When I’m asked to review a fistful of reissues I might ordinarily feel a moment or two of guilt at never having listened to the band before (which is usually the case, given my perversely idiosyncratic listening habits). Not so with Reagan’s Polyp, an obscure and wilfully unappetising band from Little Rock, Arkansas. Rather than going to some other place, where their brand of satirical, lyrically infantile, musically heterodox, avant-garde rock might have been appreciated by hipsters and bohemians, they stayed in Little Rock, released thirty-odd albums, earned predictable notices in the local music press (‘abusive and disgusting’, ‘malignant’), alienated local audiences, and called it a day after an amazingly persistent fourteen years. Now the delightfully uncommercial San Francisco label Vetoxa Records is releasing large slabs of their back catalogue; the first I heard of Reagan’s Polyp was when the nice Mr. Vetoxa contacted me to find out whether I’d like him to send me several CDs and an LP for free. Naturally I said yes. When the recordings arrived and I listened to them, I was very glad that I had; this is some of the most hilarious music I’ve ever heard, and it’s also highly accomplished, although most of the time the band (twin brothers Krel and Astronaut Body) don’t go out of the way to emphasise their technical prowess. Instead they turn a corner about once every thirty seconds (or sometimes considerably less), and their road-holding skills are remarkable.
Vetoxa Records VETOXA-4033, 2014 (1993), DD & CD album, 41m 19s
$8.99 DD $13.48 CD
This, the earliest album of the four I was sent, opens with a floaty, woobly cheese-funk exposition, which quite suddenly collapses into a thrashing noise-rock freakout. This is perhaps Reagan’s Polyp’s defining creative strategy: paroxysms of random instrument abuse are deployed at regular intervals as though to erase the more coherent musical statements they punctuate, wiping away any sense of meaning, or, it has to be said, any sense that the band are personally invested in the sounds they are producing. That those sounds are almost universally satirical serves to reinforce the sense of ironic distance: this is a band that seems to stand outside its own musical practice, using the making of music as a means to some other end, to ridicule the entire cultural context from which the vocabularies of popular music derive meaning. The third track, ‘They Installed Teeth In My Ass’, establishes the other most prominent feature of the band’s interests, namely arses; the lyrics and spoken word passages are not exclusively anal in their concerns, but they are extensively scatological, and are combined with scathingly sarcastic renditions of various instrumental styles to produce an extreme caricature of American mass culture’s prurient hyper-sexuality. In some ways they come off like a dafter and more random version of Frank Zappa, but what’s entirely absent is Zappa’s pleasure in formal complexity, the desire to make a meaningful aesthetic statement from whatever musical materials come to hand. Facefuckingbatspermantidotepudding is characterised instead by strategies that seem to aim at questioning and disrupting the very possibility of a meaningful aesthetic statement. There are thirty tracks on the album, many of them only a few seconds in length, involving skits on a wide range of musical sounds. Where many satirists will nail their stylistic materials carefully, so that their exaggerations and distortions will stand out clearly, the considerable compositional and instrumental skills employed on this record are directed more at producing an approximation, which is usually abandoned almost immediately, as though to say ‘fuck it, you get the idea, but we really can’t be bothered to waste our time on this’. As a listening experience it’s disturbed and discontinuous, veering between stylistic extremes without warning (funk to noise rock, or hardcore to country), and rewarding any desire on the part of the listener to enter into the world of the music with repeated sharp blows to the face. It’s very funny, if ridiculously puerile, and decidedly entertaining, but it’s not something I could listen to repeatedly without needing to smash shit up.
