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’93 Retrospective #3: “Pork Soda” by Primus

“Hey ho, Mister Krinkle, have you heard the brand new sound? It’s a cross between Jimi Hendrix, Bocephus, Cher and James Brown. It’s called ‘Heavy Hometown,’ New Wave, cold-filtered, low-calorie dry.” – “Mr. Krinkle” from Pork Soda

Primus is a band that’s been subject to an obsession with categorization ever since they achieved a meaningful level of popularity. The critics who didn’t loathe them were falling over themselves to find a label for this suddenly hot musical property that refused to be easily pigeonholed. At the time of their mainstream break in the early 90s, the same group of adjectives was being thrown around to the point of utter cliché to describe them: weird, wacky, cartoony, etc. There were others, maybe a bit more comprehending of the music, labeling them prog rock, but that obviously didn’t really work either.

The nadir was reached when the band was not only lumped in with the cohort of “funk-metal” groups who were simultaneously exploding in popularity, but were branded the even more idiotic label of “thrash-funk.” “[That] term pretty much makes my lips curl,” bassist Les Claypool bemoaned in a 1991 interview with Guitar Player. “I think the term ‘funk’ is being bastardized; people just hear a slap bass and assume it’s funk. To me, funk is Tower Of Power, P-Funk, the Average White Band.” In the same interview, Claypool summarized Primus as well as anyone ever has: “We’re a mishmash. I mean, look at our CD collection: There’s Jelly Roll Morton, King Crimson, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Motorhead, the Afros. It’s pretty varied, and so are we.”

Claypool performing with Primus at the 1991 Pinkpop festival. (Photo: Paul Bergen)

Primus’s beginnings were distant from both the style and image they’d become associated with less than a decade later. Originally known as Primate, Claypool and guitarist Todd Huth started out playing along to a LinnDrum machine in 1984. It was music with roots that could be traced to early Peter Gabriel, Public Image Ltd and XTC. Live video footage from 1986 makes the post-punk influences even clearer. Echoes of Gang of Four and The Pop Group are present. By early 1989, the classic lineup had been solidified with the addition of guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander. Already an established and popular act in the Bay Area and a college radio favorite, Primus released the live LP Suck on This the same year, followed by Frizzle Fry on Caroline in 1990 and their breakthrough album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, on Atlantic Records subsidiary Interscope in 1991. The latter gained the band immense visibility, spawning hits “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” (its bassline a shameless rip-off of King Crimson’s ‘Elephant Talk’) and peaking at #116 on the Billboard 200.

It’s obvious that the trio was very much in the right place at the right time. The “alternative” music craze was in full swing, with similarly eclectic acts like Faith No More (and member Mike Patton’s far stranger project Mr. Bungle,) Helmet and Porno for Pyros also releasing records on major labels. Whatever the case, Primus had arrived. They were playing festivals, appearing on MTV and late night talk shows, and perhaps the strongest indicator of having infiltrated the popular culture of the time, had a cameo appearance in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The band could have easily pursued the trappings of rock stardom, heading into an expensive, top of the line studio and recording a more accessible album with a hitmaker producer at the helm. They did the exact opposite.

The group decamped to their warehouse rehearsal space in San Rafael, isolated themselves in three separate bays (communicating through CCTV,) ran all their inputs into their live sound console and ran the output into ADAT decks, relatively inexpensive machines that could record eight tracks of uncompressed digital audio onto consumer-grade SVHS tapes. With engineers Derek Featherstone and Ron Rigler manning the board, this is how Pork Soda was recorded (with the exception of two tracks recorded at Claypool’s home studio and one at Alexander’s.) Claypool’s rationale for this approach was simple:

I wanted to learn the process. It always frustrated me that I’d say, “Okay, I want this,” but because I wasn’t technically knowledgeable enough…I didn’t know how to get those sounds myself. The more we could use gear that I was familiar with, the more I was able to get my fingers in there. So taping this stuff to ADAT, that was the very beginning of that. And then I got a whole bank of ADATs….We started doing all these things by ourselves [and] Pork Soda was the first venture into that–of us really going DIY.

Les Claypool, interviewed by Greg Pato in “Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool”

The success of an album as unconventional as Seas of Cheese was already surprising, but there was still enough accessible material on it to keep less adventurous listeners interested. This is not the case with Pork Soda. There’s no equivalent to “Tommy the Cat.” The songs are mostly moody and dissonant, the lyrical subject matter morbid and bleak, interspersed with strange instrumental breaks. The production is stripped down and minimal, with the resultant audio sounding exactly like what it is: something recorded in a warehouse.

“Provocative Porksters.” Primus on the cover of the May 1993 issue of Alternative Press.

