One of music’s most prolific and infamous bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, releases its eleventh full-length album this week, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? BJM, the band that was half of the focal point of the amazing 2004 documentary DiG! (along with the Dandy Warhols), has always had a revolving door of members, led by embittered and eccentric multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/genius Anton Newcombe. Due to his challenging personality and ego-centrism (as highlighted in DiG!), Newcombe’s band has gone through so many lineup changes it’s amazing that those who have stuck around continue to do so.
This new disc, Who Killed Sgt. Pepper?, comes on the heels of 2008’s My Bloody Underground, and is a remarkable achievement, honestly. BJM always tries to venture out to new musical landscapes, and with the new album Anton & Friends have really set out to create something visionary and, well, incredible.
The album was recorded in Iceland and Berlin, features vocals by a singer named Unnur Andrea Einarsdottir, and is just as weird as those circumstances suggest. The album also marks the return to the BJM ranks of Matt Hollywood, the guitarist/vocalist who is highlighted at length in DiG!. I saw BJM at Coachella last year, and Hollywood was a part of the band that was on stage, which marked his return to the fold.
The album starts out with Tempo 116.7 (Reaching for Levels of Dangerous Sobriety), an Eastern-inspired instrumental piece whose danceable rhythms and beat set the stage for what is to come. Tunger Hnifur (huh?), the next track, includes some fuzzy intelligible vocals and vibe that makes it seem like an attempt to copy and/or mimic the style of snotty Brit Pop groups like Oasis and Blur (which BJM imitated amazingly with the album Give It Back). The Brit Pop comparisons continue with Let’s Go Fucking Mental, which starts out with a raucous soccer chant and a propulsive bass-driven beat. The doesn’t sound unlike the sort of dance-punk-synth stuff that bands like Kasabian are known for, but when Newcombe sings lyrics like “Magic song that I wrote for you, you can sing along ‘cause the words are true. Sing it in the morning, sing it in the day, sing it in the evening, sing it every way” in a British accent the whole thing sounds like he’s poking fun at the overall sound.
This Is the First of Your Last Warnings (Icelandic Version) has more dance beats and atmospheric keyboard noises, as well as Icelandic vocals by Unnur Andrea Einarsdottir, which make the song really weird and eccentric (how appropriate). The rhythms come together to make the song one of those tunes that grabs you and makes you bob your head while getting lost in the beats. The Icelandic vocals add to the song remarkably well, adding some delicious melodies and grooves to the whole thing. It’s simply breathtaking, a long song that never lets up.
According to various posts on the Internet about this album, BJM was aided by “a variety of international musicians” on this set, and that’s what I assume led to the almost world music-feeling to the record. This is not an indie rock album, this is an eclectic, non-classifiable hybrid of ideas and musical concepts that work together amazingly well.
This Is The One Thing We Did Not Want To Have Happen, the 7-minute jam that comes after the Icelandic song, is more of the same, with the same type of hypnotic pace and rhythm that continues the sonic journey laid forth by the album. I imagine the album is even more intoxicating under the influence of some hallucinogenic mind-altering drugs, as the music is already insane anyway.
Someplace Else Unknown returns to the Kasabian-esque space noises and mindfuck beats that take a long time to get going before Newcombe then sings about Jesus and drugs and death threats and World War 2 and the like. Yeah, it makes total sense.
Detka! Detka! Detka! then comes along and completely breaks up the dance-y Britpop feel by throwing in some bizarre world music sung in another language (Russian?) that is almost frightening in its strangeness.
The rest of the record follows suit, continuing the bizarre odyssey into Newcombe’s mind that ends with Felt Tipped Pictures of UFOs, a “song” that actually references the title (whereas I had thought it was just more random nonsense thrown into the song title) WHILE at the same time featuring sound bytes of a Scottish (?) woman ranting about John Lennon and Lennon himself discussing his “Beatles are bigger than Jesus” statements. I’m so confused.
Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? is simply mind-blowing. I understand it as a look into Newcombe’s soul, which apparently is overcome with with Icelandic singers and yelling and space noises and drug-induced confusion at every turn. Listening to it all the way through is just as mesmerizing.
So yeah, if you’re into this sort of freakout, psychedelic Brit Pop influenced world music, check out this album, as BJM has really created something quite astonishing.
I'll leave you with this video of BJM playing at Coachella last year, for your enjoyment.