The Porcelain Throne: Time of Orchids
Keeping the throne occupied this time is Richter with another strange and wonderful edition. Seriously, you guys have been fantastic about keeping my humble column alive, keep the submissions coming!
Remember MySpace? I don’t. (Yes I do.) As a foolish twentysomething, I believed it was possible to leverage this silly spawn of humanity’s worst social instincts to discover new music; mostly, it was not. That said, there is one band I discovered through MySpace that has become one of the shining, confusing, and balls-out weird pillars of my music library: Time of Orchids. Due in no small part to my undying, and by that point, pathological nostalgia for the defunct Maudlin of the Well, I discovered the underground New York City, band Time of Orchids (ToO), while browsing The Space for bands who had befriended Kayo Dot. I came upon many curios and oddities—but only one that truly gripped me. My initial reaction to the varied sonic ejaculations of ToO was an overwhelming WTF? However, something stuck. I returned to their MySpace page with regularity (at the time it was the only way to sample their music online—short of piracy) in order to figure out what I was hearing. and if it pleased me beyond that initial WTF? moment. Was it metal? Rock? Prog? Noise? The fact is that it was all of these and yet none. It was difficult almost beyond reason, and it was absolutely for me.
ToO’s debut, Melonwhisper, is their most stylistically schizophrenic work—and also their most metal. It is the sound of a young band giving zero fucks about cohesion or limitations; like Mr. Bungle and Naked City before them, they threw in everything but the kitchen sink, took a moment to reflect, then threw in the damn kitchen sink as well. Over the course of its nine tracks, you’ll hear everything from spastic post-hardcore, mathy noise rock, jazz-fusion, synth-driven psych, poppy indie rock, harsh noise, crushing sludge, whispers of grind, and oh yeah—a nineteen-minute atonal piano piece that somehow acts as the lynchpin around which all the madness swirls (or not, I still can’t tell). The vocal triptych supplied by Chuck Stern (Stern), Charlie Looker (Psalm Zero), and Will Redmond offers sweet crooning, wild barking and mindless shrieks. Looker and Redmond’s guitars flail between tight composure and walls of squealing pseudo-skronk. Stern’s synths serve as some kind of beguiling mystery sauce. The groovy/mathy rhythm section of Jesse Krakow (Haessliche Luftmasken) and Keith Abrams (Kayo Dot) anchors everything, keeping the demons beyond the threshold at bay. Overall, what we’re listening to here is a panoply of catchy hooks and atonal freakishness.
Much Too Much Fun (2003)
For the follow-up, Redmond and Looker were replaced by guitar and vocal weirdo Eric Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald eschews distortion pedals for a twangy and alienating (i.e. un-metal) sound, which will come to define the future ToO aesthetic. His voice, a drastic change of timbre, provides a high, nasal, almost nerdy counterpoint to Stern’s deeper and gruffer vocals. The end result is something equally as spastic and outlandish as Melonwhisper, albeit far less aggressive. The compositions are more focused, and as the title suggests, this album is fun. Labeled by the band as “party prog”, it offers a grand mashup of prog, surf rock, and 90’s style indie rock, all glued together by Stern’s eerie synthscapes. The band dabbles in what I’ve just now dubbed human glitch: bizarre breakdowns which sound like everyone (or just drummer Abrams) fucking up at once, but which are actually calculated moments of time-loss; awkward at first, eventually charming. And hey, there are even a few meaty vocal cameos from none other than Kate Pierson of The B-52s (the blond one).
Early as Seen in Pace (2004)
ToO followed MTMF with the 40 minute quasi-EP Early as Seen in Pace. This four-song offering is a difficult listen—even by ToO standards. Stylistically it is not all that far removed from its predecessor, and yet the fun is nowhere to be heard. Not that it’s all gloom and doom from start to finish—there are plenty of those fractured moments of bright and catchy rock—but it’s all couched in a distressingly noisy and disjointed assault. While the distorted guitars are still MIA, the aggression of Melonwhisper returns in the form of shrieked vocals, whiplash stylistic shapeshifting, and an all around punchiness to the performances and production. Instances of the aforementioned human glitch multiply in extended form. Songs begin with caterwauls and temper tantrums, attempt to pull themselves into something recognizably rockable, drift into squalls of piercing synth, wake back up into deceptively lucid moments of pop excellence, only to deconstruct themselves in glitchy waves of noise or defeatist fade-outs . . . The track “Voice” dispenses with all accessibility or sensibility and is essentially 11 minutes of a band trying to decide if they even want to be a band anymore. This sounds like a breakup album; a courageous band on the verge of collapsing from experimental fatigue.
Sarcast While (2005)
Who could have expected ToO to emerge from the tormented tumult of Early as Seen in Pace with their most coherent, lush, and layered album of all: Sarcast While? This is arguably their magnum opus—the sound of a band discovering a very good reason to exist. All of the stylistic experimentation and hysteria of past releases finally converges here. The vocals are choir-like; the distorted guitar returns for a more metallic edge; a vocal cameo from Julie Cruise (Twin Peaks OST) acts as the perfect centerpiece. From the calm, mood-setting two-part opening of “Advent/It Gone”, to the kaleidoscopic mathcore freakout of “Ours, Engendered”, and on through the epic back-end crown jewels that are “Swarm of Hope” and “All We Ever Wish”, there is not a single misplaced note or lack thereof. Everyone in the band is firing on all cylinders. (Side note: After learning that ToO had disbanded (spoiler alert), I wrote to Chuck Stern to express my sadness and tell him that Sarcast While was on my very short list of perfect albums. In the eight years since, this feeling has not waned.)
Namesake Caution (2007)
And here we get off the ride. Half of Namesake Caution recalls the splendid cohesion and melodicism of Sarcast While. The other half recalls the troubled pessimism of Early as Seen in Pace. It is a conflicted and conflicting swansong: some of the songs sound as fresh and masterful as anything the band has ever produced; others sound tired, muddled, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying. Such is life.
The first two ToO records were self-released. Early as Seen in Pace was released by Epicene. Sarcast While was released by Tzadik. Namesake Caution was released by Cuneiform. All but Sarcast While are available on the bandcamp. In 2010 they released a collection of outtakes and oddities, In Due Time, also available at the Camp. It is a mixed bag of lost treasures and utter bullshit. Half-valid, half-joke: as fitting an epitaph as any.
Thanks again to Richter for this one, and as always, check out The Official Porcelain Throne Guidelines.