For most groups, a record or CD is an ideal representation of their work. At the very least it’s an auditory business card, and at most it documents something that has taken place, providing a repeatable and analyzable experience. There are certain artists for whom music-as-object seems justifiably incomplete, however, because the process and its visualness are absent. The western Massachusetts-based Fat Worm of Error, as represented on disc, is an inherently difficult proposition. The quintet’s live shows involve theatrical, absurd, and entropic costume changes amid a caterwauling mass of clattering percussion, glitch-ridden electronics, yelped non-sequiturs, and plasticized bass and guitar skronk. For all the harbingers of a potential mess, however, Fat Worm of Error exude taut musicality on a plane equal with their antics.
The difficulty of documenting, in good faith, what constitutes Fat Worm of Error might be one reason that their discography is fairly scant, especially when compared with their cassette-a-week western Mass brethren. Across the better part of a decade they’ve only released five full-length albums, of which Ambivalence and the Beaker is the fourth. This Resipiscent disc is a reissue of a CD-R self-released in 2007. Though it might not be clear on first or second listen, what helps to validate Ambivalence and the Beaker as a document is the fact that, ultimately, these 14 tracks are compositions and, though absent immediacy and visual cues, they come through as tunes, albeit precariously. In a recent interview with Marc Masters at Pitchfork, drummer Neil Young and guitarist Chris Cooper (one of two) related their approach:
I’d say there’s probably no hard and fast rule about anything. Maybe the only thing we all agree on is that we like the freedom that structure brings. [NY]
Our songs are very written [out], but sections of the songs are free within the ideas that we’re going for. Like, maybe we know that a certain part is about slugs crawling out from under rocks, but we don’t have to play an exact particular thing to get there. [A]ll of us have done and still do things that [are] more overtly noise. So this was a chance to do something else. We get to act like a rock band, and do songs that have that particular visceral excitement that improv doesn’t [CC].
Essentially, Fat Worm of Error rely on inherent contradictions between the apparently chaotic and an underlying structure. They’re certainly predisposed to no wave orchestration as guitars, bass, and drums saw through chunky, gestural rhythms à la Charles Noyes’ Toy Killers, building out from small sounds of clinking rocks, low feedback, and leaf-litter traipse on “Wipeless Two.” Jess Goddard’s vocals range from unintelligible mewling and husky declamations (à la Boredoms) to clearly enunciated recollections of gooey disgust. Clashing electronic rhythms and unspooled guitar act as bent counterpoint to growling, disconnected imagery on “Mashed Potentate,” falling away into a tense environment of insect-like buzzing, plinks, dripping water, and explosive instrumental outbursts. About half of the songs are two minutes or less, some of them operating within an incidental, programmatic sphere (while remaining an unsettling “soundtrack” of garish movement), while others are all-systems-go toward the verge of collapse.
Fat Worm of Error are often quite rhythmic, the flinty sludge of Donny Shaw’s two-string bass and Young’s perverted taiko-like percussion merging in kinetic chunks offset by hammering keyboards and detuned grit. It’s quite plain that they operate within a self-contained sphere, and to some it might seem indulgent — unintelligible squawking, grotesque sonic evocation, and borderline childish rattle aren’t for everybody — but let it never be said that Fat Worm of Error aren’t thinking about what they are doing. Ambivalence and the Beaker is an excellent introduction to their world.