Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Primus/Les Claypool

Reviewed on this page:
The Sane Asylum - Sailing The Seas Of Cheese - Miscellaneous Debris - Pork Soda - Riddles Are Abound Tonight - Tales From The Punchbowl - Highball With The Devil - Brown Album - Antipop - Live Frogs Set 1 - The Grand Pecking Order - Purple Onion - The Big Eyeball In The Sky - Of Whales And Woe - Of Fungi And Foe - Green Naugahyde

Les Claypool has an impressive heavy metal pedigree - he went to high school with Kirk Hammett, played in Blind Illusion, engineered two Yngwie Malmsteen records, and co-produced the second Suicidal Tendencies disc - but he's best known as the leader of goofy progressive metal/funk jam trio Primus. Claypool's bass technique is formidable, able to handle any style but usually relying on funk slapping; I'm not as crazy about his half-spoken, high pitched, allegedly humorous vocals. And for all their virtuosity, there are a couple of grooves the band seems to get stuck in fairly regularly. Still, Primus is an unusual and rewarding listening experience: I have no idea how they ever got popular, unless there was a video that caught on at MTV or something.

Best I can tell, Primus is broken up and Claypool is playing either with Les Claypool's Frog Brigade or Colonel Claypool's Bucket Of Bernie Brains. For the latest, check Club Bastardo or Primus Sucks. (DBW)


Les Claypool, bass, vocals; Todd Huth, guitar; Jay Lane, drums. Huth and Lane left, 1989 or so, replaced by Larry Lalonde and Tim "Herb" Alexander, respectively. Alexander left, 1996, replaced by Brain Mantia. Group went on hiatus, 2001. Alexander returned, 2003, left again, 2004. Lane returned, 2010.

The Sane Asylum (Blind Illusion: 1988)
I'm reviewing the sole album by San Francisco thrash band Blind Illusion because both Claypool and Lalonde were in the band at the time, but really it's Marc Beidermann's show: he wrote everything, sang lead, and played guitar. He produced the album with Hammett, and there are some Metallica signatures here, particularly on the epic, slow-opening "Kamakazi." Mostly, though, it's highly proficient Bay Area metal, with twinned leads ("Vicious Vision"), rapid-fire fills, and lyrics bridging the gap between vitriolic and pompous ("Vengeance Is Mine") - so far, so standard. The best moments - and there are a bunch of them - come during the instrumental breaks, where the musicianship of each member (including relatively unsung drummer Mike Miner) comes to the fore ("Metamorphosis Of A Monster"). (DBW)

Suck On This (1990)
Recorded live; Larry Lalonde was the guitarist by this point, but original bandmember Todd Huth is listed on most of the song credits. (DBW)

Frizzle Fry (1990)
The recent CD reissue adds a bonus take on the Residents' "Hello Skinny/Constantinople." (DBW)

Sailing The Seas Of Cheese (1991)
Contains some of the band's most recognizable material, including the mock-march "Here Come The Bastards," the pounding "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers" and the frantic "Is It Luck?" Claypool's technique is fantastic, whether he's screwing around with a walking line (the beginning of "Sgt. Baker") or furiously slapping. Many of the tracks are just jams with lyrics added, but they're still fun because the grooves are unusual and the soloing is completely unpredictable: "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver" may be the best example. Meanwhile, "Sathington Waltz" is about the weirdest thing they've ever recorded, with what sound like a banjo and violin sawing away against a minimal backdrop: if it were longer it would be grating, but at 1:42 it stays intriguingly goofy. And though there isn't much structure, the compositions aren't simple: "Eleven" is indeed in 11/4 time, or maybe 3+3+3+2/11. Self-produced; Tom Waits has a brief voice-over on "Tommy The Cat," and there are a bunch of guests on the "Bastards" reprise "Los Bastardos." (DBW)

