Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Released January 23rd, 2007 on Polyvinyl Records
Kevin Barnes is a weird dude, but he’s utterly committed to a good concept. Hissing Fauna is the first album in a concept trilogy that revolves around Kevin Barnes having a breakdown and transforming into a black male-to-female-to-male transgendered individual named Georgie Fruit, who has spent a couple years in and out of prison and once played in a hard funk band back in the drugged-out Seventies.
What? OK, check it –
Kevin Barnes married an artist named Nina Twin and moved with her to Norway. While there he had a bout with clinical depression (he felt the bleak despair of those black metal bands) and marital trouble (a constant refrain of every Of Montreal album after this one) and eventually was prescribed anti-depressants, which leveled him out and gave him the inspiration to write Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? He came up with the concept of Georgie Fruit, a glammy alter-ego that was more than a bit of a nod at David Bowie’s theatrical character-switching, and in the course of eleven-plus minutes on “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” switches into the costume. If that still sounds confusing, just listen to “A Sentence Of Sorts In Kongsvinger” and that should clear things up for you.
Of Montreal is part of the fabled Athens, GA Elephant Six recording collective, and so it must be said that Hissing Fauna is replete with fey psychedelia, ambitious and experimental sound placement, and a love of the culture and music of the Sixties. Barnes welds that with horny R&B-influenced pop, much as Prince did in his heyday, and as such there’s less “bearded weirdo playing an obscure instrument on an early Beatles cover in a wooden backwood theatre” and more “awkward indie kids dancing at a hole-in-the-wall and hooking up later in a room covered in theatre bills and Xeroxed punk rock flyers”. It’s less on-the-nose Prince worship than the next two Georgie Fruit-fronted albums, Skeletal Lamping and False Priest, and it retains a lot of the early Of Montreal whimsy and delicateness; it’s telling that the band has never produced a real classic album since.
What a pinnacle, though. “Suffer For Fashion” opens the album with an artillery blast of a pop song, easily one of the best indie tracks released in the Oughts. “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” makes waiting for anti-depressants to kick in sound like it should have always been the subject of a glam-rock epic. “Gronlandic Edit” has a strut that a thousand would-be funkateers would die for. “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” is probably the most Elephant Six of the songs presented, and even it wiggles it’s ass for all its worth. “She’s A Rejecter” is a harrowing hard rocker that presages the more bitter songs Barnes would write about his wife (later ex-wife) as albums went on. It’s an album overflowing with big hooks, funky struts, and hip literary references that can fly by without being noticed – the mousy girl screaming “violence, violence” is a reference to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? on the same song that Barnes directly references Georges Bataille and “The Story Of The Eye”. Ten years on, neither Barnes nor the band as a whole have come close to topping it, despite individual songs capturing the old magic a bit.
of Montreal – Aureate Gloom
“Bassem Sabry”, the opening track to of Montreal’s fifteenth album, is a red herring of the highest sort. It’s wah-laden guitars and disco rhythms make you think that, after the garage-inspired reset of Lousy With Sylvianbriar, the band was returning to the psych-funk sounds they established on Skeletal Lamping, False Priest, and Paralytic Stalks. At the same time, with its focus on an Egyptian political activist, the casual listener could be forgiven for thinking that the focus might not be on frontman Kevin Barnes for a change.
Neither is true. This is an album that dives into New York City in the septic days of the late 1970s and early 1980s: cigarette-stained glam-punk, drugged-out disco dens, street-sweat funk riffs, and damn the torpedoes rock and roll. It’s a record of volume, fuzz, and widescreen ambitions, and it centres around Barnes’ failed marriage to the Norwegian woman he first bled his heart out about on the band’s breakthrough album, 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Barnes has always had a habit of being overwrought when it comes to his lyrics (and his song titles), but on Aureate Gloom he takes that tendency to an unfortunate extreme. “Empyrean Abattoir” features lines like “Before your hysterical silence, you came rapping at my door / With your body as a sacrament, your mind a killing floor” and something about “stealing from his aureation of filth” after “masturbating your father’s pain”. What? “Virgilian Lots” compares the stability that Barnes and his wife once enjoyed to “the twin volcanoes of Cuauhnahuac”; on the next track, “Monolithic Egress”, he compares them to “the raping of the embryonic virgin spring”. The effect is rather like reading the intensely personal breakup diary of a kid (a 40-year-old kid at that) who desperately wants to be published in The Paris Review.
Aureate Gloom takes of Montreal in an interesting musical direction, one where Tom Petty and The Kinks jam with Chic and the past remains as always a grotesque animal. What it really bodes well for its the next album, the one after Barnes gets his divorce novel out of his system. The musical balancing act on display here is marred by his precocious-teenager divorce lyrics, and as a fiction writer capable of writing some pretty overwrought lines myself, it takes a lot to call someone out on that.