Pork Soda can be placed stylistically in purely experimental territory, in the vein of Public Image Ltd’s The Flowers of Romance or The Residents’ Duck Stab! It draws on the band’s least accessible influences in particular and, logically, should have been an alienating commercial failure. Less than a month after its April 20th release (can’t help but wonder if that was intentional,) it peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200. By September, it had sold over half a million units and would go on to be certified Platinum (a million copies sold) four years later. By comparison, Seas of Cheese didn’t crack the half million mark until shortly before Pork Soda’s release and took a decade to become certified Platinum. The level of mainstream popularity this album enjoyed still baffles me. What was it that endeared so many people to this odd band’s oddest offering and made it a literal best seller? Maybe it’s because, for me and many others, this record was a revelation.

While the musical complexity isn’t as immediately obvious as on Seas of Cheese (the closest thing to an odd time signature is the 6/4 ‘Hamburger Train,’) the playing on Pork Soda is still spectacular. Claypool’s fingers are as quick and nimble as ever, Alexander’s drumming is precise and powerful, garnished with plenty of his usual syncopations, cymbal splashes and octoban fills, and LaLonde wrenches textures from his instrument as well as anyone. What they’re playing is also spectacular. The album’s sound is uncompromisingly dissonant and bombastic while still retaining its subtleties. The dark humor and flat out absurdity of the lyrics (delivered in Claypool’s nasal vocal stylings) are, to a certain kind of person, at least, very endearing.

“My Name Is Mud’s” musical simplicity is subsumed by its outrageousness in every other sense. Alexander takes one of the most straightforward 4/4 parts imaginable and imbues it with life, adding all the right ornamentations and fills in all the right places. It melds perfectly with Claypool’s downtuned, percussive slapping and LaLonde’s screeching distortions. “Welcome to This World” and “The Pressman,” songs reaching back into the group’s 80s repertoire, fit the record’s atmosphere perfectly. The former is as demented as the version heard on early demo tapes, but with the addition of Alexander and LaLonde’s finesse. The funkiness that earned the band its cringeworthy genre categorizations in the past is almost entirely absent on Pork Soda, but what’s still present is what the band has always had (and most of what the aforementioned ‘funk’ was all along): their tremendous groove. It’s the driving force of tracks like “DMV” and “Nature Boy” (the latter’s tempo shift in particular is exhilarating.)

“Mr. Krinkle,” the lyrics derived from conversations Claypool had with Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin, is momentous. Alexander’s tom patterns, Claypool sawing away on his upright, and LaLonde’s diminished chords come together to make something absolutely sublime in its mixture of musical ingenuity and aesthetic rawness. The song’s music video, really more of a short film, was a fixed camera single take of Claypool playing upright bass in a pig outfit as LaLonde and Alexander, also in costume, circus performers and friends of the group (Brian ‘Brain’ Mantia can be seen pushing a hot dog cart) parade past in the background. Out of the entirety of Pork Soda, however, the cut I’ve come to appreciate the most over the years is the title track. It’s the sound of the band going all out, cooking up a complete sensory overload and giving it their all. The upright groans away, backed by LaLonde’s klaxon guitar, and Alexander pounds out hypnotic rhythms while Claypool jabbers on about, amongst other things, painting a couch with a “Goddamn sprinkler.” Sometimes I wonder if there’s a conscious or unconscious influence from King Crimson’s “Neurotica” here. The ranting over wild musical tumult, combined with the entire group’s acknowledged appreciation for Crimson, begs the question.

Amidst it all, there’s “Wounded Knee,” Alexander’s ethereal solo recording, completely stylistically removed from the album, but still somehow fitting in with the rest of the tracklist. In an interview, Alexander described its creation:

I played two drum kits, one of them in 3/4 and the other in 4/4, each playing separate parts. “The Rhythmatist” by Stewart Copeland was a big influence on me for creating this piece. I played everything on this one–two tracks of marimba, African thumb piano, and various percussion instruments. The basic drum beat came first, then I set a delay on my drums to get the effect of them bouncing back and forth. The second kit served the role of a percussion unit. The piece is like a lot of stuff that I’ve put together in my spare time. I was nervous playing it for the other guys because it’s very much in the “Herb” realm, very percussion-y.

Tim Alexander, interviewed in the September 1993 issue of Modern Drummer

Pork Soda comes to a suitably ridiculous end: Claypool and LaLonde plucking away tunelessly while Alexander rings a bicycle bell over the sound of a Mattel See ‘n Say.

Lollapalooza attendee at the World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, Illinois, July 2, 1993. (Photo: Chicago History Museum)

I first heard Pork Soda when I was fifteen, a decade on from its release. The prior year, I’d given The Brown Album a listen, which was a terrible choice for my initial exposure to Primus, and subsequently written them off. I gave them a second chance, finding a copy of Pork Soda at a library. I still remember putting the disc into my portable CD player, slipping on my headphones, and being mesmerized for the entirety of its running time. The center of my musical world back then was Metallica, and Pork Soda, thank God, put an end to that. I’d been playing the drums for two years, and Alexander’s virtuosity changed my conception of the instrument. I had never really taken any particular notice of the bass before, but now it was front and center. I wasn’t a stranger to the bizarre, already being a fan of Zappa and They Might Be Giants, but this was a specific type of bizarre I’d never encountered before. It was wonderful, inspirational, and it was, importantly, a musical point of departure on many fronts. By way of Primus, I discovered The Residents (the band covering ‘Hello Skinny’ at Woodstock ’94, in front of hundreds of thousands of people and live on MTV, was an ingenious move,) King Crimson, Mike Patton’s oeuvre, etc.

