Review Summary: A relentless attack of uniquely odd and quirky, albeit heavy musicality that is sure to maintain your curiosity...like a child in a circus.
Spawned in the Los Angeles suburbs of Diamond Bar, California, Radiation 4 released a limited number of their self-titled debut in late 2001, quickly garnering attention. Concordantly, Abacus Recordings promptly signed the band, resulting in the release of "Wonderland," a chaotic album filled with spastic energy erupting with a myriad of major technical riffs, dissonant and discordant chords balanced out with soothing yet simultaneously unnerving moments finally topped off with some jazz underlyings.
It is interesting to note the immense influence of Mike Patton and perhaps even some Tom Waits, found in the quirky musicality, and especially in frontman Chris Negrete's vocals. Radiation 4 can be described as the result of Mr. Bungle, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Fantomas having a watergun fight in a Silent Hill amusement park.
The first track "Silence Fiction" is a great and merciful prelude to the album. The unsettling Close Encounters introduction leads into Negrete's crooning singing, almost like a ringmaster sucking you into the commencement of a demented circus act. Despite the in and out screaming, this track more or less keeps things calm. Cunningly misleading for it leads into the onslaught of "Tick. Tock. Tick." The relentless guitar and drum attack lead into the convulsive vocals, a paradigm track of what this band is about
: unconventional riffs and rhythms, odd time signatures, dynamic ups and downs, and sporadic idiosyncratic melodies that further extend the motif of the circus.
Negrete's vocals are great and perfectly appropriate for the erratic nature of the album. You can almost picture him running and falling onstage with his jerky movements. His combination of random shrieks and growls to the oddly quirky sing-talking (nicely coupled with the noise distortion effects) to the crooning singing provide much variance in the songs, if ever was needed. The raw energy is very apparent, which is easily manifested in their live shows (though the opportunity now to see them is sadly gone for they are broken up). Tracks such as "Love Through Tapeworm Hooks" and "When Animals Attack" are fully pumping with vigor and force with underlying melodies that sound like what Converge would if they were born in a circus. These are two of the major standout tracks. Incredibly hooking melodies and some great vocal showmanship and variance from Negrete. "Love Through Tapeworm Hooks" includes a short guitar break of the Mario theme song, which makes me mention the seriousness of the band. As the majority of the album will tell, so much it is so perfectly odd that they seem to take on the persona of HORSE the Band. A lighthearted take on musical insanity that allows for more interesting results.
However, the most intriguing tracks of the album are perhaps the more eerie and ethereal, epic tracks such as "John vs. the Elephant," "Magnolia Act 1," and the incredible standout behemoth "The Prize." "John vs. the Elephant" is an allusion to John (Joseph) Merrick, known as the Elephant Man for his congenital defects that caused horrible physical deformations. Sadly, Radiation 4 did not include their lyrics to be read anywhere, but this was one of the very few that could be found online. In comparison to the other songs, this seems to be the more serious and heartfelt: an introspective dissertation on humiliation, inner unseen beauty and a better life.
"His tears caused the flood in which he sailed down for years.
He found a piece of land where he was sure to live alone.
But, he met many more like himself that sailed down the very same flood
John still dreamt of the life he wanted, over and over again.
Make me feel like a man should.
I am John Merrick."
Another standout track is the closer, "The Prize" which spans a whopping fifteen minutes. The first seven or so minutes is the main part of the song, and stands out on its own. The mood changes are so inconsistent but perfect that it never fails to hold fast my attention. From the clean finger-picking introduction to the sing fade screams to the unbelievably catchy and hope-destroying chorus makes this track ultimately entrancing. The latter eight minutes or so is a continuous and unnerving instrumental that parallels that of the first track. It can be somewhat dragging and unnecessary. But it works and it is a great way to end such a roller coaster (or rather carousel) of an album.
A recurring motif I keep mentioning is that of the circus, but it couldn't be more appropriate. While present in almost all the tracks, "When Animals Attack" and "Magnolia Act II" definitely showcase this unequivocally. Even the album cover perfectly depicts what is to be expected from the release. Bright colors but a hidden unicorn from a carousel and much open space. It is eerie and unsettling, ethereal and atmospheric, bright and colorful, with the, again, overall circus feel.
One of my main gripes about the album is that Negrete does not utilize his singing voice as much. When not singing as oddly, his voice is indeed beautiful and I would not have minded hearing more of it, perhaps more during the ethereal sections. Some people may also have a problem with the production quality, though it did not bother me too much at all. It is indeed not as crisp as some would like, but in some way, it adds to the overall sound. Aside from that, the cons are few to be found. In any case, "Wonderland" is a highly unique album that is definitely worth checking out.