Stolen Babies / Unexpect
There Be Squabbles Ahead / In a Flesh Aquarium
B+ / B
ince 1998, The End Records has catered to metal's misfits, releasing albums that defy easy categorization. The label's recent output, however, stretches even its own eclectic bounds; it seems to have cornered the market on "circus metal." There's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, who sound like a demented old-time traveling circus. There's the gypsy noir jazz of Estradasphere. There's the arty folk/goth doom of Giant Squid. These bands all sound different, but they share a penchant for alternative instrumentation and a "Right this way, folks!" aesthetic that transcends metal's obsession with speed and heaviness. Stolen Babies and Unexpect are the most circus-y of the lot, sounding like Mr. Bungle after multiple genetic mutations. In other words, expect clown paint, not corpse paint.
The Stolen Babies' instrument list reads like a failed music store: accordion, toy accordion, glockenspiel, jaw harp, mandolin, baby sitar, toy piano, marimba, tuba, trumpet, euphonium, and so on. At times, good old-fashioned distorted guitar references metal, but the band mostly busies itself elsewhere. This isn’t sonic dilettantism, though: the songs are richly layered, yet tightly structured, with whip-cracking performances and crystal-clear production. "Awful Fall" dares to employ slap bass all the way through, while "Filistata" is a devilish, organ-driven skank. "Swint? Or Slude?" also has a ska vibe, its accordion suggesting The Specials gone tango. "So Close" has an electronic industrial feel, recalling My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult's more whimsical moments. "Tall Tales," too, has a synth intro straight out of Front 242. If They Might Be Giants went goth, the result might be the bouncy tuba and swooning vocals of "The Button Has Been Pushed." The highlight is "Lifeless," a conventional rock number (except for its percolating glockenspiel licks) that highlights Dominique Persi's gorgeous vocals.
Montreal's Unexpect is more overtly metallic, with greater use of distorted guitars. (The slap bass, neck-snapping accents, and double kicks of "Feasting Fools" suggest Cryptopsy accompanying the lion tamer.) Don’t be fooled: piano, violin, cello, clarinet, and saxophone march boldly across the songs. The band favors highly dramatic gestures; at times, the album feels like an extended exposition of the "Thunderbolt and lightning" section of "Bohemian Rhapsody." This is especially true in the wacky left-right panning of the vocals in "Desert Urbania." However, when the band gives the metal a rest, as it does approximately every thirty seconds, its dark quirks shine through. The female vocals are strong, and the piano and violin playing is wonderful. At times, these instruments feel like they're fighting the guitars, but this tension gives the songs great momentum. Like many of its labelmates on The End, this band is an acquired taste. But once one succumbs to such wizardry, Muggle music seems so mundane.