Album Review: Darth Vegas - Brainwashing for Dirty Minds (2012 LP)

If you haven’t heard of Darth Vegas yet, where the hell have you been? Seriously, one of the most rock n' roll things ever was their show at Manning bar around the time of their first release where band leader Michael Lira carried off an awesome set playing keyboard with one hand, bass guitar with the other, all the while singing and dancing.

Darth Vegas are a nightmare come true of cartoon music, circus metal and all round entertainment, blasted at you by clearly exceptional musicians. While it's impossible to escape commonalities between this band and others of the ‘genre’ like Mr Bungle, particularly in their genre jumping, sudden shifts and unconventional noises, they are forging their own distinct path. They use many of the typical stylings of cartoon music, like bursts of heavy metal, voice effects (especially loud hailers) and carnival sounds throughout their work, and do it all with the precision and deft touch necessary to make such turns work.

What distinguishes Brainwashing for Dirty Minds is the predominance of vaudeville, particularly in songs like “Gritos Dulces” and “Swami Salami”. Now that Darth Vegas have done it, the incorporation of vaudeville into circus metal/cartoon music (what should one call this genre?!) seems so natural it’s essential, yet no one else in the field seems to have really captured that turn of the century sense of a vulnerable, earnest desire to entertain, til now. This is what the soundtrack to films like The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus really should have been.

It's quite a circus, and very much a cinematic soundtrack: sudden bursts of energy, swift switches of mood, dramatic refrains and codas that are as unexpected and baffling without visuals as they would be apt and 'natural' if there were an equally intense and complex film playing with it. The visual evocativeness of the music is so intense it seems at times to have all but enslaved its makers, and many of the songs have titles that are quite literal references to the musical scene. “Space Sounds”, for example, sounds like Air or Aqua playing David Bowie: dreamy and noticeably 'futuristic', with an endearing clockwork toy atmosphere all the while.

As with other bands in this genre (and other songs on this album) “Vindaloo Boogaloo” (which to these untrained ears sounds more like what might be termed 'Turkish disco' than anything sub-continental) leaves me wishing they'd stay still a little longer, select some of the great phrases and riffs they've created and use them to knock out some conventional two minute pop songs rather than race away elsewhere within the first eight seconds.

For the most part instrumental, songs like “Rocket Surgery” push to the extreme Darth Vegas’ penchant for Wagnerian efforts to deny completion or closure. Looking for 'meaning' or a story, what a song is 'about' on this album, may lead to disappointment. Even the songs with vocals are really instrumental pieces, painting drama and segueing between contradictory moments like a complicated noir film, leaving the listener to find their own journey. The rewards of listening to these songs are not so much getting familiar with them so you can sing along and tap your feet, as to discover something new with every listen. At times they demand attention rather than seduce, though there are plenty of pleasant asides and delightful moments amongst the chaos. (“Waltz of the Pumpkins” arguably has the lion's share of these).

Tellingly, the Darth Vegas website has a dedicated section for sheet music, reinforcing the sense that their music is like an ultra-contemporary orchestra; they are revelling in a history of (mostly Western) music, cycling through all manner of instruments and styles; in an album as chaotic and open to interpretation as this one, it’s easy for a reviewer to get drawn into citing favourites and attempting to concoct prose descriptions that do some justice to their uniqueness. And I’m no different, so here’s a few:

Album closer “Brainwashing Computer Medley” has some moments of what sound like genuine vulnerable emotion, a la Air, amongst all the usual chaos, partying, cartoon jaunts, threats and intimidation.

“Music for a Haitian Voodoo Priestess” sounds pleasingly like Ricky Martin being tortured by Slayer.

A little bit kitsch TV sci-fi, a little bit Ed Wood and a whole lot Darth Vegas par excellence, “Bat Attack Galactica” is awesome, and one of their best attempts to capture in a title the cinematic synaesthesia of their music. It pounds and builds, carries the listener along and delights at every turn.

Very listenable and re-listenable, with Brainwashing for Dirty Minds this band have very effectively demonstrated that they can do just about anything. What would be great now is to hear them pick one specific thing and do it in minute detail.

Review Score: 8.6 out of 10