You most probably have heard some music by Primus, even if you’re not aware of it. They appeared in one of the “Bill and Ted” films playing “Tommy The Cat” and if you’ve ever watched South Park – the theme tune is them. I’ve loved Primus since I found out they were going to be the support band to a Rush gig I went to back in 1992. As I did back then, I decided to investigate the band before the gig as I prefer to try and enjoy the support band, rather than frequenting the bar, whilst they play. They were touring in support of their classic “Sailing The Seas of Cheese” album and although they were an artist who had to “grow on you” I found that they did and that they were also the musical equivalent of marmite. Fans of the band were almost rabid in their devotion whilst the non-believers felt this was the worst noise that you’d ever heard.
Being honest, if you forced me to sell Primus to you, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Their singer is - at best – poor; you can’t really say that they have written many great songs and they’re prone to the odd bit of wackiness that confounds even us fans (Hail Santa from their “Pork Soda” album being a great case in point). Despite this, to me, they’re an eminently listenable mix of rock, funk, pop, metal, jazz and a myriad of other styles into the bargain. This trio are all very accomplished players and I think the quality of their playing is the major attraction for me. It also helps that they have a very strange sense of humour and make me laugh a bit too. One of my claims to fame was that their drummer “Tim “Herb” Alexander recording the first three Primus albums using the same model of drum kit that I owned some years later. Guitarist Larry “Ler” Lalonde is criminally under-rated and the line-up is completed by bass player and aforementioned poor singer Les Claypool. As is a habit of mine, I’m going to nick a line from someone else – a live reviewer once said of Claypool: he doesn’t so much as play bass as reinvent its possibilities. Les is a unique talent both in creating different sounds as well as in technique. He failed an audition for Metallica because he was too good……
To finish the quick history of Primus: Alexander left after their 4th album and was replaced by one time Guns ‘n’ Roses drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia who lasted two albums before the band split. Reforming in 2009, a 3rd drummer, Jay Lane (who was actually the original drummer but never recorded with them in his previous stint) made their comeback album (Green Naughahyde featuring a song named “Lee Van Cleef”!!) before the news that every Primus fan wanted to hear was announced: Herb was returning. That brings up to date and now it’s time to take a look at their latest album: Primus and The Chocolate Factory.
Les Claypool says that this is an homage to the Gene Wilder version of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and that he has wanted to work a version of “Candy Man” into Primus’ live set for a long time. After trying it, he decided to take the band (and his Frog Chorus side project band) into the studio to do their version of the whole sound track in their own way.
Opening with “Hello Wonkites” you get a soundtrack impression which continues pretty much all throughout the album. The first song is an instrumental and far from being the amazing return of Herb that you’d expect, his playing is pretty laid back. The next track is “Candy Man” and is probably one of the closest songs to what you would expect from a normal (if you could ever describe anything about Primus as that) song. It’s got some great tom tom work from Herb and Ler plays his usual beautifully understated lines almost swapping roles with bass player Claypool – you’re more likely to whistle a primus bass line, than a guitar line. “Cheer Up Charlie” follows and like the preceding track has a heavy dose of cello/strings from The Frog Chorus, in its melancholy tune. Herb again seems to be in the role of percussionist rather than full rock drummer. Unfortunately this song seems to float by with not a lot happening and continues a slightly disappointing opening to the album. It’s followed by “Golden Ticket” opening with Les and a nice little bass line before the band kick in. This song is closer to what you’d expect from Primus and is probably one of the better songs on the album. Les sings in many different styles but I have a suspicion there is the first appearance of a couple of guest vocalist. Unfortunately, in the modern age, we at MusicMuso are sent download codes and not an actual copy of the CD – so I can’t really tell you a lot about the guest singers (if indeed they aren’t Les singing in different styles and aided by studio trickery).
A lot of the “songs” on this album are more sort of mood pieces – this is definitely an alternative soundtrack for the film so perhaps this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Following the 6 second ridiculousness (not necessarily meant in a derogatory fashion here) that is “Lermaninoff” is “Pure Imagination” - another decent song featuring a bass riff that sounds a little like something that didn’t quite make the cut for “Sailing The Seas of Cheese” album and is almost a bit hypnotic in parts. It also features some decent drum work from Herb – still sounding more like a percussionist than a drummer, though. It’s been quite a while since I watched the film but I remember that there were some quirky aspects so I’d imagine this song fits in quite well with the film.
Then it’s on to the first of four visits from the Oompa Loompas (Oompa Augustus is the first). I do remember this song from the original and it’s fair to say that this might stick to the film version but with a massive Primus twist and possibly another guest vocalist – hard to tell to be honest! “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride” is next up and is a very psychedelic sounding piece – all sound effects and snippets of things before Les twisted vocals bring things to a halt with a cry of: “Stop The Boat – we’re here!” The second Oompa variation (Violet) follows before “I Want It Now”. It definitely features a guest vocalist (although I don’t know who it is yet!) along with more contributions from the Frog Chorus and has an Eastern feeling to it. Ler gets a guitar solo and a chance to shine, which he grabs with his usual aplomb. It’s a decent song and it’s nice to hear that Claypool can be understated with his bass work when the song calls for it. After another outing for the Oompa Loompas (chronicling the downfall of Oompa Veruca) before it’s time for a trip on the “Wonkmobile” – another psychedelic mood piece that probably suffers without the visuals of the film. The final Oompa Loompa song (TV this time) precedes the closing track “Farewell Wonkites” which is the closest to a “proper” song on the album. Finally Herb gets to play a standard(ish) rock beat and this is probably my favourite song on the album.
This album is clearly a labour of love for Les Claypool and his honesty in interviews about the state of the music business, candid as he is in his view that the internet has ruined the music industry, is correct and perhaps he should be admired for such a bold piece of work. Unfortunately though for me, it doesn’t seem to work as an album. It almost seems that, as a result the band seem to be releasing this album to tie in with the forthcoming tour – where the merchandise stands will be selling Primus chocolate bars – rather than seeing it as an opportunity to extend their fine body of work. Overall this is a disappointing effort and rather a let-down considering the classic line-up has reformed. Primus know that they won’t win any new fans with this album and are prepared to steam ahead and do what pleases them artistically and this is one of the draws of the band but in this case, they’ve forgotten to excite their existing fans, as well as their own imaginations.
I will be seeing them on their next tour – assuming they come to Britain - but it may be that I’ll have to “suffer” the Chocolate Factory songs, to get to the real treats. This isn’t a bad album, it’s just that it passes you by and doesn’t excite like their other albums. Their other albums may have been patchy in parts but they always had 3 or 4 really memorable songs, whereas Primus and The Chocolate Factory doesn’t have those golden nuggets. One can but hope they will return to a more standard song format (and soon!) on their next release. Now, where did I put my copy of “Frizzle Fry”??
Primus and the Chocolate Factory is available to buy from November 3rd
Review by Adrian Grainger