As I said before, this was, indeed, a revelation. For many, Pork Soda, if not the entire Primus catalog, is a novelty at best and unlistenable at worst. For scores of others, though, this record and band were life altering in a wholly positive manner. It was for me, and I wouldn’t be the musician or just the person I am today otherwise. It’s an album that’s absolutely not for everyone, or even most, but it still manages to keep catching the ears of a hell of a lot more people than I’d ever expect.

Listen to Pork Soda on YouTube:

’93 Retrospective #2: “Supernova” by Today is the Day

“A storm is rising. Can’t you sense it?” – “Silver Tongue” from Supernova

By the early 90s, noise rock bands were in no short supply. The genre itself had not only emerged into popular consciousness but was a foundational element of the grunge and, more generally, alternative rock milieus now surging in popularity. Still, while superstars like Nirvana were cranking out distortion-drenched nihilistic rock for the masses on MTV, the majority of noise rock groups were leading the typical unglamorous existence of working musicians, cramming into cramped tour vans, playing in filthy (if not downright hazardous) venues, and getting a decent amount of college radio airplay if they were lucky. The noise aesthetic might have gone mainstream, but much of the actual music’s appeal was still limited to relatively niche audiences. Those fans, however, were fiercely passionate, like the punk and hardcore obsessives who preceded them. Many were the same people, now older but no less alienated and starved for the visceral, sensory assault that aggressive, caustic rock music delivers.

There had been a steady supply of it since the 70s. Suicide’s brash electro-minimalist “punk mass” and Throbbing Gristle’s bleak dirges and industrial soundscapes caught the ears of a young Steve Albini, who further pioneered noise rock through the 80s at the helm of Big Black and Rapeman alongside fellow genre mainstays God Bullies, Helmet, The Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth, Swans and others. Across the Pacific in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun birthed acts like the Boredoms, the completely deranged Hanatarash and absurdist Gerogerigegege, along with the distinctly less violent (i.e. not given to sawing dead cats in half onstage or driving excavators through venue walls) Ruins and Zeni Geva. The arrival of the 1990s saw an independent/experimental rock landscape filled with both the creators of noise rock themselves in addition to labels like Skin Graft, Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile, the latter originally started by Marine Corps lance corporal Tom Hazelmayer as a means of promoting his band Halo of Flies.

Today is the Day in their Nashville practice space, early 90s. L-R: Michael Herrell, Brad Elrod, Steve Austin.

Far from being homogeneous, the noise rock style was an alchemical witches’ brew, and perhaps no other band embodied this better than Today is the Day. The group’s origins stem from the dissolution of the avant-metal outfit Alien In The Land Of Our Birth, which featured South Carolina-born drummer Brad Elrod and, in its final incarnation, Tennessee native Steve Austin on guitar. Shortly after the breakup, Austin and Elrod formed Today is the Day, recruiting Alabama transplant Michael Herrell as bassist and releasing the 1992 self-produced EP How To Win Friends And Influence People. The following year, they signed to Amphetamine Reptile, recording and releasing their debut LP, Supernova. The result is a fifty-plus minute aural mélange, repeatedly careening from the brutal to the sublime and back. Austin’s tortured screams and dissonant, lacerating guitar work wind through constant tempo and metric shifts, punctuated with samples of everything from Michael Moore interviewing neo-Nazis to a sound system demonstration tape that shipped with late 80s Chryslers. All of it is anchored by Herrell’s driving bass and Elrod’s vibrant, cascading drumming: aggressive and precise, recalling fellow experimental rock pioneers like Bruford and Carey. It’s music that works both from afar as a confrontational gut punch and a richly detailed tapestry up close.

Flier for a Supernova CD release party in Birmingham, Alabama, August 1993. (Photo: Julie Odom)

Herrell, who I spoke to via social media, remembers recording at Amphetamine Reptile’s in-house studio, a carpeted, acoustically dead downstairs facility that was the sonic opposite of what the band was used to. “Our practice room had [soaring ceilings]….It was a warehouse space, and [it] had huge sound. [It was] really different for us to have to go and use…some reverbs or whatever [to get] the live sound which we liked and which we later provided on Willpower….” Thankfully, the awkward transition had no deleterious effects on the quality of the final product. “All three of us [were] finding our ground….[We had] so many different kinds of influences [from] different bands we all brought to the table in our different styles,” Herrell said of the inception of Today is the Day’s sound. While the group already had its “core rock songs,” the overarching approach to Supernova was for it to be “a voyage like Dark Side of the Moon…a voyage between songs.”

