Keep your expectations manageable. If you’re expecting discussion of a Renoir film, I apologize. I’m just not that sophisticated. If you’re expecting a breakdown of the 1970 album from an Edinburgh-band, nope, not today. I can talk about obscure bands, but not necessarily obscure and historical. I am here to describe Humanbeast, a band I stumbled across almost by accident (they weren’t hurt in the process).
Humanbeast is the artistic overlap between sculptor/performance artist Maralie Armstrong and writer/performance artist Eli V. Manuscript. Just writing the words “performance artist” make me nervous because of the possibly unfair stereotype of performance artists being odd and pretentious creative types. Looking at their non-musical work, I feel uncomfortable, in part because of their subject matter, but also because, in large part, their creative work just strikes me as odd. That may very much be part of the point, Armstrong’s work deals with technology and emotional expression with occasional specific focus on gender. Manuscript, on the other hand, embraces a process where technology re-processes his stories into something new/different. His works focuses, in large part on erotic masochism. So, yes, the odds favor any subsequent joint projects being … ummm … shall we say, disturbing? And they are, but the disturbing elements can be ignored, leaving you with something much more generally accessible.
Side note: the band comes from the birthplace of many cool musicians. Maralie Armstrong received her MFA from an art school known for producing art-oriented musicans: The Rhode Island School of Design. Alumni include 3/4 of Talking Heads, Lightning Bolt, Les Savy Fav, and several singer/songwriters such as Marissa Nadler and Heather Nova. In short, there’s something in the water.
Humanbeast’s first release is the disturbingly titled Venus Ejaculates into the Banquet. Yes, you read it right, that’s a female goddess experiencing a transgender moment of pleasure into your smorgasbord. The music itself is far from that disturbing unless you pay careful attention to the actual lyrics. Broadly, the music is minimalist electronic pop with dramatic vocals. Imagine Annie Lennox toning it down a little to perform with Portishead. Or Nina Hagen, voice smoothed and mellowed, joining up with a minimalist version of Propaganda (a band that could have been Germany’s Abba if they weren’t so serious). For North Americans, imagine Lady Gaga as a lounge singer joining up with a less-depressed version of Suicide. Armstrong’s voice is certain and confident, imbued with variety and drama, not too strong, not too wispy/weak, just right. The music beneath the lyrics includes sampled percussion, sometimes too prominent, and simple synth lines/chords.
In “Pearl”, all the basic elements, good and bad, are apparent. The song opens with annoying discrete percussion elements flipping by like an accelerated slide show. A smooth bass synth sets an urgent needed rhythm. Over the top, synth chords swing gently by, providing spooky artistic frosting. Armstrong’s voice moves fluidly between a ‘story’ I don’t want to know about and soaring near-screams, punctuating with occasional high squeaks. The song is beautiful and minimal despite too much cuteness in the percussive sounds. A better mix of elements can be found in “Linen” which sounds a little like Portishead doing a Depeche Mode cover. In “Baluster”, it’s a more direct cover, but with a more genuine lyrical menace than Depeche Mode could ever manage. Album closer “Silver” is an excellent version of an industrial pop slow song, to dance pierced cheek to pierced cheek with your misanthropic lover.
Lyrically, the album is not always as upsetting as the album title suggests. In fact, when the album title flies by as a lyric in “Baluster”, it’s almost disappointing as it seems forced into a rhythm that doesn’t work. The label’s site (Load Records) promises lyrics about “bathroom safety, ballroom danger, and floorboard secrets.” I didn’t catch enough to really be bothered … except, like in “Porcelain” where the lyrics are just uninteresting. But, for me, the lyrics don’t matter quite as much. I can tell I’m hearing real words (I could never stand the Cocteau Twins made-up language) that often fit beautifully and smoothly into the synth danger surrounding it. If you can get past the title and the artsy-ness, you’ll be fine — this is excellent music for careless listening. If you’re easily triggered by artistic pretense, just move along and feel proud for sparing a moment to think about it.