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‘The Mole Box: The Complete Mole Trilogy (pREServed)’ • The Residents (review)

The Mole Box: The Complete Mole Trilogy
(pREServed)

The Residents
MVD/Cherry Red Records

 

If you have never actually heard any music created by The Residents, then you better sit down for this.

You see, The Residents are not a conventional band.

Sure, they write, play, and sing songs… yet they don’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before.

Some people call them weird.

Others say that they are incredibly strange.

Perhaps the best way to describe them would be avant-garde. Or maybe ‘aural art’.

At the end of the day, you’ll never fully comprehend their truly unique approach to music-making until you sit down and listen to them. Once you open your mind, you’ll be met with some of the most surreal – and completely fascinating – music you’ll ever hear.

There’s not enough time and space to fill you in on the band’s complete history so, hopefully, you’ll spend time investigating the various versions of The Residents fascinating – and not always exactly truthful – career. One thing you should remember is that the band has traded on mystery and anonymity since their recorded debut – the 1972 SANTA DOG EP. To this day, they’ve never officially revealed their true identities although most of us have a pretty good idea who the various members are/were by now. The Residents preferred that the focus be on their art and not on the individuals responsible for creating it. So, they hid in the background, occasionally stepping out into the sunlight with their giant eyeball heads accented with a top hat and tails. The Rockin’ Retinas, indeed!

Back in their early days, the band’s musical vision was far more advanced than their musical abilities. With each successive release, technology made it a little easier for The Residents to fully represent the sound that was in their heads. While each of their albums are astoundingly original, their musicianship and technology finally caught up with their ideas in 1978. From that point forward, it all came into focus and the band released a series of albums that began to appeal to a slightly larger audience. From DUCK STAB/BUSTER and NOT AVAILABLE (both released in 1978) to ESKIMO (1979) and THE COMMERCIAL ALBUM (1980), their music suddenly connected with fans of the burgeoning Punk, New Wave, and Indie scenes. Perhaps initially confused by The Residents’ ‘weirdness,’ these new fans began to look beyond that and embrace The Residents’ unique vision. No eyeball pun intended.

While the 1978 releases were more ‘song’ based, ESKIMO was a game changer – a concept album that played out like an acid-tinged audio travelogue laced with strange and captivating music that would be compared to New Age in a few years’ time. This was an album that attempted to tell a story without lyrics… and it worked beautifully. The 2018 two CD pREServed edition contains a plethora of bonus tracks that are related to the album project. With long musical pieces, this is not an album to skim through. You must immerse yourself in the experience.

THE COMMERCIAL ALBUM was another concept album of sorts. Comprised of 40 songs that were one minute in length, the band explained that the songs were both the average length of a ‘commercial’ and also that each one minute song could be repeated three times in order to replicate the length of a ‘commercial’ Pop song. The album includes guest appearances from XTC’s Andy Partridge, Lene Lovich, Snakefinger, Fred Frith and others. The concept behind this project was clever but the execution was even better: these were some of the band’s most melodic songs.  The 2CD pREServed edition features an impressive amount of bonus material related to the album.

And then came the Moles. Initially conceived as a trilogy, The Residents actually released a total of three studio albums, an EP and several live recordings related to the Mole Trilogy concept… yet they never got around to finishing the project! The whole wild ride can be found in the astounding six CD box set THE MOLE BOX, a collection that essentially brings the ‘Classic Era’ of The Residents history to an end and introduces the beginnings of something very different but equally fascinating. But wait… doesn’t the band and their fans consider 1980 to be the cut-off point of the Classic Era? Yeah, I know that this might be a slightly controversial point but hear me out…

MARK OF THE MOLE (Disc One) started the Mole ball rolling in 1981. The album tells the timely tale of the Moles and the Chubs, two very different cultures forced to co-exist together. The Mohelmots (AKA Moles) are driven from their homes by a natural disaster and wind up settling in with the Chubs. Being the more care-free yet cautious society, the Chubs don’t care for the Moles but end up using them as cheap labor. Then the Moles become resentful and things begin to go off the rails. Like a strange mix of the immigration struggles in the U.S. and Europe’s obvious troubles with the Nazis in World War II, MARK OF THE MOLE is ambitious and riveting. While some aspects of the story are a bit unclear, listeners would assume that since this was a trilogy, thing would be explained in the next two chapters. Well, that didn’t exactly work out… The CD includes bonus tracks unavailable elsewhere including tracks recorded live in the studio.  These ‘band’ arrangements are fascinating and offer a different side of the same musical vision. Compelling to say the least…

1982’s THE TUNES OF TWO CITIES (Disc Two) is perhaps the band’s most ‘commercial’ sounding album up to this point. Yes, even more than THE COMMERCIAL ALBUM! Almost wholly instrumental, the album serves as either a prequel or an ‘album within an album’ side project. Since the Chubs and the Moles were two completely different cultures, they created different styles of music. The Chubs’ brand of music was more care-free – a combination of Jazz and Lounge. The Moles’ music was tribal, dark, and jagged. THE TUNES OF TWO CITIES features almost a duel and duet between cultures – joyful Jazz followed by dark Electronica. One might think that the Chubs’ sound is the more melodic of the two styles, yet the Moles’ tracks have a certain charm even if they aren’t as optimistic.