The album has a nightmarish, hallucinatory quality to it, maintaining an overall stylistic continuity as it trudges through a tracklist characterized by starkly contrasting dynamics (musical and sonic) and oblique, eerie instrumental interludes. Opening track “Black Dalhia” starts with a striking descending guitar riff and furious fill by Elrod. After less than a minute, the time changes begin. Austin alternates between overdriven leads and massive, distorted textures, accompanied by his requisite banshee screams and wails. The song settles into a chugging ostinato near the end, only for an explosive reprise to draw everything to a close. Similarly, “6 Dementia Satyr” has a jazzy, chime-sprinkled beginning in compound time that’s quickly abandoned in favor of a riff-heavy rampage that ends with a frantic tempo shift. Conventional, pedestrian “verse-chorus-verse” form is essentially absent here. Supernova demands attention from the listener.

In 1994, the aforementioned Willpower was released, the final album with all the original members. Elrod and Herrell both departed in 1996 (with Elrod briefly returning to play on a 1998 tour) and the band continued with a different lineup on every subsequent record, Austin being the sole constant. While a move to Relapse Records saw the release of 1997’s Temple of the Morning Star (often regarded as the band’s best work,) 1999’s In the Eyes of God (featuring future Mastodon members Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher,) and 2002’s bizarre double disc magnum opus Sadness Will Prevail, the experimental and psychedelic qualities that were a core component of Today is the Day’s output up to that point featured less on future studio recordings. Some of their later work recalls the group’s AmRep era, but never, in my view, replicated the lightning in a bottle that was the band’s first decade.

It’s obvious how influential Today is the Day has been not only in the domain of noise rock, but metal and boundary-pushing music overall. Surveying the musical landscape of the past thirty years, their imprint on everyone from Deadguy to Dillinger Escape Plan and scores of contemporary bands is undeniable. Critic Patrick Kennedy observed that “[Supernova] presaged the shape of things to come in extreme music. [It] straddles numerous musical fences at once, and indicates that metal could indeed be far more than a simple, formulaic system of chugging riffs, screamed vocals, and stampeding drums….Very few outfits are capable of such detailed, inescapably mathematical, acid-damaged music. Supernova is a landmark recording.”

Ultimately, everything that came to define Today is the Day is present on Supernova: ferocity, heterogeneity, bold experimentation, fearsome musicianship and uncompromising musical ambition. The energy and drive of all involved parties is clear, and the result is a mercurial experience that thoroughly assaults the senses before ending as abruptly as it began. The passage of time hasn’t dulled its impact whatsoever, and how lucky we are that trio of southern weirdos committed their vision to tape in a Minneapolis basement three decades ago. Supernova endures in all its psychotic glory.

Listen to Supernova on YouTube:

’93 Retrospective #1: “April 1993” by False Sacrament

The confluence of jazz and rock that began in the late 60s has been celebrated and maligned in equal measure. Its progenitors, simply through their music, seemed to validate what a revelation this hybrid was: the aggression and bombast of hard rock mixed with the musical finesse and improvisation of the jazz idiom exploded off the wax grooves of Bitches Brew, The Inner Mounting Flame, Romantic Warrior and a slew of Zappa releases. Its detractors branded it a corruption of jazz and an opportunistic pandering to rock audiences (and to be fair, they weren’t always wrong.) I think back to the unlikely encounter I had as a teenager with the late Gunther Schuller, one of jazz’s most indefatigable champions in the classical world, following a concert he’d conducted by Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra (I only knew about/attended it because I was taking drum lessons from one of the guest performers.) I asked him his thoughts on jazz fusion, and with a pained expression and wistful tone of voice, he responded he thought it was simply the crass capitalization on the similarities between jazz and rock.

It’s important to emphasize that the fusion phenomenon went both ways. Rock influenced jazz fusion and jazz deeply influenced progressive rock, something especially obvious in the early releases from groups like King Crimson and Magma. There was also the realm of jazz rock, a genre that seemed to far more closely fit Schuller’s description of fusion, being home to (with the exception of Steely Dan) eminently accessible acts like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. By the close of the 70s, though, something strange was happening in the dirty, dangerous and artistically fecund New York City of the time. The free jazz influenced No Wave scene counted among its standout acts jazzbos like James Chance and John Lurie. In the 80s, the marriage of jazz and rock had continued in a decidedly postmodern direction. Highly alienating forms of both were brought together by the likes of Mr. Bungle and John Zorn’s Naked City. It was at this point, in the last years of the decade, when a bunch of young upstarts in and around Newport News, VA came together to make something that was far more than just “jazz-inflected” rock.

