Too much texture can be a dangerous thing. Thinking Plague, nominally a sextet, picks up five extra players for parts here and there on A History Of Madness,
and the end result is a multi-layered creation.
Fortunately the combination works quite well. It ends up sounding full-bodied and detailed, with plenty of understated polyrhythms to go around. All sorts of unusual instruments pop in and out, including Mike Johnson's four guitars and assemblage of miscellaneous percussion, Dave Willey's accordion and melodica, and Mark McCoin's scary combination of "sadbefré, lap-fractar, rümderfon, and 'exquisite porpenar'." But with the unifying force of Deborah Perry's insistent vocals on top, the group never gets lost.
Thinking Plague has gone through more than its share of changes since the group's eponymous debut in 1985. The thing that has always tied it together is the leadership of guitarist Mike Johnson, who contributes ten of the twelve pieces on the record, as well as the lyrics. There's no doubt he spent a lot of time thinking about what went down here, as judged by his appraisal of the record's title (referring to human history as well as family history) and its reflection in 13th century France. No, that's not a typo. He's a thinker.
These pieces flow together quite coherently, making up a full-bodied suite that tends to feel psychedelic and uneasy. That's more than reinforced by the lyricsfor example, "All my life I've been searching for the reason that my heart is broken" from "The Underground Stream." Indeed. If Curlew is testosterone-rich, then Thinking Plague is estrogenic. Vocalist Deborah Perry, the latest singer to join the group, has a relatively flat affect that suits these grey pieces perfectly. She's no virtuoso, and not particularly colorful, but that's what's called for here.
For the most part these pieces are carefully arranged, though it's hard to tell exactly where improvisation cuts in. The regular, layered pulse and openly harmonized vocals here betray prog rock roots, as does the structured compositional emphasis and architecture. But it's hard to pin down Thinking Plague, especially when it comes to what bin the record belongs in. Just as well. Mike Johnson may be deadly serious, but his music has enough layers to bypass classification.
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Track Listing: Blown Apart; Consolamentum; Rapture of the Deep; G
Personnel: Mike Johnson: guitars and such; Deborah Perry: voice; Dave Willey: bass and accordions; David
Shamrock: drums & percussion; Mark Harris: saxophones, clarinet, flute; Matt Mitchell: piano,
harmonium, synths. Guests: Ken McLagan; Jean Harrison; Ron Miles; David Kerman; Leslie
Jordan; Mark McCoin.
Title: A History of Madness
| Year Released: 2003
| Record Label: Cuneiform Records