Vetoxa Records VETOXA-4011, 2014 (1998), DD & CD album, 54m 56s
$8.99 DD $13.48 CD
I can’t begin to reconstruct the creative history of a band as fecund and random as Reagan’s Polyp from three albums and one compilation, whose release dates are separated by several years; but if the differences between Facefuckingbatspermantidotepudding and Deadenator are any guide to the band’s development, I would say that by 1998 they seem to have developed some patience. Rather than sketching a caricature and then almost immediately scribbling it out in a manic inkblot, they take their time to elaborate extended satires – although these longer pieces do incorporate the same sort of noise-rock thrash-spasm erasures as the earlier record. During the course of the album they make a committed, sincere effort to piss off fans of most forms of mainstream American music, from the Paul Simon pastiche with which they open (‘Bridge of Asses’) to the blue-collar rock of ‘Rock and Roll “Music”’, by way of jazz, country and passing references to too many styles to mention. Along with these more elaborate lampoons there also seems to be a greater interest in sound-making as a creative (or at least recreational) practice in its own right, with extended free-rock freakouts that explore the textural possibilities of various combinations of timbres in a relatively purposeful way; these explorations sometimes accompany lengthy developmental outbreaks of lyrical/ verbal insanity, as in ‘Pony’. For me, the most memorable material is found in ‘Overpowered by the Space Girl’, and its companion piece ‘Hello Alien’; the stiff, white-boy funk of the first piece is accompanied by an insistent call to arms in opposition to the space girl, followed by an offer from aliens to replace our mis-pronounced anuses with immobilising machines, as the anus is considered a delicacy on their planet (which lacks any natural source thereof). The following song is an enthusiastic positive response to the aliens’ proposal, from at least a portion of the human race. This précis is indicative of the infantile level at which most of the lyrical texts are pitched, but it becomes clear as the album unfolds that there are intelligent and erudite minds behind it. The final piece is a ten minute version of the legend of Prester John (one that has been scatologically enhanced, obviously); while the mythical Thomasine king so popular in medieval Europe has been a recurring character in twentieth-century American pulp fiction, the treatment of him presented here clearly indicates a more informed understanding of the legend and its associated theology. What they’re trying to get at with this is unclear, but it’s an interesting and unexpected diversion, one which also includes some pretty juicy riffing that, for once, doesn’t seem to be exclusively ironic in intent.
America Needs More Ass
Vetoxa Records VETOXA-4022, 2014 (2001), DD & CD album, 36m 45s
$8.99 DD $13.48 CD
By the time 2001 rolled around Reagan’s Polyp were (apparently) more concerned with very short, gestural pieces again. However, with only these albums to go on, and knowing that the band were almost perversely prolific, I would hesitate to infer any specific creative trajectory from these tendencies. Although clearly humorous, much of this material is less specifically satirical than the songs on Deadenator, or its targets are rather less obvious at any rate. The musical materials employed are more overtly experimental and consistently bizarre, rather than ripping the piss out of any identifiable stylistic practices. The targets of their satire are addressed lyrically, in manic, shouted rants (‘Rich and Horny’ and ‘Oink and Die (Fucking Capitalist Pigs)’ for example), while the music has far more artistic coherence than the earlier albums, eschewing most external references to pursue its own formal logic. If there is a stylistic target, it’s punk (many songs include chants of ‘punk rock’, often in tandem with ‘fuck you’), but no great effort is put into lampooning punk music in detail. There is a collagist, constructional approach to musical composition, with a more electronic sound than the earlier two albums, animated by what appears to be a genuine interest in the aesthetics of texture and noise; as such America Needs More Ass offers greater rewards for close listening, and employs fewer strategies seemingly designed to disrupt such attention. ’54-40 or Fuck!’, the only extended piece, is essentially an exploration of abstract sound, and one that suggests a degree of rigour in Reagan’s Polyp’s approach to the process. If there is a central creative thrust it is not obvious, however, and seems, as before, to be concerned with questioning the basic notion of central creative thrusts – the extensive use of verbal themes that ridicule male sexual desire is probably not unrelated to this concern. It’s a courageous artist that persists in tearing down the scaffolding on which most listeners will attempt to hang an understanding of their work, and although Reagan’s Polyp present themselves as uncommitted pranksters, lobbing stink bombs from the back of the class and hiding under the desk, there is a serious point here. There’s a lot to be critical of in conventional notions of creative significance, many of which are every bit as ridiculous, as socio-normative and as coercive as the penetrative male sexuality that is more directly satirised in this music.