Live at Your Place Too, Oakland, CA c. 1993. L-R: Chris Self, Danny Frazier, Wendy Niles, Thel Dominici. (Photo: Murray Bowles)

In 1989, Wendy Niles (vocals, clarinet,) Thel Dominici (guitar,) Steve DiFazio (bass) and Danny Frazier (drums) formed False Sacrament. In a stunning act of commitment, Dominici, still a senior in high school, relocated to Newport News in order to be closer to his bandmates. The group’s youth belied their incredible talent, and their sound was a riveting stylistic mishmash. There was the distorted crunch, bizarre vocals and frantic drums of metal and hardcore punk, the musical precision, experimentation and rhythmic variations of prog, and an infusion of jazz stylings that made it clear to listeners they were in the same league as the best of their contemporary avant-garde rock peers. The band put out two self-produced tapes in 1990 and 1991 before signing to Very Small Records and appearing alongside Schlong on a split 10” in 1992. Around this time, Chris Self replaced DiFazio on bass and the group relocated to the Bay Area in California.

Flier for a show at 924 Gilman Street, March 1993.

They lived in what Dominici described to me as the “24-hour rehearsal space” in Oakland known as Paradigm. “Some friends had recording equipment and we recorded [the April 1993 LP.]” Released on Very Small, April 1993 captures the band in peak form. They blow through odd time signatures, tempo changes and intricate guitar parts seemingly effortlessly, with moments of loose, dissonant experimentation cheek by jowl with tightly executed perfection. Opener “That’s Cool 2” finds Niles, Self and Dominici setting the mood with wailed vocals and tritone riffs while Frazier keeps a solid foundation under it all, embellished with syncopations and flurries of triplet fills. There’s a spoken word break, a shift into five, and more abrupt starts and stops than I bothered to count. The record never deviates from this aggressive virtuosity. “Henry’s Sleep” begins with freeform, delay drenched atonality from Dominici and Niles (on clarinet,) with Self and Frazier gradually introducing a rhythmic coherence to the whole affair. Closing track “Billy’s Nitemare” has the band’s jazz influence on full display, starting off as an almost Lounge Lizards-esque piss take of jazz improv before careening into a frenzied tumult. A repeated chromatic figure from Self and Dominici enters like a tree falling onto a house, with the track becoming a noisy dirge (complete with a squealing Theremin?) that doesn’t just abruptly end but literally cuts out.

False Sacrament found modest success and loyal fans playing the Bay Area circuit, but by the mid-90s, the group seems to have drifted apart. Following April 1993 and the Paradigm 7”, released the same year, there’s no further recorded output from the band. This begs the question of whether their relocation was beneficial or ultimately detrimental. At a point in time when the local music scene was populated by the likes of Grotus, M.I.R.V., the aforementioned Mr. Bungle, Neurosis, Primus, and the unconventional generally was in vogue, it seems as though the Bay Area was where they should have developed a broader following. Alternatively, were they crowded out by all the other experimental groups of the time? Were they ultimately just too niche, even for audiences primed to expect the unexpected?

I doubt a “broader following” was ever really a goal of any member of False Sacrament. I still find it surprising, however, that this incredible band ended up as a complete obscurity, relegated to the memories of members and fans, blog posts and YouTube uploads. “We were just young people trying to find our way and express ourselves in the form of music…heavily influenced by jazz, punk, metal and…even some R&B,” Niles told me through direct messages. “We were very dedicated to our music and doing it our own way rather than trying to conform to what was happening at the time.” As for their place in the jazz fusion tradition, False Sacrament definitely deserves at least an honorable mention, despite being neither jazz nor fusion. The Bungle and Zorn comparisons are easy, but the group was doing something distinct from the former. They took hardcore/metal and jazz and positively smashed the two together in a manner that was more serious than Bungle and less contrived than Naked City.

Some of the members remained in California while others ended up moving back to Virginia. Thel Dominici is still musically active, playing in the Virgina Beach-based prog outfit That Which Sleeps. All things considered, the question of whether this band should have been bigger is irrelevant, as it is in most cases. This particular group of people came together and made truly stunning music with no regard for genre boundaries or commercial appeal. April 1993 is proof of that.

Listen to April 1993 on YouTube:

Surreal Spring: A Retrospective of Three Albums from April 1993

Primus, alongside VJ Kennedy, on MTV’s Haunted House Party, October 1993.

For the entirety of this blog’s existence, its subject matter has remained solely political. This month will be a (much needed and long overdue) departure.

In western popular culture, the early 1990s were an anomalous period, comparable to the late 60s, where elements of various subcultures of the past two decades found their way into the mainstream. There were few realms in which this was more obvious than music. No Wave, hardcore punk, post-punk and noise rock of the late 70s and 80s found new visibility among audiences of the time, with the bands/musicians of said genres (Big Black/Shellac’s Steve Albini and Black Flag’s Henry Rollins are just two examples out of many) suddenly sharing the spotlight with a number of newer groups bearing their influence. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil both attended Big Black’s 1987 final show in Seattle. Within a few years, the two were giants of the now wildly popular “alternative” music scene.

