Misc. Reviews

This week: Mystery Tail

Since the mid '90s, Providence, Rhode Island, has produced a long list of mind-blowing underground bands including Lightning Bolt, Forcefield, Arab on Radar, and Olneyville Sound System. Unfortunately, several of these groups, as they made the transition from local outsiders to subterranean heroes on the national level, have become renowned as just noisemakers. But in reality, the music has always been but a mere component to much larger multimedia projects. In addition to those fantastical neon costumes and hand silk-screened cover art, these creations utilize quasi-mystical sculpture, absurdist theater, kaleidoscopic video projections, and potent psychedelic animation. The occasional DVD documents that freakish Providence meme, including Load Records' massive Picka Winnervideo compilation (2004) and said imprint's brand-new one from Barkley's Barnyard Critters titled Mystery Tail.

As the brainchild of Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson (aka Barkley), the Critters are a crude yet cuddly squad of art brats who dress up as filthy animals and unleash a hyperprimitive take on electronically processed Beefhartian swamp dub. However, most of the Critters' performances that I've witnessed quickly devolve into cacophony, smoke, vandalism, and violence involving bloodshed and broken bones.

Gibson is also a gifted cartoonist, though, and the centerpiece of this disc is his hour-long animated movie Mystery Tail, which is the "continuing saga of rocker dog Barkley and his band of animal friends." It's a stunning homespun weave of vibrant geometric collage work, lo-res graphics, live action, and synth-generated atmospherics. When transforming his rowdy Critters into their on-screen avatars, Gibson has traded the brutality of the group's live show for surreal storytelling and an innocent sense of zaniness that little kids would go bananas for. The movie is so goddamn goofy andfully realized — filled with loveable ragamuffin protagonists and several truly creepy characters — that it would make perfect sense as a part of the USA Cartoon Express,that six-hour-long Sunday morning program from the '80s featuring cartoons that were just a little too weird and low-budget for the Saturday morning crowd. And that right there is the essence of the Critters' aesthetic: cheap and bizarre as all hell.

 
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