Miscellaneous Debris (1992)
An EP with five covers: Peter Gabriel's "Intruder," XTC's "Making Plans For Nigel," The Residents' "Sinister Exaggerator," The Meters' "Tippi-Toes" and Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar." Since I don't know the originals (Floyd tune excepted), I presume I'm missing most of the fun, but I do like the eerie, heavy groove of "Intruder," and Lalonde's spacey solo on "Cigar" is well worth hearing. By any standard, though, the half-spoken, half-crooned group vocal on "Exaggerator" is annoying. (DBW)

Pork Soda (1993)
More cleanly recorded, so the bass is even more prominent and Alexander's rhythmic peculiarities are easier to hear ("Welcome To This World"). There's also more country-western influence than usual, with unaccompanied guitar pickin' on "Pork Chop's Little Ditty" and a countrified bass line on "The Ol' Diamondback Sturgeon." And they frequently surprise with left turns, as on "Nature Boy" where the familiar, midtempo main theme speeds up in the middle and ends up sounding like a Rush instrumental. The first studio appearance for "The Pressman," which had been performed all the way back on Suck On This. Overall, though, the compositions aren't up to the level of Sea Of Cheese: lowlights include the title track, where Claypool stops during the band so you're forced to focus on his silly lyrics, the singsong unfunny joke "The Air Is Getting Slipper." On the other hand, the words to "DMV" are great, and the instrumental "Hamburger Train" is a blast. No guests; self-produced as usual. (DBW)

Riddles Are Abound Tonight (Sausage: 1994)
The original lineup of Primus briefly reunited under the name Sausage; as with Primus, the tunes are by the band, the words are by Les. Lane sounds more or less like Alexander on drums, but Huth is more rock- and less jazz/funk-oriented than Lalonde, so you get some ultraloud numbers like "Here's To The Man" in addition to the usual power grooves like "Temporary Phase" and "Prelude To Fear." Huth also gets in some weird sitar-like droning on "Shattering Song," like "The End" on acid. Oh wait, the Doors were on acid, weren't they? Never mind. Claypool sounds the same as ever (stunningly precise on "Toyz 1988"; wild and loose on "Girls For Single Men"), but fortunately his vocals are mixed lower than usual and thus easier to tune out. On the other hand, the concluding "Caution Should Be Used While Driving A Motor Vehicle Or Operating Machinery" is just an irritating, repetitive (if speedy) vamp laden with sound effects. (DBW)

Tales From the Punchbowl (1995)
Much more focused and harder hitting than Sailing The Seas or Pork Soda, so if you're looking for loose jamming this may not be the Primus disc for you, but it's my favorite. Everyone shines: Lalonde throws in a refreshing mellow section to the otherwise pounding "Professor Nutbutter's House Of Treats" and amusing Jimmy Nolenisms on "Del Davis Tree Farm"; Alexander sets up a heavy funk groove on "Year Of The Parrot"; and Claypool is just a bit more discplined than usual. Everyone seems to know "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," though to me that's Claypool's juvenile sense of humor at its worst. Elsewhere, though, he contributes some of his most pointed lyrics: "Year Of The Parrot" takes on musical copycats, and "Mrs. Blaileen" is a surprisingly touching story of a humiliated child. (DBW)

Highball With The Devil (Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel: 1996)
Guests include Lane and jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, but mostly it's Claypool on guitar, drums and bass, and it doesn't sound very different from his regular band (the wonderful loose groove "El Sobrante Fortnight"). He's a terrific drummer (best heard on "Delicate Tendrils, behind a Henry Rollins narration), and his bass solo on the Reddings' "The Awakening" makes you wonder why he doesn't do more out-and-out soloing on Primus records. As usual, though, he lets some tunes run on too long while he's delivering half-baked lyrics that try way too hard to be twisted ("Granny's Little Yard Gnome"). (DBW)

Brown Album (1997)
The first album with former Praxis drummer Brain, and the band moves farther from jamming and instead gets locked into repetitive grooves that are sometimes thrilling ("Golden Boy"), sometimes intriguing ("Duchess And The Proverbial Mind Spread"), but almost always eventually boring. A foreshadowing of the sterility and staleness that would overwhelm Antipop. "Shake Hands With Beef" was the first single. Also this year, Primus wrote and performed the "South Park Theme." (DBW)