At the same time, a vibrant musical underground flourished, playing host to a plethora of acts that would eventually break into the mainstream (The Butthole Surfers, Helmet, The Melvins, Primus,) others who didn’t but proved to be greatly influential in the long-term (Breadwinner, Today is the Day,) and a remaining smattering of obscurities and curiosities (False Sacrament, Shorty.) Independent labels like Sub-Pop and Amphetamine Reptile, along with tape trading, fanzines and mailing lists, all played a significant role in enabling a varied array of bands and artists to keep making music that reached audiences, both large and niche.

Lollapalooza attendees at the World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, Illinois, July 2, 1993. (Chicago History Museum)

The early years of the decade saw a truly dizzying array of seminal releases from a diverse range of artists: Built to Spill, Bjork, Dr. Dre, Eazy E, Faith No More, Helmet, Ice Cube, Jamiroquai, Jane’s Addiction, The Melvins, Meshuggah, Ministry, Mr. Bungle, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Primus, Public Enemy, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Shellac, Skinny Puppy, Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, Tool, Tom Waits, etc.

The list, of course, goes on. For the rest of this month, however, I’m focusing on three records from 1993. Why 1993? As a teenager, it was a year of immense importance to me solely because Pork Soda, an album that completely blew my mind a decade later, was unleashed on the world. Since then, I’ve obviously become aware of the multitude of other fantastic records from that year. I discovered last fall, though, that three of my favorite ’93 releases, including Pork Soda itself, all dropped in April, the two others being False Sacrament’s April 1993 and Today is the Day’s Supernova.

These three albums encompass the aforementioned paradigm of early 1990’s “alternative” music: The formerly unknown hitting the mainstream. The weirdos who’d go on to influence entire generations of musicians. The even weirder weirdos whose demo tapes, seven inches, EPs and LPs exist in the present day as relics of a bygone era. They’re all equally deserving of recognition on their 30th birthday. This month will be devoted entirely to them, with each entry posted the day of the original release if available. Hopefully, you’ll come away from each post either knowing a bit more about the music in question or having discovered it for the first time.

Encapsulation of an era: The Melvins, with Kurt Cobain, circa 1992 during the recording of their 1993 album, Houdini. L-R: Buzz Osborne, sound engineer Jonathan Burnside, Lori Black, Dale Crover, Kurt Cobain.

Volodymyr Ishchenko on the West’s Ukrainian Tokenism

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., December 21, 2022. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin)

The November/December 2022 issue of the New Left Review includes a piece by sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, criticizing the instrumentalization of Ukraine by Western elites amidst the current conflict. Ishchenko argues that discourse on the “decolonization” of Ukraine and its portrayal as a valiant champion of liberal democracy in the face of Russian authoritarianism does little to help the country or its people. Instead, it largely serves as fodder for pro-Western and anti-Russian propaganda. An excerpt:

The question for Ukrainians is whether being a part of this self-defeating escalation of identity politics is really what we need. This year, there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion. We have seen how outdated arguments—not least those of primordial nationalism, weirdly combined with teleological claims for the superiority of liberal democracy—are legitimated. We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?

The Omicron Deception: BA.1’s Impact on the United States

President Joe Biden meets with the COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments on the omicron variant, Tuesday, January 4, 2022 in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Note: This post was updated on 7/21 and 7/28/22 to include hospitalization data spanning a longer chronological range and national level excess mortality estimates.

In November of 2021, the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in the Gauteng region of South Africa. Early research painted a worrying picture. It was reportedly four times more contagious than the already highly transmissible Delta variant and was better at evading immunity, resulting in a marked decrease in the effectiveness of existing vaccines. There was an additional discovery: the variant was less likely to cause serious infection in lung tissue, raising the possibility of milder illness and lower rates of hospitalization. Researchers were quick to point out this wasn’t evidence of the virus evolving to become less severe (Omicron didn’t evolve from Delta) or that the variant didn’t present a serious threat. Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson stated that “our analysis shows evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalization associated with Omicron variant compared with the Delta variant….However, this appears to be offset by the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection with the Omicron variant.” The University of Hong Kong’s Dr. Michael Chan Chi-wai, a faculty member involved in one of the aforementioned studies that indicated Omicron’s propensity for less severe respiratory infection, noted that “the severity of disease in humans is not determined only by virus replication but also by the host immune response to the infection.” He warned that Omicron could “cause more severe disease and death simply by spreading much faster, even though the lung infection appears not as bad.”

The mischaracterization of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron as a mild pathogen took hold in the greater public imagination, aggravated by some healthcare professionals promoting oversimplified explanations of “mild Omicron” with misleading statements about the “decoupling” of cases and hospitalizations and SARS-CoV-2’s transition to being an “endemic” virus. Additionally, many public health measures that had been put in place to blunt the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were gone by the end of 2021. 2022 began with massive spikes in Omicron-driven COVID-19 infection erupting around the world, with one of the worst occurring in the United States (Fig 1). On January 10th, 1.3 million new cases were recorded in the US, with Omicron’s BA.1 sublineage being the dominant strain (accounting for more than 90% of sequenced infections.) The surge ended almost as quickly as it started, with daily caseloads much lower by early March than they had been at its beginning in late December.

