Instrumentally impressive, vocally underwhelming
The Residents have been one of the most elusive, iconoclastic and outright bizarre creative projects in music for essentially their entire long and illustrious career. Across about five decades and nearly 50 albums of lauded music and multimedia works, the group has remained largely anonymous, and far outside the the usual trappings of similarly successful musicians. The group’s eyeball helmets and top hats have become synonymous with not only the group itself, but the exciting nature of the most subversive and adventurous avant-garde musical experiments as a whole. The group’s most recent project, Metal, Meat & Bone: The Songs of Dyin’ Dog, explores and reworks the demos of a fictional blues musician. As always, their ability to conjure intriguing stories and compelling concepts upon which to build their music is admirable, but unfortunately, much of this project’s actual musical substance is disappointing.
The Residents’ primary issue across Metal, Meat & Bone lies in the lyrics and vocal performances. For years, the band received praise for their creative lyrical content and odd deliveries. On this project, the group falls woefully short on both fronts. There is ineffectual repetition abound, botched delivery styles that literally ruin some songs and overall, a lack of interest in creating lyrical and vocal content that meshes well with the general excellent instrumentation. On songs like “I Know,” curious openings lead into a frustrating moan-like delivery that tires almost instantly. The dark heaviness and dissonant electronics on “Dead Weight” probably would’ve been better as just an instrumental; the repetitive lyrics are far from affecting, and only obstruct the gothic atmosphere that the group has crafted so masterfully. Listening to the child-like whispers on “Cold as a Corpse,” another instrumentally well-rounded track that deserves better, is genuinely uncomfortable. The Residents deserve plenty of respect for attempting so many different things on this project, as they have throughout their career, but a lot of it just doesn’t connect.
From front to back, the veteran group is extremely solid on an instrumental level. The fact that the album never really achieves a well-defined or cohesive sound almost works to the band’s advantage—they are unshackled, and achieve a wide variety of impressive and surprising feats in their instrumentation. The combination of plodding timpanis and electric guitar among other eeriness on tracks like “The Dog’s Dream” and “Pass for White” is extremely entertaining. The Residents also prove to be particuarly adept in their use of strings throughout the album. The obtuse syncopations, abrasive noises and horrifying drones of “She Called Me Doggy” make for a wildly unsettling, but ultimately satisfying experience. It’s The Residents at their most effective.
The Residents also include a collection of “Dyin’ Dog” demos on this project, and while they certainly contribute to the mythology of this abnormal work, they function mostly as a reminder of what could’ve been. The gruff vocals on tracks like “Bury My Bone (Demo)” and “I Know (Demo)” work extremely well, and show that this band doesn’t have to do weirdness just for weirdness’ sake. These worn-in vocals, alongside the bluesy instrumentation on these demos, especially on songs like “River Runs Drive (Demo)” and “Tell Me (Demo)”, conjure images of a seedy southern dive bar that just happens to have an incredibly gifted in-house band. The demos are exciting, but overall, do little to makeup for the shortcomings of the first 16 tracks.
It’s unlikely that a relatively small misstep at this point in The Residents’ career will have any effect on their trajectory or core fanbase. It’s significantly more likely that at this point, potentially more so than ever before, they are working solely on whatever is inspiring them in the current moment, however obscure or bizarre (the idea of an album based on around the demos of a fictional artist comes to mind). Hats off to them for another release, expecting at least 10-20 more.