Genre-defying Bands Part 2: Thinking Plague

Posted in Avant-garde, Genre-defying by Keshav on August 31, 2010

According to Wikipedia, “Thinking Plague was a United States avant-rock group founded in 1982 by guitarist/composer, Mike Johnson, and bass guitarist/drummer, Bob Drake.” According to me, Thinking Plague is some of the most fucked up shit I’ve ever heard, and I mean that in a good way. I don’t think there’s much use in calling them “avant-rock” (a term which has debatable meaning), or defining them by any other genre label for that matter. They are simply too eclectic. When I’m trying to tell my friends about new bands I’ve discovered, I usually do it by comparing those bands to music they might have already heard. When I’m trying to tell my friends about Thinking Plague, I try to think of similar bands, fail, get tongue-tied, and usually start repeating permutations of the phrase “fucked up shit” (which I’m already guilty of doing once in this post). To me, this is a sign of something special in a band.

Thinking Plague
Thinking Plague

I have two albums by Thinking Plague; their third album, In This Life, and their fourth album, In Extremis. I wish I could talk about each song on each album in great detail, because they are all so different, both from each other, and from any other music I’ve heard. However, that would take up too much space, and it would be a little sketchy of me to post entire albums on this blog. So, I’m going to pick a couple songs from each album, and talk about them for a little bit.

In This Life

Lycanthrope//In This Life//Thinking Plague

This is the first song off In This Life, which was released in 1989. It begins with a rhythmically asymmetric guitar riff, one which which wouldn’t be out of place in your average prog-rock song. But just as you’re growing accustomed to the riff, the guitar drops out and the rest of the band comes in with a completely different, almost atonal riff in another meter. The drums and bass then drop out and begin a sort of call-and-response with an eerie vocal melody. Suddenly, the song breaks down to the original guitar riff, this time accompanied by what sounds like a synth lead and a melodica playing a melody and counter-melody. The vaguely-atonal riff then comes back with the first vocal melody over it, which somehow works.

Of course, that was only about the first minute-and-a-half of the song. If I went on in this much detail about the next 6 minutes of the song this would be a very long post. But I think you get the idea. The point is that this is very eclectic music, but in my opinion, despite its constant changes in meter, key, and tempo, it works. They continue with several more variations on the themes introduced in the beginning of the song, before devolving into strange noises for the last minute or so.

The Gaurdian//In This Life//Thinking Plague

This is another song from In This Life. It begins with a Middle Eastern-sounding ostinato played by the guitar and bass over a psuedo-march on the drums. The vocals come in, eerie as usually, a bit reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit in inflection, but much creepier in my opinion. The next riff, in an odd meter of course, sounds like a cross between Schoenberg and the chorus of Roy Orbison’s Crying. And I’ve got to say, it sounds pretty awesome. Structurally, this is one of Thinking Plague’s simpler songs, as it mostly alternates between those two sections with small variations. It’s almost as if the song has a verse and a chorus. While I chose the previous song I discussed for how all-over-the-place it is, this song is repetitive to the point of being hypnotic.

In Extremis

Dead Silence// In Extremis// Thinking Plague

This is possibly my favorite Thinking Plague song, the first track off their fourth album, In Extremis. It beings with the unlikely combination of odd-metered power chords with an atonal synth line. The vocals then come in, panning from left to right between each line, creating the illusion of a call-and-response. Next comes a twelve-tone section that sounds like Stefan Wolpe tried to write music for a rock band. Back to the original riff, now with some really intense intense guitar and bass hits, which lead into a heavier section that sounds like prog rock, except creepier, especially with the ultra-fast dissonant arpeggios on the guitar. They then repeat that form, except with a tempo fluctuation that seems like it would be impossible to pull off as a band, but they do. The rest of the song is part jazz fusion, part math rock, part evil circus clown music, and all ridiculously technical. And yet somehow it seems to work. At least I think so…

Maelstrom// In Extremis// Thinking Plague

I had to include this track just for how intense and schizophrenic it is it is. It’s also from In Extremis, and actually may not be the weirdest song on the album, believe it or not. But it is appropriately titled. It begins with a super dissonant guitar riff that nevertheless has some structure to it, and their vocalist at the height of creepiness. The song alternates between this guitar-and-vocals creepiness and a painfully complex prog riff, before coming in with what sounds like a glockenspiel solo. Then the heavy shit comes in. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you get to thus part, because it is essentially atonal heavy metal. Then everything cuts out except a 20th century-esque string section, which segues into a guitar riff, which in turn becomes more evil clown music until the song abruptly ends.

If you’re wondering, it indeed has occurred to me that after listening to these songs you may be staring at your computer in bewilderment, wondering why anyone would want to listen to Thinking Plague, let alone write about them. But I counter that this is some of the most original music out there; it refuses to conform to genres, or stay in one place in any sense, even within songs. These are musicians who are essentially doing whatever the fuck they feel like – like small children playing with blocks, except instead of blocks they have instruments of which they happen to be virtuosic players. I respect them for their ability to make whimsical music that actually has some musical merit to it (keep in mind that compared to some avant-garde music Thinking Plague sounds absolutely in-the-box), and I’ve grown to genuinely enjoy listening to them. If you think I’m full of shit and have terrible taste in music right now, all I can say is give them a few more tries, and see if you can acquire a taste for Thinking Plague.


3 Responses

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  1. bakeryjake said, on August 31, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    that’s some pretty fucked up shit

  2. goatonastick1 said, on September 1, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    keshav this has got to be some of the worst shit my malleus and incus have ever been subjected to

    • Keshav said, on September 1, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      Yeah, but you don’t like Stevie Wonder, so nothing you say about music even counts. Not that Thinking Plague is anywhere near being anything like Stevie Wonder.

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