Rhinoplasty (1998)
More covers, including the Police's "Behind My Camel," XTC's "Scissor Man" and Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be." (DBW)

Antipop (1999)
A tongue-in-cheek title, as this is easily the most mainstream Primus record I've heard. Nothing wrong with that, except that the genre they've picked is rap/metal, trading their previous outré groove for the same piledriver power chords a thousand other bands are using. Appropriately, guests include Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, Tom Morello and James Hetfield, not to mention Matt Stone. The album's worst moment is provided by Tom Waits, who produces and adds vocals and discordant mellotron to the grating Courtney Love anti-valentine "Coattails Of A Dead Man." There are some good tracks here, of course - "The Ballad Of Bodacious," the hidden track "It's Just A Matter Of Opinion" - but every other Primus record has more. Also this year, Claypool produced half of Buckethead's Monsters & Robots. (DBW)

Live Frogs Set 1 (Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade: 2001)
Recorded October 8 and 9, 2000 with a lineup including Huth, Lane, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Eenor and saxophonist Skerik. Though this entity hadn't been together long and they jam like crazy, they somehow coalesce into a band with a coherent sound, moving smoothly from solo to group sections ("Riddles Are Abound Tonight"). The jamming only goes awry on a fifteen-minute, directionless, repetitive cover of King Crimson's "Thela Hun Ginjeet." Most of the tunes are Claypool's, from non-Primus projects like Sausage ("Shattering Song"), and range from his usual free-funk to surf music ("Hendershot"). Generally, he's happy to share the limelight, playing his usual intricate/anarchic lines but never drowning anyone out, and as each musician displays a variety of soloing techniques, the sound never gets stuck in one bag for too long. And any group that can hold my attention through a ten-minute version of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" has got something special. (DBW)

Live Frogs Set 2 (Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade: 2001)
In which the Brigade covers the entire Pink Floyd Animals LP. Much as I like the previous record, I won't be rushing to pick this up. (DBW)

The Grand Pecking Order (Oysterhead: 2001)
A short-lived band consisting of Claypool, Stewart Copeland and Phish leader Trey Anastasio - most tracks have music by the band and lyrics by Claypool and Anastasio, though "Radon Balloon" is just Anastasio and the annoying sing-song "Shadow Of A Man" is just Claypool. On guitar Anastasio sounds like Pat Metheny crossed with Stephen Stills, and on vocals he's mellower still - it's very weird to hear his tame leads in the middle of a Claypool rant like "The Army's On Ecstasy." There are some loud tunes ("Little Faces"), but also some conventional rockers (the Lennon psychedelia homage "Oz Is Ever Floating"). The one track where the band really gels is "Pseudo Suicide," a jam with two lead guitars. Toss in some subpar Claypool tunes (title track) and you're in trouble. The good news is that in avoiding his usual manic slapping, Claypool makes some good use of bass effects (the Bootsy-style "Mr. Oysterhead"). Plus, Copeland sounds great whatever style he's backing ("Polka Dot Rose"), the sound is uncluttered if schizoid, and it's worth checking out just because it's so different from Claypool's usual. (DBW)

Purple Onion (The Les Claypool Frog Brigade: 2002)
Not technically a Claypool solo project, but it sure sounds like one. Well, him or Zappa, and I think Zappa's retired or dead or something. Lots of jokey tunes ("Long In The Tooth"; the pseudo-sea chanty "David Makalaster"), but more often than you'd expect, they come off (the jaw harp/funk bass/slide guitar - courtesy of Warren Haynes - singalong "Buzzards Of Green Hill"; the bouncy "Ding Dang" with prominent vibes from Mike Dillon). And while the band members - Dillon, Lane (drums), Eenor (guitar) and Skerik (sax) - may have some weird names, they sure can kick ass (the demented groove "Whamola"; the concluding raga-esque "Cosmic Highway"). And to follow through on the Zappa parallel, when Claypool misses he misses badly, with the warped humor occasionally overriding the music (the aggravating "Barrington Hall"), and you sometimes wish he'd just write regular songs instead of playing Weirder Than Thou. (DBW)

