Devo founder, Gerald V. Casale, was the band’s co-principle songwriter on radio hits like “Whip It,” “Beautiful World,” “Freedom of Choice” and “Gates of Steel.” He was also largely responsible for designing Devo’s acclaimed stage shows and Dadaist costumes, including the infamous red “Energy Dome.” A pioneering, award-winning music video and commercial director, Gerald began by directing the band’s groundbreaking videos in the ’70s and ’80s. Afterwards, he directed nearly one hundred music videos over the next decade for groups as varied as The Foo Fighters, Silverchair, Soundgarden and Mint Condition before moving on to TV spot directing on the cusp of the new millenium. Currently, Casale remains active in both music and videos, collaborating with Italy’s Phunk Investigation on a vinyl EP to be released Record Store Day 2016 and developing a Devo musical, The Beginning Was the End, a satirical, futuristic narrative set in Devo’s alternate world, Spudland and propelled by Devo’s well-known song catalog.
I like to think I stay informed of the latest currents in “pop” music with its almost obscene, digitally driven volume of releases. As with any creative discipline, almost all new sonic “content” is stale, derivative, heartless and brain-deadening. Then something makes your ears erect like a cat sensing danger. That latest “something” for me is Tobacco a.k.a. Mr. Thomas Fec of Black Moth Super Rainbow.
While I said I try to stay current, I readily admit I was late to the party with Tobacco. That’s the problem with the digital revolution and the demise of a real music business. Gems no longer inevitably rise to the top. Like Dante’s seven levels of hell, there’s a miasma of muck that buries some of the best creativity and damns it to choke in obscurity. Further, there is no “top” in this fractured, solipsistic, cultural landscape — just a field of molehills waiting to become mountains.
Let me momentarily digress before I set sights on Tobacco. I’m a fan of Mike Judge’s work. His movie Idiocracy is the movie Devo should have made. It’s close to my heart and is a make-or-break taste test for possible friendships or romances, right on par with Russ Meyers’ Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. So, it was with great anticipation that I tuned in to the premiere of Mr. Judge’s spot-on episodic satire Silicon Valley on HBO in April of 2014.
I was hooked from the downbeat of the show’s opening credits. Retro–futuristic, Sim City-type computer graphic animation synced to the coolest retro-futuristic, robot synth funk I didn’t even know I wanted to hear until I heard it. That’s always the best surprise: un-manipulated desire fulfilled. I had to IMDB the credits during the first commercial break to find out who made that music. As much as I loved the pilot episode of Silicon Valley, I went straight to work on researching Mr. Fec at the conclusion of the half hour. The music had upstaged the show.
My surprise discovery kept reverberating like multiple universe bubbles.
So, “Stretch Your Face” was the name of the at-once amusing and sinister mix of low-fi, pitch-bending, analogue synths, fuzz bass and drum machine samples that had turned me on. And there was much more to the composition than the show’s intro bumper had time to include: an eerie, prog-rock-style synth string melody line that wafts around in the ozonosphere above the funky, somewhat spastically wooden groove of overdriven, fried out, unpredictable changes. (I swear I hear a Yamaha CS-5). I immediately wanted to write lyrics and sing over this dirty jewel of experimental genius.
My surprise discovery kept reverberating like multiple universe bubbles. “Stretch Your Face” was just one little ditty from an entire album titled Maniac Meat from 2010! That body of work was a relatively late effort from an artist who had been developing his world of neo-psychedelic sound for at least fifteen years! Oh, and laying vocals over Fec’s stuff? Done! He tapped Beck on “FreshHex” and the result is magnificently unintelligible lyrics meshed with a jerky Tobacco “hip-hop groove” as exciting as “Louie Louie” was in its own perfectly devolved way.
But you, the readers, probably already know all this. I’m the prodigal convert. Mr. Fec’s latest solo offering as Tobacco, Sweatbox Dynasty, harnesses every step of his artistic development all the way through to his last release, 2014’s Ultima 2 Massage, in a recombinant, career-spanning tour de force.
Experimentation and accidents are front and center in Mr. Fec’s sonic manifesto. “Gods in Heat” is a standout track where his private, hermetically sealed world opens the door and lets in poor mortals still drooling for a “danceable beat” to briefly visit. Before he kicks you out, he lets you orgasm with “Human Om” just to make sure you know he could become a corporate tunesmith if he wanted.
Fec’s self-directed video for “Human Om” made me seethe with envy because I didn’t direct it. It is brilliantly Brutalist and touches on every Devo fetish, including my life-long love of full-head rubber masks and the power of their hilarious, banal horror. Tobacco is an auteur!
De-evolution is real and Fec is the messiah.
There are some short, interstitial tracks on Sweatbox Dynasty such as “Wipeth Out,” “Suck Viper” and “The Madonna” that function as sputtering, beat-killing punctuation for Tobacco’s unholy war on linear composition. They are jarring, nasty and dissonant, challenging in every way, like having to watch a commercial break during a TV broadcast of A Clockwork Orange.
But by the six-minute-plus closing track, “Let’s Get Worn Away,” it’s obvious that those short intrusions were part of Tobacco’s master plan to drop a twenty-megaton, deconstructivist sound nuke on the listener, thus shredding song structure as we know it once and for all. The opus is an aural version of William Burroughs’ cut-and-paste murder of linear text narrative, sounding as if fragments of songs not on the record are aggressively assembled in a mathematically circumspect serial structure; you struggle to find its logic. Six minutes later and six feet under in Tobacco’s intentionally glitchy, analogue soup, you realize you’ve been baptized. It’s a glorious antidote to the hideous, crushing, boot-in-the-face, Katy Perry-type falseness of modern music. De-evolution is real and Fec is the messiah.