Review – Sun City Girls – Torch of the Mystics

Over here in the U.K. our music press has always had a bit of a soft spot for music that articulates the fractured experience of American life especially if it’s completely in a universe of it’s creators own making. With this in mind, it’s surprising that Sun City Girls aren’t frequently mentioned in the same reverential breath on these shores as the Butthole Surfers. Having listened to “Torch of The Mystics”, their (according to Pitchfork) “classic”, however I think I can understand why.

Consisting of brothers Alan and Rick Bishop, and (deceased) drummer Charlie Gocher, the trio blazed a singular (50 albums worth), haphazard, wilful path through psychedelia / world music/ folk / rock with nary a concern for their audience’s expectations or demands. Over here we’d refer to them as “wind-up merchants”. They however preferred to engage their audience by “controlling their evening by purposefully putting them in an environment they were uncomfortable with” (2012 Forced Exposure article by Marc Masters). That sounds like great fun, but only if you’re not paying for the experience after working all day in a job you hate.

Starting with the initially promising low-end grumble of “Blue Mamba” you’re soon introduced to the vocals. The cod-foreign Hare Krishna (Papa Legba) mutterings that blight several of the tracks on here. The next track, “Tarmac 23” employs the same approach of detuned, stuttering, vaguely asian-influenced garage rock. Instrumental “Esoterica of Abyssinia” never strays too far from the riff and is all the better for it. For some reason I’m reminded of Jello Biafra’s high-pitched wheedling tones when listening to some of the songs (Space Prophet Dogon, The Shining Path). At other points (Cafe Batik) I think they’re just taking the piss.

“Radar 1941” is the wonky-surf instrumental. “The Vinegar Stroke” the Malaysian Mariachi instrumental. The Album ends on “Burial In The Sky” which is a faux-Buddhist drone. Then there is silence. Relief.

In the 1950’s, BBC Radio used to broadcast “The Goon Show”, a comedy which made Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine and Harry Seacombe household names in the UK. It consisted of grown men making silly noises and using silly voices. For the life of me I couldn’t help but mentally reference Eccles when listening to this “psychedelic” classic. Speaking of which, can we have a moratorium on the use of the “P” word, please? This is NOT a psychedelic record. It’s three skilled musicians buggering about with silly voices (and let’s not raise the issue of cultural misappropriation either, shall we?) and playing some half-listenable tunes.

My initial hopes had been high when reading the PR guff. I envisioned a Haynes-style lysergic-assisted dismantling of 1980’s American reality. I got daft voices and an album that sounds like it was recorded in an afternoon. Make that half an afternoon. Finished by 3-3.30 pm. As Rick says, when referring to their heroic productivity (in the Pitchfork article) “We released stuff that no-other band in their right mind would ever consider releasing. It was a beautiful thing”. Ah, but for whom, Rick, for whom?

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