BOTCH: WE ARE THE ROMANS (1999)
1) To Our Friends In The Great White North; 2) Mondrian Was A Liar; 3) Transitions From Persona To Object; 4) Swimming The Channel Vs. Driving The Chunnel; 5) C. Thomas Howell As The "Soul Man"; 6) Saint Matthew Returns To The Womb; 7) Frequency Ass Bandit; 8) I Wanna Be A Sex Symbol On My Own Terms; 9) Man The Ramparts.
I don't think anyone would guess, just by glancing at these song titles, that the underlying album would be metal. I mean, just how many metal artists out there have references to Piet Mondrian or C. Thomas Howell in their song titles? These ones really look like they'd rather belong on a Frank Zappa record, or at least fit in better with some indie poseur like Sufjan Stevens. It is, in fact, a total pity that such a tremendous title as ʽI Wanna Be A Sex Symbol On My Own Termsʼ is completely wasted on three and a half minutes of fairly routine, monotonous metallic riffage and nearly endless head-splitting screaming. Ah well, it was too good to work.
The good news is that Botch's second and final album actually covers more stylistic ground than the first one — and a few of the «artsier» tracks here should actually qualify as some of the finest heavy rock offered to the world at the end of the decade. ʽTransitions From Persona To Objectʼ is the composition that springs to mind first and foremost — starting off with some dazzling polyrhythms, featuring guitarist Dave Knudson and Tim Latona at their best, it eventually explodes into the stratosphere, as Knudson hits upon a sweet, dry guitar tone and constructs a minimalistic high-pitched solo that is truly mindblowing; later on, as the melody shifts once again and becomes an angular King Crimson-style trance-inducer, he brews up a few more overdubs that make the guitar(s) sound like a meat-hungry swarm of killer bees for a while. That's a pretty awesome soundtrack to the process of «transition from persona to object» — "see us conquer all the humans that are left / This is our new home and we're still building", screams Verellen, and we see that the band's rather persistent obsession with the bee imagery (remember ʽThank God For Worker Beesʼ and ʽHivesʼ) still holds on.
A couple of the tracks are not «metal» at all, such as ʽSwimming The Channel Vs. Driving The Chunnelʼ (what could a band from Tacoma know about that contrast, I wonder?) — a slow bluesy shuffle carried forward by low-tuned, scraggly indie-rock guitar, with more of a Sonic Youth influence than any kind of metal flavor, gradually fizzling away into a hazy cloud of electronic hum and hushed feedback. And the epic conclusion, ʽMan The Rampartsʼ, beginning as the most warlike anthem of the album, eventually turns into a sea of industrial bass rumble, then becomes a Gregorian chant of the album title, and then returns to metal for just one brief minute in the climactic coda. But no, this is nothing like Rammstein — Botch have no interest in Teutonic militaristic clichés, they have their own equivalent of military brutality.
Even the shorter, more formulaic metal numbers have their surprises. ʽC. Thomas Howellʼ, after an uninteresting minute and a half of bland riffage, is given over to another series of high-pitched guitar overdubs (geez, if only that stupid dick could keep his larynx bolted for just one minute!) that generate a cool psychedelic effect; and in general, I must say that I am impressed by the solos on this album much more than I am by the riffs, which is quite atypical for my metal-listening experience. Whenever Knudson is not teaching his guitar to impersonate a killer bee swarm (which is his preferred trick), he is making it grin, giggle, howl, and go off like an alarm siren, rather than just go off at the usual million notes per minute. Listen to ʽFrequency Ass Banditʼ from about 3:00 to about 3:24 — that's one killer-crescendo solo indeed.
It's not as if the flaws of the record (and the band in general) did not exist, of course — yes, it is still monotonous, yes, the complexity of the riffs is undercut by their inefficiency, and yes, the «singer» should be dragged out into the street and skinned alive (which is exactly what his singing style suggests is happening to him). But that is sort of understood. Maybe some day a good fairy will trot along and issue a record of Botch covers that eliminate the vocals, clean up the riffs, and preserve all the solos. Until then, this is just a very modest, but still somewhat respectful thumbs up: I appreciate the effort, and I even appreciate the effort it took to put together relatively intelligent and, occasionally, even poetic lyrics for these songs — despite knowing that nobody will ever be able to decipher one word without some printed help. It takes a while to decode their message (same old o tempora, o mores! stuff — Cicero would be proud, though), but once you do, it fits the insane, structurally-chaotic music quite nicely. Oh, incidentally, isn't We Are The Romans supposed to be a bit of a pun on ʽWe Are The Robotsʼ? I'm sure Kraftwerk must have been one of the influences on these guys in any case.