The Big Eyeball In The Sky (Col. Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains: 2004)
A godsend if - like me - you think that these guys are much better at hard funk than the cowboy clowning (Claypool), metal mindlessness (Buckethead) and organ onanism (Bernie Worrell) they often indulge in as solo artists. (Sorry to break the symmetry, but I don't have any comparable complaint about Brain.) This occasional supergroup is noted for playing lengthy instrumental improvisations in concert, but on their studio debut most of the songs have lyrics, many of them Bush-bashing ("Junior"; "48 Hours To Go") and all of them exhibiting Claypool's usual wackiness ("Tyranny Of The Hunt"). Better yet, they recruited a singer who can actually sing - Gabby La La - to add backing vocals to "Hip Hot From The Slab" and the wonderfully catchy anti-corporate media title track. Most of the tunes are driven by bass grooves ("Thai Noodles"), but with plenty of space left open for Bernie's organ burbling and Buckethead's geetar magic ("Buckethead," which builds to one of his most gripping recorded solos). There is one mellower number, the ten-minute reggaefied instrumental "Elephant Ghost," and it's the album's one weak track. Not as wide-ranging or unpredictable as Transmutation, but probably the best record Bucket, Bernie or Brain has appeared on since. (DBW)

Of Whales And Woe (Les Claypool: 2006)
It seems a bit curious to me that no one's playing true hard funk these days except for some hippie freak on mushrooms, but at least he does it well. Cut free from a band identity for the first time in ages, Claypool plays exactly what he wants, and it's mostly tight-as-fuck bass-led grooves ("Nothin' Ventured"; "One Better"), with the occasional slow burner ("Lust Strings") or sound experiment ("Back Off Turkey"). Claypool still has that annoying quavery voice, but fortunately many tracks are instrumental or nearly so. Most of the tunes are concise ("Phantom Patriot" not included), so the only real complaint is that there's not much to listen for apart from the leader's bass, despite the touches of marimba ("Robot Chicken"), Skerik's sax and Gabby La La's sitar and theremin ("Vernon The Company Man"). But when the leader's bass is this listenable, that's a quibble. (DBW)

Of Fungi And Foe (Les Claypool: 2009)
Claypool has always been known to write the occasional anti-rock song, with a rudimentary melody backed by some offbeat instrument like marimba or cello, an oompah drumbeat, and his creepy half-yelped, half-whispered vocals ("What Would Sir George Martin Do?"). Well, this time he's put together a whole album of them, mostly written for one of two soundtracks - either the video game Mushroom Men ("Mushroom Men") or the film Pig Hunt - and it's a bit like Purple Onion only more onion-y. There's not a single solid bass-led groove to be found ("Amanitas" is probably closest), no guitars, and very little entertainment value. Occasionally, the odd instrumental combinations create some interesting textures (whamola vs. penny whistle on "Booneville Stomp"), but more often there's precious little going on beyond Claypool's warped musings (the forced, endlessly unamusing "Red State Girl"). (DBW)

Green Naugahyde (2011)
For serious, a new Primus record - the first to feature the lineup of Claypool, Lalonde and Lane. Lalonde lays on relatively heavy guitar, which leads to some wonderful moments (the boisterous "Tragedy's A' Comin'"); otherwise, there's a heavy helping of the band's usual hard funk, often in the form of one-chord jams ("Hennepin Crawler") or endlessly repeated catchphrases ("Eternal Consumption Engine"). It's nice to hear Claypool and company enjoying themselves ("Last Salmon Man"; the mock-ominous "Eyes Of The Squirrel"), though few of the tunes are actually noteworthy: "Moron TV," an eerie but compelling groove, is one major exception. (DBW)

Fish on.

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