THE TUNES OF TWO CITIES officially brought an end to the Classic Era sound of the band. While still portrayed as a quartet, it is unknown how many original members were still an active part of the band at this time. Regardless, this is the final Residents release that sounds like it had musical input from more than two Residents. In Residential history, THE COMMERCIAL ALBUM is acknowledged as the end to the Classic Era, but this album contains many of the musical hallmarks that made their earlier albums so interesting. Often overlooked in their catalog, it actually serves as the perfect ‘gateway’ into their recorded work. Start here and work your way forwards or backwards. If not the end of the Classic Era, this album should be considered an unofficial Epilogue… or, at the very least, a post-credits scene. Like Disc One, this CD offers more unique and riveting bonus material unavailable elsewhere.

During the Mole period, technology had advanced enough for the band to take their ambitious ideas on the road for the first time. Performing MARK OF THE MOLE and bits of TUNES OF TWO CITTIES in front of enchanted and/or bewildered audiences, the music became the soundtrack to an artistic vision unlike anything that came before it. The Mole concept was art coming to life and inhabiting our reality. Although there are no videos in this set to enjoy, there are two CDs containing a pair of very different live performances of this show. Disc Four contains the professionally recorded THE MOLE SHOW: LIVE AT THE ROXY (featuring narration by Penn Jillette) from 1982 and Disc Five features the (audience?) recording of the UNCLE SAM MOLE SHOW, taped the following year after their triumphant/disastrous European tour. Both sets offer different insights into the live experience and are worthy chapters in the whole Mole story.

The Residents switched gears after the TUNES album and didn’t return to the Mole Trilogy until 1985’s THE BIG BUBBLE: PART FOUR OF THE MOLE TRILOGY (Disc Three). Yes, you read that correctly. Part Four of a trilogy! Egads! By this point, the Classic Era was truly over. The sound of the band had changed and became keyboard dominated. While other instruments inhabit the aural space on this darkly atmospheric album, it is most certainly a Residents album… but a completely different Residents album nonetheless. The concept of THE BIG BUBBLE is another ‘album within an album’ release. This time, the Mole story moves many, many years into the future. Up to this point, the Chubs had been shacking up with the Moles, creating a new generation of crossbreeds known as Zenkinites. The Big Bubble is a band made of Zenkinites and they sing in the banned Mohelmot language. While still sounding strange, The Big Bubble – as portrayed by The Residents – sound angry and disillusioned. Even if you don’t speak Mohelmot (and who does?), you can tell that this was the sound of The Residents putting the whole Mole concept to bed and moving forward. Fascinating, indeed. The CD contains plenty of previously unreleased recordings related to The Big Bubble concept and serves as the final word to the Mole Trilogy. Well, apart from Disc Six.

The sixth and final disc in this box – MISCELLANEOUS MOLE MATERIALS – gathers the 1983 INTERMISSION EP (featuring the actual intermission music played during the live Mole Show), plus more previously unreleased material including a fascinating “MOTM Mix One Concentrate,” which squeezes an alternate mix of the instrumental version of MARK OF THE MOLE into a 25 minute opus. The other material on this disc offers even more musical insight into one of the most fruitful periods in the band’s career. This is the aural equivalent of discovering hours of lost footage of the flying monkeys from The Wizard Of Oz. Scary and beautiful.

THE MOLE BOX is a stunning addition to the band’s pREServed series and reveals more layers to the band’s magnum opus. For fans, it offers many audio gifts to enjoy for years to come. This is art, folks. Prepare to be dazzled and dismayed in equal measures. Incredibly strange yet undeniably powerful, THE MOLE BOX is a triumph.

P.S. Don’t get your panties in a twist because I moved the Classic Era goalpost forward to 1982. It is just my opinion.

– Stephen SPAZ Schnee

Full disclosure: I am a Pop music fan first and foremost, so I come from a different angle than many Rez fans, who are far more intellectual and cultured than I am.

However, The Residents create music that is welcoming to anyone who enjoys being entertained, inspired, and challenged.

 

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