Review Summary: XIV: Primus’ 2014 trip to the chocolate factory is one of wonky, weird, candy-coated bliss, but it’s also an unnecessarily grounded album from a band that should be anything but.
Primus have come a long way since their humble, proggy start in the late 80’s. Ruthlessly weird, they were avant-garde art rockers in a metal world, but they successfully earned an audience, despite doing everything they could to be the “antipop” of their time. So after seven LP’s spanning more than two decades, Primus were finally ready to get their own black magic back by giving us the lineup we’ve wanted since the mid-90’s. Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
marks the first LP from the band to feature drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander since 1995’s Tales from the Punchbowl
, so anticipation was high. But once word got out that the next LP would be a Primus-spun rendition of the soundtrack to the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
, I know I wasn’t alone in being skeptical. So with Primus’ most legendary form revitalized, Primus’ 2014 trip to the chocolate factory is one of wonky, weird, candy-coated bliss, but it’s also an unnecessarily grounded album from a band that should be anything but.
Primus performing the soundtrack to Mel Stuart’s 1971 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
actually makes a lot of sense. Primus have made no effort to distance themselves from the weirder side of things, and with the band even making its own kinds of candy in the same vein as Willy Wonka himself, this isn’t something that feels out of place. When it comes to continuing that ridiculous trip, Primus succeed. Les Claypool lays off the electric bass for a large portion of the LP, sticking to the haunting upright bass, commonly used in eerier Primus tracks like “Mr. Krinkle” from Pork Soda
and “Jilly’s on Smack” from Green Naugahyde
. It makes for a very creepy vibe, and the inclusion of Mike Dillon and Sam Bass (The Fungi Ensemble) brings out Claypool’s blatant love for The Residents, with nimble xylophones and clanging percussion. These darker tracks harken back to another covers album by Primus, Miscellaneous Debris
, which was one of the creepiest albums Primus ever released.
The few dark horses on Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
are some of the best, like the band’s rendition of “Cheer Up Charlie”, whose more uplifting tempo and lyrics are the closest Primus has ever come to a full-on ballad. “I Want It Now” is another great one, as in an extremely rare instance, Claypool steps off the mic and hands it to guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde. The guitarist’s vocals aren’t as definitive as Claypool’s, but after years of Claypool’s yodels and wails, it’s a shockingly fresh take on the Primus formula. Sadly, the curveballs are quite sparse, and the dark Residents-style quirk takes a large amount of aesthetic control. Don’t get me wrong; Primus do a very good job playing in that court, but the entire album sits too comfortably under Wonka’s roof, so expect some tedium to set in.
Actually, that’s where a majority of the album’s problems lie: this is, by all accounts, a covers album. And not just a covers album; a covers album of a movie soundtrack
. Most of these tracks share the same tones and styles, and Primus are in essence locking themselves into Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s template. For example, Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
has four different Oompa Loompa tracks with the only major difference being the lyrics, which is far too much. The entire album plays close to the Wonka vest and Primus aren’t given many opportunities to go nuts and be creative with what’s in play. Really, as the first LP to feature the “classic” Primus lineup in so long, Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
feels like kind of a waste. Even having Alexander back on the kit, as nice as it is, would’ve been much better if Primus could color outside the lines. Primus are at their best when not locking themselves into any kind of format or style, so seeing such a mighty comeback forced to play by the rules of a movie soundtrack covers album is ultimately a disappointing sentiment.
Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
is eerie, spooky, and actually fitting for the basket cases in Primus, but I can’t in confidence say that this is Primus in their ideal element. Covers albums have always been very difficult to do, but for such avant-garde guys in Primus, they do more to tie themselves down than offer fuel for experimentation. A singular tone makes for trudging, especially in the near-identical Oompa tracks, even when some fantastic curveballs are thrown, like “Cheer Up Charlie” and “I Want it Now.” It’s a shame to see the revival of Primus’ most prolific lineup under such cramped conditions, but Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble
is a fun, if un-essential LP from the group. I don’t believe that any other band could tackle a soundtrack so shamelessly bizarre as this, so for that, I commend Primus. We’re just waiting for a new LP from the core lineup that can break the chains and give us the same unbound creativity that their 90’s days represented. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying “I want it now.”