Ah, High School! Time to break out, get broken, and start a few bad habits. I was just beginning to realize that interesting music lay beyond my Disney collection. (remember, I was isolated in southern Indiana, aka Top 40 hell).
My introduction to punk came during my sophomore year via the next door neighbor of the guitarist for the rock band I was in. Said guitarist's neighbor was an exhalted and worldly "college man" (ooh ah!) who brought a stack of records home with him every other weekend, and we were honored to be able to tape and enjoy these fascinating discs of manic artistry. We fed our hunger for this new music through him and him only — we couldn't otherwise have laid our hands on such music in our town. When I taped The Residents album that he brought home one weekend (along with The Jam and 999), I listened to it once and promptly filed it away under "strange", right beside that Ken Nordine soundsheet my dad had. This was 1981, and I had no idea how much time and money I would spend on this group in the future.
Years went by, and I, myself, became an exhalted and worldly "college man", and was seriously involved in the punk rock scene by then. Oddly, it was green tea that prompted me to pull that tape out again — the caffeine had brought on a strange mood in me, and I wanted music to match the strangeness. For the first time, I really listened to The Residents, and discovered in them a sound unlike anything I'd heard before. It was dark and muddy, scary yet soothing, aurally encompassing, and demanded my undivided attention. Forty-five minutes later I knew what I had to do...
The next day I went to the best record store in Bloomington, Indiana and bought out the entire Residents bin, which consisted of eleven albums, Mark of the Mole among them.
Mark of the Mole is a conceptual album that tells the story of the Mohelmot people who live and work underground. A flood into their underground world results in immediate evacuation and subsequent exodus across a desert to the sea, which is inhabited by the Chubs. The Chubs see the Moles as a dedicated, hard working race they can exploit with little pay. Everything is cool for awhile, but soon the Moles realize their exploitation and war ensues. The war is short, solves nothing, and the
tension remains at the close of the album.
The Residents depict this story with synthesizer, drum machine, bass, guitar, and heavily processed vocals. This album sounds as if it were literally recorded under the ground, with layers of low tone synth sounds and dark vocals creating the underground world of the Moles. The record opens with a low synth blast and a bass guitar melody over a steady drum machine high hat sample. Then a female chorus chimes in:
"People should be left alone
Unless they have a happy home"
This is followed by a news report (the voice of Penn Jillette) warning of the storm that will inevitably floods the Mole's holes, setting the stage for disasters to come.
From an audio standpoint, the attention to balance in frequency and the stereo image on this album are quite interesting. Most of the bass sounds are panned left and right to allow sonic space for main vocals and high frequency synth effects, and the tonal balance between low and high frequencies is uncanny. The arrangement of these odd sounds is crucial, as this is the soundtrack to a play without visual aid. The auditory experience conjures amazing images in the listener's mind — the album graphics may help to define these images, but it is the music and lyrics that coax the mind's eye to truly "see" this play.
Recorded on a 16-track 1" machine, I believe the arrangements were recorded in sequence given the flawless transitions from song to song (or act to act). Listen, for example, to the transition between "It Never Stops" and "March to the Sea" — the fade out of "It Never Stops" continues to silence until, after a...