Imagine being at a party with your musician pals. They’re all very accomplished. Suddenly, they decide to put on an impromptu jam. Everybody joins in–like, a dozen people. They decide they’re going to play, oh, I don’t know, some weird number, like from Harry Partch or something. Only they all play a different Partch composition at the same time, and add some slam poetry, pound on some homemade instruments, and one guy starts growling death metal vocals. Now comes the choose your own adventure part: do you sit there mesmerized, in awe of the spectacle unfolding, or do you stand up and leave due to your churning stomach, unable to handle the confluence of disparate styles, rhythms, and sounds? Welcome to Those Darn Gnomes.
If that opening paragraph isn’t discombobulating enough, also consider this: Those Darn Gnomes claim that some of the musical theories presented here on their third album, Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow, were conceived “through the incorporation of algorithmic compositional techniques derived from mold cultivation.” This sounds like something Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention would have included in their liner notes back in the 1960’s, and that weirdness permeates the music here. Having prepared myself for what is to come by listening to the band’s earlier work, I wasn’t completely taken aback when “Birds” blasted forth with noisy abandon, death metal howls and crazed Gilbert Gottfried-like yells cutting through a seemingly incoherent wall of free-form jazz experimentation and random sound effects. Thankfully, this eleven-minute song does let up in the middle, as the other three songs also do, with a quietly-picked acoustic passage letting us breathe for a moment before chaos rejoins.
“A Cliff in Our Garden” opens in a very Swans-like manner, with plaintive vocals atop strings (and eventually electric guitar). Bass and drums fade in hypnotically, in what so far is the closest to conventional songwriting Those Darn Gnomes have given us on this album. It’s an enthralling start, although halfway through the group throws caution – and convention – to the wind, and once again the music devolves into pure unhinged chaos. The song does come down from the death metal howling and limps exhaustedly to the finish line with airy atmospherics, which makes the blast of death-jazz that opens final song “The Frail Stag (Vanity Sounds the Horn and Ignorance Unleashes the Hounds Overconfidence, Rashness, and Desire)”1 even more jarring, but since we’ve already been put through the ringer on “Birds” and “Hall,” we’re somewhat inured to the effect.
Past music from Those Darn Gnomes has sounded like the band gathered in a church basement and set up around an iPhone. Here the music is slightly more audible. Seventeen different musicians have credits on Calling Whitetails… and you can tell. When the band gets carried away (which is most of the time), the music comes close to being white noise. Drums in particular have no clarity. But when the songs enter more subdued moments, the audio quality is actually sharp, and the nuances in stringed instruments and keyboards shine through with welcome clarity. The line between beauty and pure noise is crossed back and forth many times here, adding to the album’s polarity.
I’ll be the first to admit: this 2.5 rating is a total copout. I’ve hunkered down with this album for hours over the past three weeks, and I still can’t tell you if Those Darn Gnomes have released a demented opus to avant-garde noise, or if this is just a pretentious mashup of weirdness. It will depend on how you approach it. If you’re an avid fan of albums like Lumpy Gravy, We’re Only in It for the Money, or some of Swans’ more out-there material, Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow may be the master stroke you’re seeking. It’s by no means easy listening, or easy to listen to, but for the adventurous amongst us it’s a wild ride.