored.

We’re not out of Hammer Horror territory yet. Accompanied by hymnal keyboard invocations, a trio of fearsome skeletal masks take the stage and grin out at us. Poisoned Electrick Head have materialised. The singer (whom, for reasons best known to himself, chooses to travel under the name of Pee) comes skipping up through the audience in a devil mask, a sprightly little Old Scratch in a business suit. But although the masks may be other-worldly, the music is less so.

In contrast to Sleepy People’s cut’n’paste barrage of demented chops, Poisoned Electrick Head stick to a more familiar recipe of chunky geometric hard rock (not too far from prog metal, but light on the flashy virtuoso posing and stronger on the roughneck oil and grime), flavoured with a spicing of Hawkwind space rock and topped off with the kind of hooky, brassy keyboard spurts favoured by Devo (or by Asia, if they’d ever had a sense of humour). It’s diesel-powered music, sometimes close to biker territory, but always with wild colour and imagination spinning it clear of grease-pit stodgery and into far more delightful zones. The odd thrash-cello sound, thundering piano ostinato or blazing Marillion-style keyboard lick doesn’t hurt, either.

Just ask the people romping away down at the front. Poisoned Electrick Head are sturdily and definitely rock: but they’re also marvellously, bewilderingly poppy and absurdly danceable. Pee’s manic, acrobatic presence and cunning, theatrical vocals are a major part of the appeal. Even with the devil mask off, he may look a little Satanic; but this is a sly friendly off-duty Mephistopheles, here to give us a conspiratorial wink in a bar after working hours, and to tell us exactly how much we’ll be swindled in the end when we sell our souls.

Some such diabolical bargain might have gotten PEH their excellent songbook, though; packed with raucous intelligent liveliness and sardonic strangeness. Angular stalks through Amsterdam nightlife, songs about doublespeak or the infiltrations of technology. Crowd hysteria is reserved for the scathing Snobs, an urban class-driven savaging of privilege and pretention along the cartwheeling lines of Marillion’s Garden Party, complete with an assortment of silly noises of the patent Zappa kind.

As a genre, contemporary prog can get so humourless sometimes that it’s a rare delight to discover a band that can be funny, smart, sexy and a bit prog. If Poisoned Electrick Head were a motorbike, they’d be one of those sinister James Bond practical joke-machines – faster, brighter and gleamier than the competition, yet full of all sorts of deadly surprises; capable of dealing out mayhem with impeccable comic timing. Unmissable stuff.

Poisoned Electrick Head online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo Spotify Amazon Music

Sleepy People online:
Facebook Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Amazon Music
 

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