Figure 1

During the BA.1 wave, deaths as a percentage of cases were a fraction of that seen in waves driven by prior variants. To describe the mortality that resulted from the outbreak in such abstract mathematical terms, however, is misleading. Because of Omicron’s greatly increased transmissibility, much more of the population was infected. Thus, the amount of death caused by the BA.1 surge was substantial, regardless of the strain’s decreased pathogenicity. Official COVID-19 mortality figures (Fig. 2) reflect this, but the limitations of this data are well known. Excess mortality estimates (Fig. 3) show that while the BA.1 wave was likely less deadly than all prior major surges, it was still highly lethal and comparable to the former*. Similarly, despite initial predictions of a decreased risk of hospitalization, the number of people hospitalized by BA.1 (Fig. 4) surpassed the Fall 2020/winter 2021 and Delta waves, being roughly 150% higher than the latter. More than 154,000 Americans were hospitalized nationwide as of January 19th 2022, almost entirely by a variant still widely being referred to as “mild.” Further analyzing hospitalization data, the number of these patients requiring intensive care was more or less equal to that of the Delta wave and marginally less than that of the 2020/2021 wave.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4 (Source: The New York Times)

These data reveal the true severity of BA.1’s impact in the United States. Although the surge began in late December, the country’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll increased by more than 120,000 between January and March alone. By comparison, a particularly virulent seasonal flu can result in around 52,000 deaths. A recent study found excess deaths in Massachusetts were higher during the BA.1 wave than the Delta wave. Beyond mortality, there’s the uncalculated figure of how many Americans have sustained permanent injury, become disabled and joined the ranks of “long COVID” sufferers as a result of BA.1 infection. As disturbing as the effects of the BA.1 wave were, the government’s subsequent response was more unsettling. Funding for federal pandemic aid has been cut and top ranking officials have made the dubious claim that the most severe stage of the pandemic is over. The US is already experiencing another Omicron-driven surge, with the BA.5 sublineage (as of the publishing of this post) being the dominant strain. Preliminary data suggests it may have evolved to cause more severe disease. In the face of it all, numerous individuals and entities (the CDC included) carry on minimizing the continued threat of this virus.

*Alternatively, an estimate of excess mortality during the pandemic by The Economist found higher levels during the BA.1 wave than the Spring 2020 or Delta surges. Whichever measure is ultimately more accurate, the fundamental assertion that BA.1 caused a considerable number of fatalities in the US remains true.

Special thanks to Jeoffry B. Gordon, MD, MPH for his assistance during the drafting of this piece.

Good riddance to Boris the Butcher

The abysmal and deadly failures of the Johnson government’s COVID-19 response have been extensively documented, with the UK’s death toll (now more than 180,000) the highest in Europe second only to Russia. I won’t be analyzing them in this post. Instead, with Johnson having officially confirmed his resignation, I want to spotlight a statement he made before the chaos of the pandemic kicked off in full that made it clear what his governing philosophy and priorities were. Anyone who heard it should have fully expected what was to come.

Prior to the carnage of Spring and Autumn or his blunt pronouncement-cum-self-fulfilling prophecy in March that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time,” Johnson gave a speech at London’s Old Royal Naval College three days after the finalization of Brexit. It was a twenty-eight minute hubristic declaration of the UK’s commitment to global capitalism and why the country, now freed from the shackles of EU membership, was apparently destined to become an economic superpower. What would become the speech’s defining moment came six minutes in when Johnson said the following:

[When] we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other. And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

There it was, stated unambiguously, albeit dressed up in Johnson’s theatrical verbiage: the health of Britain’s private sector came first. The health of its public faced with the threat from a deadly novel virus came second (more accurately, probably tenth or twelfth.) Johnson painted neoliberalism as the most progressive and liberating force on earth, and himself as the valiant world leader ready to defend it with every ounce of strength he had.

This was also, appropriately enough, the first time Johnson had mentioned SARS-CoV-2 publicly. During his public address earlier today, he touted “getting us all through the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest exit from lockdown” among his stellar achievements as PM. It was a sick joke, coming from the man who made clear early on that he valued economic stability far more than human life. He stands atop not a legacy of effective leadership, but a mountain of corpses.

Good riddance to him and a preemptive “up yours” to the similarly unprincipled goon who’ll replace him.

Ed Yong on what Hospitalization Data Misses

A lab technician at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, CA tends to a patient, March 2022. (Photo: Mario Tama)

In his latest piece in The Atlantic, Ed Yong details why the hospitalization statistics that the CDC now largely relies on as a guide for what decisions individuals and policymakers should make re: COVID-19 are offering an incomplete picture and therefore are inadequate as a guiding metric. An excerpt:

America’s current pandemic strategy is predicated on the assumption that people can move on from COVID, trusting that the health-care system will be ready to hold the line. But that assumption is a fiction. Much of the system is still intolerably stressed, even in moments of apparent reprieve. And the CDC’s community guidelines are set such that by the time preventive actions are triggered, high levels of sickness and death will be locked in for the near future. For many health-care workers, their mental health and even their commitment to medicine are balanced on a precipice; any further surges will tip more of them over. “I feel like I’m holding on by a thread,” Marina Del Rios, an emergency physician at the University of Iowa, told me. “Every time I hear a new subvariant is coming along, I think: Okay, here we go.

