BRAINIAC: BONSAI SUPERSTAR (1994)
1) Hot Metal Dobermans; 2) Hands Of The Genius; 3) Fucking With The Altimiter; 4) Radio Apeshot; 5) Transmissions After Zero; 6) Juicy (On A Cadillac); 7) Flypaper; 8) Sexual Frustration; 9) To The Baby-Counter; 10) You Wrecked My Hair; 11) Meathook Manicure; 12) Status: Choke; 13) Collide.
With the arrival of guitarist John Schmersal in the place of Michelle Bodine, the classic Brainiac lineup falls into place... wait, no, actually, I am not sure I would have noticed the replacement without additional info. Sure there are no female vocals now, and sure no two musicians play their instrument in the exact same way, but on the whole, this is still Tim Taylor running the whole show and others are playing what they are being told, or at least the way they are being told to play. The main difference is not in the change of style, but rather in its tightening up, so much so that guitars and electronics fuse even more seamlessly, and it gets harder and harder to simply view Brainiac as a «guitar rock band with Moogs».
For one thing, they get more heavily involved with sampling, and pretty creatively: ʽFucking With The Altimeterʼ builds a rhythmic pattern out of spooky whispered vocals, and in several other places they play around with radio static, using it as a greasy paste from which one can mold just about anything, given patience and time. For another thing, guitars and keyboards now often either play the same melody or play small, splintered melodic bits that are tightly interwoven around each other. Throw in Taylor's now-permanent operation in the mode of «total musical madness», and here's a sound that's pretty damn hard to confuse with anything.
The bad news is that, the more they solidify around this thing they do best, the more one-dimensional they become. Although some of these songs are fast and some are slow, some are punkier and some are bluesier, some are lighter and some are heavier, the basic message of each tune is more or less the same — «the modern world and modern technology has made us nutty as hell, and we love love love it!». This is, indeed, like one particular angle borrowed from the Pixies and magnified to the proportions of a grand hall, but this is also why Brainiac could never hope to achieve the kind of recognition and popularity that the Pixies have: too focused on one single theme, too radical in their exploration of it. I really like the record, yet I cannot even write a proper review, because the songs leave few possibilities for individual analysis.
I will simply state, then, that Bonsai Superstar is one of the most credible «mad albums» of the post-punk epoch that would not be done from a sociopathic standpoint, but rather from a «harmless» angle. One big mistake that so many «mad» artists make is that, for some reason, they usually think that «madness» always has to be aggressive — which it does not. Here, even when Taylor drives himself up the wall and the guitars and keyboards begin locking into a paranoid, dissonant howling (ʽYou Wrecked My Hairʼ), the feeling is that the anger is mostly internalised, that the singer is trying to knock out his demons without expectorating them. More often, though, he is simply just being playful — like on the hilarious ʽJuicy (On A Cadillac)ʼ, a basic rock'n'roll number offset by hiccupy «rubbed-glass» noises that might equally well be synthesizer tones or treated samplings of scratched records, but, regardless of this, add a touch of «dynamic idiocy» to whatever is going on. Or he is being explicitly androgynous, as on ʽFlypaperʼ, where his near-falsetto vocals are driven so high up in the mix, it's as if he were making a pass at you or something. Okay, that might be dangerous... but nah, not really.
One thing to add is that, from a technical angle, I think that lovers of guitar experimentation will find plenty of interesting stuff going on here — Schmersal's passages often presage «math-rock» as we know it in the 21st century, though, of course, they are nowhere near as technically accomplished as the average «math-rock» product these days. But they do not need to be, since the melody, as such, is always subdued here to atmosphere and energy, by definition. Had they had a Robert Fripp in the band, he would surely have introduced a tighter level of «discipline»; but then, I suppose that any band that would have Robert Fripp and Tim Taylor in it at the same time would have decayed faster than a mendelevium isotope. So let us be content with what we have here, a maniacal celebration of electronic insanity without any harmful repercussions for progressive humanity. In other words, a thumbs up.