There have been plenty of strange and powerful musicians and groups out there for many a long year.Captain Beefheart, Coil, Wesley Willis, Ken Nordine an so forth, each extending the realms of taste and disrupting the boundaries of what exactly constitues music and art . Then there are The Residents.
Through thirty years of wilful obscurity and cutting-edge innovation, they have maintained a largely successful anonymity, one of the features about the group which is at once integral to their mystique and irrelevant. The eminently ridiculous sight of a Resident in a tuxedo with an eyeball for a head is at once silly and sinister, a Situationist metaphor for the spectacle (and spectator) on one hand and a potential distraction from their music, or so it might seem. In fact, their disavowal of persona and biography sets free some key aspects of their appeal.
There could easily be a circulating ensemble behind the years of masks and headset light rigs, screens and paper suits. It doesn’t really matter, but when the member who may be known as Mr Skull puts the gimpish peacock-strut, beaked mask and suit on for the Icky Flix show, it is clear that The Residents have a character unique in the world of (anti-)showbusiness.
The Icky Flix tour is to promote the DVD of the same name, a spectacular use of the global market’s favourite commodity, i.e. one which outstrips and replaces previous technologies with fearsome rapidity and all-conquering ubiquity. Instead of adopting the blatant shovelware approach which a format capable of storing hours and hours of video and music offers, the group have once again taken the chance to push the envelope a little on the disc. Seventeen videos, including their still incomplete Vileness Fats film selected from thirty years of multimedia innovation aren’t just dumped onto Icky Flix with a few biographical details and a Surround Sound makeover.
No, the Residents decided to completely re-record every track, plus make some new films to boot, and then offer the choice between original and all-new music for good measure. Throw in a novel 3D track selection “Flix Cube” and between-film mock (and mocking) adverts, and this DVD is one of the best examples of what the format is capable of at the same time as being thoroughly enjoyable.
The head-scratching, mind-bending fun and frolics take on a new dimension when presented in a live setting. Introduced by a monocular compere, the band take their places behind scrim and concealing lights. The Day-Glo make-up, shlocky wig, platic sunglasses and outragous ensemble of patterned hipster flares and giant flourescent sneakers of Molly Harvey lend a theatrically lysergic aspect to the show, which proceeds with the Flix Cube used to choose each piece following the DVD intro. So the band really do play along to the disc projection, while Harvey and the beaky Resident act out the songs and skits with sub-operatic glee. The capacity for disturbance and hilarity alike The Residents offer on record and video springs to proximate life on stage, their twisted pschyodramas taken way beyond hammy surrealism and in the realms of Dada greatness.
That they make the show flow with childish ease from the hilariously dark video for “Third Reich and Roll”, where a newspaper-suited band jitter in glorious monochrome and revised surral Hitlerian bad taste, to Renaldo And The Loaf‘s distended and awesomely strange mini-drama “Songs For Swinging Larvae”. How many artists get to go on stage and act as weird and goofy as they really feel, and get away with it? It’s entirely possible for The Residents to do so thanks to their wholesale grasp of parallel logic which sevres to engender an entirely willing supension not only of disbelief but perhaps also of disgust in the audience.
Once surrendered to their multimedia world of virtual reality, theatrics and cinema, it’s quite difficult to remember another exists outside the Hall, from the computer-generated gloom of the “Bad Day On The Midway” tour through the CD-ROM of the same name, with its sinister funfair atmosphere, “Harry The Head” from the equally disturbing Freak Showproject and into the ultimately weird landscape of “The Gingerbread Man”.
This latter has to rank as one of the crowning achievments in edgy fairy-tale dissonance that The Residents have delivered to an equally deranged world, as the Gingerbread Man struggles with reflective existential questions of an ageing star as his sweetmeat avatar strides across a gloaming landscape and around an endless treadmill of misfortune from disappointment to disheartening observations of shallowness and Rock’n'Roll despair in Doug Carney‘s visceral blend of computer and cut-up animation.
This bitterness and barbed venom directed at themselves, the audience and commercial music in general is even more apparent in the stunningly vicious “Just For You (Transfigured Night part 7)”. With typical inverted logic, this piece was originally recorded as part of an hour long live broadcast on German TV, and the video shows the male and female Resident singers clasped in bizarre fluffy-suited embrace before a bemused studio audience. Now it appears as a recursive backdrop to the same (probably) pair on stage, twisting the original manic cover of saccharine charity plea “We Are The World” into even more unsettling dimensions.
“I am a fake/I am a ripoff” croons the man to an increasingly bombastic electronic backing, becoming more impassioned and disgusted as the song reaches an intensity of loathesome ire. “I am unreal/I am pretenentious/I am definitely far beyond redemption” he admits, and “I’ll make a perfect turd and sell it/Just to you” isn’t just a threat, it’s a promise delivered with an implied rictus grin of fake sincerity. The Residents may not take themselves too seriously, but they have something pointed to say in the sinister interface between whimsy and bilous cartoon humour, and it seems that the audience take their part in the self-aware disdain with a hint of squirming disquiet too.
Despite a playful hint at playing the Vileness Fats film following a break during which the band mill about onstage sharing chit-chat and cups of liquid, the live Icky Flixshow gets in most of the DVD videos, and more. The beaky man delivers a honking, stuttering sax solo during “Constantinople”, while he and Molly Harvey sweep through the mini-playlets of “One Minute Movies”, swapping roles as the cowering, ape-like man becomes a vile, ranting tyrant and Harvey changes from submissive to self-obsessed as the films flick by on the screen behind.
The “thank you” whined out at the end of the strangely wistful “Act Of Being Polite” has a particularly gruesome quality, while The Residents’ new take on “Stars & Stripes Forever” is even more scathing these days, giving Sousa’s patriotic march a thoroughly discordant mauling of swoops and whoops, keyboard arpeggiations and a searing guitar solo worthy of the late lamented Snakefinger himself which scorches with a large dose of gleeful disrespect for the original and what it has come to stand for.
The encores bring the only top-hatted and eye-balled Resident to the keyboards through various soaring instrumentals and Electro stomps fromFreak Show as the singing duo perform a series of intense stop-start domestic tableaux in song and posture front of stage to complete the evening’s remarkable entertainment. From the moments of interplay between the pitiful man and his shrewish partner via the electric almost-Rock-out into rausous discord and roars of pain and feedback which disgorge into a blast of incrementally stepped-up rhythm an exhortations to “Follow that dream” and a final fade to the Icky Flix outro tune, the evening shows that even when running through the films in a PA to promote a release, The Residents are really without compare.
As mentioned before, the DVD itself is a wholly remarkable example of what a little imagination can bring to this format which is only beginning to start being used and abused in innovative ways. Add in two soundtracks for the price of one, and the disc can provide oodles of stunningly sick watching and re-listening, even if this may be at the expense of appreciation of other more normal forms of music and film which somehow seem at once tamer and so much safer after a session with this collection or in the presence of the band themselves. It’s entirely worth the expenditure on obtaining a player just for the sake of Icky Flix alone, with bonus moments and the enhanced Surround Sound for those with even more splashed out on the Dolby 5.1 decoders and so forth.
For those without the technology required, the soundtrack featuring the new performances ofVileness Fats and the highlights of the new video songs is also available as a stereo CD for listening pleasure and discomfort. Whatever the chosen mode of appreciation, there is so much to tweak the darker recesses of humour on Icky Flix to please and disturb at one and the same time.