False Prophets of Hope: A Response to the Downplaying of COVID-19’s Continued Threat

Anthony Fauci at a briefing by the White House COVID-19 Response Team in December of 2021. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker)

Yesterday, during an interview on the PBS NewsHour, Anthony Fauci declared the United States to be “out of the pandemic phase [of SARS-CoV-2.]” Coming from the man who, in March of 2020, said “the U.S. ‘should be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting’ to COVID-19,'” and as recently as March of this year was warning that the return of strict mitigation efforts could be immanent due to the threat of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant, it was an incredible, baffling and obviously premature assessment. Fauci backtracked almost immediately, but it was too late. His reply to Judy Woodruff was unambiguously indicative of an ongoing trend amongst governments around the world to downplay the persistent danger of the pandemic via claims that SARS-CoV-2 is now a “manageable” and “endemic” pathogen that humanity simply needs to “learn to live with.” Additionally (and granted, it’s been present throughout the pandemic,) this includes a distinctly neoliberal emphasis of the onus of risk assessment being on the individual and minimizing state intervention.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a comprehensive piece on this precise issue. For multiple reasons, I haven’t. Even in the wake of this year’s Omicron BA.1 surge, during which more than a hundred thousand Americans died and thousands were hospitalized due to the essentially unimpeded spread of a “milder” variant, I didn’t think I had anything substantive to add to the existing discourse. After hearing Fauci’s remark last night, though, I felt compelled to respond promptly in some fashion. Rather than begin the lengthy process that would entail writing my own rebuke, I’m instead providing several links to content that, in aggregate, seriously challenges the disingenuously sanguine framing of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of all the above commentary and analysis, the conclusion of Bruce Y. Lee’s article summarizes the current situation as well as any other:

Sure, some politicians and businesses may want things to appear as “normal” as possible as soon as possible. The illusion of complete normality could prompt people to spend more and re-elect current politicians for office. Plus, Covid-19 precautions require some up front spending and investment….The rush to return to normal, whatever “normal” means, and the repeated premature relaxation of Covid-19 precautions has continued to be remarkably short-sighted. The SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t really care what politicians and business leaders say. Failing to maintain proper Covid-19 precautions such as face mask use, social distancing, and Covid-19 vaccination could further extend the pandemic and increase the negative impact of the SARS-CoV-2. This is especially true with the more contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant spreading. The CDC Covid-19 Community Levels map alone may have you seeing green as in low risk, go, go, go, and perhaps even mo’ money. But that could end up being an “off-color” conclusion.

Meanwhile, in the UK…

Protesters outside UK Labour’s headquarters in London, July 20th 2021. (Photo: Tayfun Şalcı)

This was posted to r/LabourUK today (and, unsurprisingly, eventually deleted by mods. Thank God for the Internet Archive.) It seems as straightforward and concise a summary of the most salient critiques of Labour under Starmer you’ll find anywhere. Some of the passages that stick with me the most:

A while ago I finally chucked in my membership. The final straw which broke the camel’s back being Starmer unwilling to condemn the evil Saudi takeover of Newcastle, whilst prattling on about James Bond needing to be female….

My mrs works in a care home. She likes Burnham, is pro armed forces, centre left on most issues, left leaning on nationalisation, LGBT and trade union rights, a bit centre right on crime, and is exactly the sort of person Labour NEED as a minimum just to hold onto seats let alone to win. So when she sees the party is resorting to attacking unions, putting the likes of Cooper (who’s WCA brutalised the disabled – people she has worked with for years – she has seen the terror they have been subjected to by Atos / DWP thugs) in key positions, attempts to edge out people like Rayner (who are like my mrs – northern and working class), and shifting the sort of soft left figures out of key positions, she realises the party is no longer for her. She, like I wanted an Attlee style reset of everything – we are sick to death of having to work through this virus, lose colleagues to it and get treated like shit. Regardless of whether this new variant is a relatively harmless storm in a teacup or something so deadly it will end up slaughtering vast swathes of the population, she (and I) will still have to work through it. Policies and figures who appease Westminster based political pundits don’t cut it.

If Starmer was genuinely interested in unity, the soft left would not be being purged from key positions, as they are literally the “centre” of the fucking party. Rayner herself is bang in the middle of the party and has great support from much of the base. Alienating her shows the direction of the party is simply to become some drippy form of market liberalism coupled with establishment politics. Nor would he be tolerating stupid attacks on unions, when given the state of the country, unions are more important than ever.