Thursday, November 4, 2010

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

47. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Of Montreal (Polyvinyl, 2007)

A person discovering Of Montreal via their breakthrough eighth LP Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? might not believe that they began as a lo-fi acoustic venture long on tedium and short on hooks.  Led by sole constant member Kevin Barnes, the Athens, Georgia-based group made five albums with ever-expanding lineups—’99’s The Gay Parade lists six full-time members and twelve contributors—before Barnes retreated to record two albums almost entirely by himself.  Satanic Panic in the Attic (’04) and The Sunlandic Twins (’05; see #68) were his strongest works to date, expanding on the earlier material’s fanciful concepts yet drab execution to produce a new sound flaunting complex, multi-tracked arrangements and borrowing heavily from ’60s-era psychedelic pop.  Though the albums became increasingly solo productions, the stage show evolved into a theatrical extravaganza with a dozen or more people on stage, usually in costume.  They managed to keep the spectacle from overpowering the music, and Barnes’s increasingly impressive songwriting and the band’s high-spirited performances made Of Montreal one of the most interesting working units of the late Aughts.

More compelling than the live show, though, is the density of Hissing Fauna’s songs in execution and lyrical content.  The quixotic, elaborate style of its two predecessors remains; but, the manic bubblegum of songs like Suffer for Fashion and Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse are complemented by prominent servings of modern electro-funk.  Gronlandic Edit is built on a light, pulsing bass groove, and Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider has a slithering, smoky vibe; far beyond these dance-minded subtleties, though, is the flamboyance of Faberge Falls for Shuggie and Labyrinthian Pomp, both sung in an exaggerated, Prince-like falsetto that Barnes attributes to his alter ego Georgie Fruit, “a black man who has been through multiple sex changes.”*  While this persona affords Barnes’s lyrics a new aspect of sexuality, he uses no such guise to address the album’s most difficult material.  Much of Hissing Fauna is deeply personal, examining Barnes’s separation from his wife, a self-imposed temporary isolation in Norway, and reliance on antidepressants.  The album’s centerpiece is the twelve-minute The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, detailing the couple’s first meeting, courtship, and Barnes’s struggles with insecurity, progressing—all the while carried by a hypnotic, claustrophobic groove—to their tumultuous breakup; by its climax, Barnes is yelling “Let’s tear the fucking house apart/Let’s tear our fucking bodies apart!”  It is a chillingly naked dissection of private matters, intensified by the fact that the two reconciled and his wife plays on the album.  For all the costumes, playful gender experimentation, pop bliss, and jovial stage shows, the album often dares to forego metaphor to present some of the boldest self-analysis of the decade.  Barnes’s later attempts to outdo its ostentation and complexity resulted in a return to the muddled confusion of his earliest releases.  A dizzying album, at times even bipolar, Hissing Fauna is his high-water mark.

* See the November 2007 Barnes interview at

Highlights: The Past Is a Grotesque Animal, Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse, She’s a Rejecter, Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider

Sublime bit: The “ooo-ooo-oooh” backing vocal that enters at 4:19 of The Past Is a Grotesque Animal and repeats for the next six minutes.

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