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A Clockwork Obolus

Scorched symphonies of sickness from The Throne

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There’s really no explaining the Thrones, except to say that if a huge crack were to open up in the earth and all the sulfurous evil of the underworld started leaking out, it would sound like side two of their White Rabbit EP on Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label. “Obolus” is arguably less ambitious than The Ring of the Nibelung, but still Wagnerian in its illness. The vocals, strangled by a particularly sinister application of the Sennheiser vocoder, sound like Valkyries high on cough syrup, or a funeral rite being sung in some sacred language from a country that slid into the sea 5,000 years ago. Imagine Wendy Carlos’ version of “Ode to Joy” from the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, played at 16 rpm on a dying turntable and you’ve got something about half as wonderfully freaky as the “Obolus” vocals. For about three minutes, before a wall of Melvins-style magma comes lurching down the mountain obliterating everything in its path.

A lot of the music on two of the Thrones’ Kill Rock Stars 12-inch EPs (one CD includes them both) sounds like the Melvins at their plodding best. No surprise there, since the band actually consists of just one person, Joe Preston, who used to be in the Melvins. And C Average (Olympia rockers with lots of songs inspired by Excalibur, Dungeons and Dragons and smoking way too much pot). And Earth, another one-man band whose only permanent member, Dylan Carlson, went on to become much more famous for helping Kurt Cobain buy his shotgun than he ever was for his monolithic exploration of bass frequencies that teetered between teeth-loosening and innards-rupturing. Preston’s hitch in the Melvins seems to have peaked with the Lysol album. You see, then, that Preston certainly knows his way around a thudding 15-minute-plus sludge anthem.

Another point of reference would be Olympia’s sadly defunct Karp. There’s an epic drag on side two of Karp’s Suplex album that comes close to the Thrones for minimalist endurance, and includes such inscrutable lyrics as “taunt the parch-faced gnome.” Even at that, Preston still clinches the oddball honors for sometimes singing in a made-up language (à la the Sun City Girls and the Residents) and writing an album’s worth of songs about bears. Not that you’d ever know from listening to the lyrics, although there is that one song title, “The Anguish of Bears.”

But Melvins and Karp comparisons only go so far toward explaining the epic weirdness of White Rabbit and the even more oppressive Sperm Whale EP which was released in 2000. An opening sample from A Clockwork Orange only cinches that movie’s soundtrack as a big influence on Preston’s Wagnerian warbling. It’s the paralyzed writer choking on his cordiality as he sets a trap for the droogie ringleader Alex: “I’m pleased you appreciate good wine—have another glass.”

The rasping threnody of “Ephraim” sounds like a whale song blaring out of an alpenhorn, or perhaps someone using a gigantic bow to play a rosined length of transatlantic-gauge cable strung between opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. What an eerie sound! The vocals on “Oso Malo” attain new levels of horror as Preston, apparently, pioneers a vocal effect inspired by gale-force winds blowing through a gap in a tin roof. I remember hearing some of these songs on a car stereo on a winding highway leading to Hot Springs. It was like being in a reenactment of that ominous opening shot of The Shining, driving up to the Overlook Hotel not in a Volkswagen, but in the business tip of one of those hydraulic lifts that they use on high-rise construction sites—exposed and terrifying.

Your listening experience may vary. A knowledgeable source who has seen the Thrones live says that there isn’t anything particularly interesting about watching Preston coax his symphony of sickness out of his equipment onstage, at least not compared to watching a one-man band like Bob Log or the overrated and underfunny but still conceptually to-die-for Captured By Robots. But he says, the music is excellent.

Not for every taste, though. Not for listeners prone to spells of the terrors or the horrors or occasional catatonic episodes. But any fan of the Melvins who has never heard anything by the Thrones is advised to go out and buy everything they can find—including entry to the show this Wednesday.

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