In late 2006 I was hired by a producer to pick up a guitarist at LAX airport and take him out to dinner. He handed me a bunch of cash and told me to hurry (everything he wanted me to do was fast, fast, hurry, hurry — whether it was dumpster diving for cardboard boxes behind drug stores or cleaning out his tool shed.)
“What’s the guitarist’s name?” I asked.
Ha. So I took the producer’s minivan and spent the evening with Guthrie. He was a charming British guy with a dark sense of humor. I asked him what it’s like to visit L.A. “I have to block out the false positivity,” he said, deadpan, which made me laugh for a century.
Years later, he’s started a band with Marco Minnemann and Bryan Beller. (Those two guys are now Joe Satriani’s rhythm section, which I still haven’t witnessed in person, although I plan to.)
I’d heard a lot of buzz about The Aristocrats. “It’s what the kids are listening to these days.” I felt uncool. I listened to some samples of the first CD and I didn’t get it. But I was a huge snob back then, with little patience. Individually, I love all three of the band members. And I’ve heard great things from everyone around me. So I decided to immerse myself in their latest recording and force myself to “get it.”
It’s strange the way this all works — it’s like getting accustomed to a series of inside jokes and shorthand vocabulary when you make a new friend. I must say this record has grown on me. (DISCLAIMER: Even after listening to this record five times in a row and pondering it as I write this text, I feel like I’m a total outsider and that maybe there is some band “concept” or “plan” I am missing out on, because I haven’t read their interviews or researched them until now. I also refuse to open the CD booklet. Maybe the joke will be on me.)
My observations can serve as a “listen to this album along with me” kind of thing. If I actually listened to albums with people. Here we go…
It all starts with a track called “Dance of The Aristocrats.” I don’t know what they were thinking with this track. It’s the oddball of this oddball album. It reminds me of one of those Casio Keyboard demo songs from the ’80s. The drums sound like Roland V-Drums, and there is a strangely off-time tambourine in the intro! Most of the piece seems to be missing the melody. An idea: maybe they would hold a contest and ask a member of the audience to Karaoke to this song with improvised lyrics. Hmm. Why did they start the album with this track? I don’t believe it “sells” them as a band. (Not that it’s necessary for them to think in those terms at this point, but regardless, it’s an odd choice to put in the opening slot.) In fact, the song order of this entire album is bizarre, as I will reference later. Maybe they all switched instruments as a gag.
Moving on to the title track, Culture Clash: I could not help but admire the guitar tone when the song kicks in at :32, because it’s an improvement on Steve Vai’s tone from Eat ‘Em & Smile. I’m thinking “Ladies Nite In Buffalo.” Hear it? Am I crazy? Fine.
Track 3 is an all-out country-rockabilly guitar-shredding loony bin: “Louisville Stomp.” Anyone else making this song might have gone the obvious route and pressed the “Hot For Teacher” button, but not The Aristocrats. Classy restraint. Well done! And for my favorite part of this, I nominate Bryan Beller’s bass part.
“Ohhhh Noooo” is where the album suddenly changes, in my opinion. This track was the first to grab me on the first pass. It’s Track 4, so I began to wonder if each of the band members contributed three songs each, for nine total. If so, I would *suspect* that tracks 4, 5 and 6 were written by one person, most likely Marco. But knowing the answer for sure would take the fun out of my blind taste-test. This track is where I begin to notice a lot of rhythmic diversity.
In “Gaping Head Wound” the rhythmic diversity continues. Excellent! Long notes, short notes. Stops and starts. My kind of party! Also an increase in the frequency of dynamic changes. And a fantastic double-kick fill at 1:10 (I declare: my favorite moment on the album). Now, no offense to anyone intended… but at 3:45, I became suspicious of a guest soloist by the name of Steve Vai. Wait, I mean Mike Keneally. Bah! I wasn’t paying close enough attention at first, and soon realized I am a fool. Guthrie’s playing has matured and contains much subtlety. Very impressive. Of course, my point of reference is guitar shred CDs from the back room of Troll Music in the early ’90s, so I should shut up. (Also, my apologies for losing that copy of “Erotic Cakes” Guthrie gave me. I may have been better prepared for all of this.)
“Desert Tornado” continues the middle third of this record with a disorienting drum intro by Mr. Minnemann. I broke the rules and had to email Marco to ask him: “What the HELL are you doing there? Is that two drum sets?” No, he just overdubbed some additional percussion. You might be sick of my David Lee Roth bullshit (I know Bryan Beller is by the look on his face), but I swear there is a rhythmic hook from Skyscraper here at 2:13. Look it up. This song is quite dissonant and spooky, and doesn’t seem to follow traditional chord theory. So I’m blaming Marco.
I thought the next track was called “Cockroach Umbrellas” but I was wrong. I’m sorry about that. I promise to shout it at the live show, only once. OK, more “Eat ‘Em & Smile” guitar tone at :34. It’s not a complaint! Guthrie’s tone is welcome inside my ears anytime.
“Living The Dream” was another oddball. It’s the only “punk rock / metal” track on this album. Makes me think of The Melvins, but played twice as fast! It’s fun and rare to hear Marco play so aggressively. And this is another example of a song being placed in a strange place on the record. Why did I have to wait so long to hear this side of The Aristocrats? I can’t tell, but I think that might be a long Bryan Beller bass solo in the middle, over a mystical drone. And I didn’t want to write this, but I shouldn’t stop myself. This piece reminds me of “Kill The Guy With The Ball” by Steve Vai. STOP WITH THE VAI REFERENCES, CARL. Really, though. It sounds like it wasn’t composed by a guitarist or bassist, or someone with a typical understanding of harmony. I’m most likely very wrong, and all the members and fans of The Aristocrats are laughing right now at my ignorance.
And finally, “And Finally.” This track has a Zappa vibe. And it’s not the typical Zappa sound. More like a Zappa ballad. At 3:26, you might hear what I mean. That lydian “Inca Roads” feel. And this is another track that seems to be in an odd place on the record.
The Aristocrats are unpredictable, and it was fun to spend the time in decoding this record. I’d even like to see them go more in the “confusing” direction, but I’m not so sure they’re doing it on purpose. Regardless, I very much appreciate what they’re doing, and look forward to seeing them on their upcoming tour.
I hope my observations were valuable to my many friends who raved about this record. The guys are incredible musicians and records like this are important for aspiring musicians to study. And I can tell they had a lot of fun making it, doing whatever they wanted. Big thanks to BOING! for putting it out.
If you do not have this record, you can Buy It In My Store.
And check out the official The Aristocrats website for tour dates, etc.