Vetoxa Records VETOXA-3032, 2014, DD CD & LP album, 40m 57s
$8.99 DD $10.98 CD $16.13 LP
Number Ones compiles tracks from the first nine years of Reagan’s Polyp’s history. I’m not in a position to judge how representative the selection is, or to characterise the material that’s been left out, but the focus seems to be on longer, more creatively coherent compositions, rather than the nihilistic scrabbling and random noise-acts that intersperse such pieces on the three albums discussed above. Half of the tunes here appear on one of those albums: of the remainder, ‘You Smell Bad’, ‘Tunky The Talking Bear’ and ‘Have Sex With Us’ are lampoons of the same kind that can be found on Deadenator, while ‘Take Off Your Pants’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Fucking Myself’ resemble the more musically abstract approach found on America Needs More Ass. The remaining tune, ‘Reagan’s Polyp In Concert! (at an Indian restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1992)’ showcases their more nihilistic, listener-baiting side. The singer asks if there are any Beatles fans present, and announces ‘Day Tripper’, after which the band plays a few bars of the opening riff and then collapses into an atonal thrash; this skit is repeated for Led Zepellin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and the Doobie Brothers’ ‘China Grove’, but they keep returning to ‘Day Tripper’, as if to ensure that any desire to hear something familiar is comprehensively thwarted and mocked. Other songs announced include ‘Suspect Chicken Procedures’ and ‘Hot Mexican Fucky Fucky’, but no title is followed by more than a few seconds of decodable music before being erased by improvised discoherence. If this is a representative example of their live methods then it’s not surprising they didn’t find a large following in Little Rock! It’s like a less extreme version of the early Norwegian Black Metal bands throwing rotting meat at the audience to weed out the casual attendees: ‘here’s what we do,’ they seem to say, ‘and we’d like you to go away (unless you like it)’.
What’s unusual about Reagan’s Polyp is how successfully they combine this attitude of uncommitted aesthetic autonomy with a very entertaining sound. Obviously many (or most) listeners will take the band’s invitation to fuck off at face value, and they go out of their way to alienate many that might be inclined to enjoy their satire, by pitching it at a level many of us left behind with adolescence and are embarrassed to have ever embraced. However, their nihilistic take on mass culture is, in my view, both valid and thought-provoking, and I did get a lot of laughs out of these four albums, even if a lot of said chuckles were preceded by eye rolling. The band’s biography, which is almost too good not to be fiction, implies a serious level of commitment to the project: to release such a huge amount of material in such a proportionally short period, in circumstances which more or less preclude getting any appreciation for it, is impressive for a start. That the material seems deliberately constructed to deter anyone who might like it by accident is even better. That the place they did this in is decidedly not renowned as a world centre of cutting-edge culture makes it better still. When Caustic included a sample to the effect that ‘we play music to piss people off’, it was in the context of a dance-floor friendly electro-industrial banger; it’s easier to believe the sincerity of such an intention when the music is so roundly insulting to almost every branch of musical taste or refined sensibility. President Reagan’s polyp, in the dark, ignorant, intolerant days of 1980s conservatism’s rampancy, was a glimmer of hope for many, for all that it was successfully treated; this band may have served a similar purpose in Little Rock, focussing hope on a negative, on the capacity to reject, in a place where (to judge by the satirical targets on these albums) musical culture was awash with lounge jazz and beetle-browed blue-collar rock. Thanks to Vetoxa Records’ act of cultural archaeology and curation they can serve as a beacon of hope for the whole planet. It may not seem like a very constructive response to the decrepitude of global mass culture, but before we can build the new in the shell of the old, we need to point out how patently ridiculous everything already is.