Hacker Basement Tapes 

reviewed by Steve Vincent

(Reprinted by permission.)

Mint For Pillow from Humungus Music

CD: Mint For Pillow ©1998 Humungus Music
Artist: Lord Humungus
Equipment: Ensoniq ASR-10, Kawai R50, Casio SK-5, Tascam DA30mkII,
Tascam DA38, Boss SE70, Logic Audio for Mac.

Most artists I know wish for their music to speak for itself, more or less. But whenever I receive a CD or tape for review, I try to figure out the context in which the project was imagined, produced, engineered, and published. A corollary to my quest is the search for the artist’s intent: what is this person trying to communicate? Often the answers to my queries are quite direct in the liner notes or accompanying letter, but as often as not there is little included in the packages I receive to give me clues, and I must piece together the evidence from the music itself. This is usually an enjoyable process, and many are the times I have found myself immersed in the music, having completely forgotten the questions initially energizing my reviewer’s quest. Part of my need for “answers” is driven by the obvious task I have of attempting to describe the music to you, the readers of Basement Tapes. This demands some level of categorization, or at least a simile or two (“this music sound like such and such an artist’s work…”).

My first exposure to a Basement Tape artist happens when I tear open the manila envelope from Eric and Jane containing the CD, tape, or occasional vinyl recording. “Mint For Pillow” is a CD with a minty-metallic green cover (like the wrapper to an Andes mint), with the title, “Mint For Pillow” spelled out in chocolate brown mint pillow letters. The words themselves communicated nothing to my imagination, aside from their literal meanings, and perhaps the association one makes with one’s first night in a five-star hotel or a cruise ship, where you normally receive a mint on your pillow (the sheets having already been turned down, of course; don’t ask me why they do this). But no clue so far as to the music contained on the CD.

I usually try to listen to at least part of a CD or tape before I read the accompanying letter and liner notes. In this case, I listened to about three of Lord Humungus’s tracks, then I put the CD away for about a month and a half, because it sounded too raucous and clangy for my sensibilities at the moment. (It was probably New Years Day.) Coming back to it now, my mind is open, and I am delighted by what I hear.

Lord Humungus included a letter with his CD “Mint For Pillow” in which he lists his musical influences (Severed Heads, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine, Curve, Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode, New Order, Duran Duran, Orbital), his equipment list (see the top of this article), and a bit of his musical history, as well as a brief description of this project. From the word processor of His Lordship:

“This collection of songs was recorded over the past year and a half or so, but some of the songs were originally written as far back as 1989. This is the first true attempt at something remotely commercial. I’ve been a fan of sampling since I found out what it was, so nearly everything I do involves sampling one way or another. Also, I am a product of the ’80s and as such, most of my music is deeply rooted in ’80s pop culture and the ’80s sound. Tongue in cheek is often the order of the day.

“A large portion of the percussion sounds (hi-hats, kicks, snares, etc.), as well as some of the bells and synth pads, are samples of me making sounds with my mouth. When I only had the tiny Casio sampler, I found that the most versatile and cool sounds I could get were the ones I made with my own voice. When I got the ASR-10, I found that was still the case, though to a lesser extent. There are also generous portions of stock ASR sounds, which unfortunately, are probably damn easy to spot.”

What does Lord Humungus sound like? (I’m also curious about what a guy calling himself Lord Humungus looks like, of course… My self-inflicted nickname on a softball team jersey was once “Mr. Big”, and the only thing “big” about it was the mistake it was to make that my nickname; the women in the bleachers cat-called me mercilessly, the guys derided me. I guess the implications and innuendo were just too much…) Anyway, back to the music: Mint For Pillow is truly creative expression, not quite dance, not pop, not rave, but vocal-centric electronic, with the music “close in” to the creative expressiveness of the vocals. It is “electronic music”. This is most obvious in the percussion tracks and the sounds The Lord uses. As he mentions above, most of the percussion samples were recordings of his own mouth noises. Which one of us sample-maniacs hasn’t sampled our own voice and toasted a few evenings creating sequences with the (literal) sound bites? In the case of Lord Humungus, these homemade samples lend a very unique quality to his percussion tracks. I also heard samples of what I’d lay money was an SM58 being tapped on the windscreen. While Lord H. mentions no guitars in his equipment list, I heard a few instances of what sounds like highly-processed guitar and/or bass, adding a slightly more organic element to what could be “too” electronic of a sound. Also helping to humanize these electronic tracks are generous sprinklings of highly-processed vocal effects (reverse gate, pitch-shifted, etc.). All these elements combine to make a very interesting and lively mix.

To my ears and musical sensibilities, it is the human voice that communicates the deepest and broadest levels of emotion, so I’m a bit partial to vocally-centered music. “Mint For Pillow” is such music, even though it is not necessarily the lyrics and their propositions which communicate; rather, it is often simply the sound of the voice, or a few choice words, which conveys the feelings. What kinds of feelings are evoked in Lord Humungus’s music? Well, this listener got a good dose of his tongue-in-cheek, mixed with a bit of anger at times, some not-too-heavy cynicism, and even some eroticism (although tempered with lightheartedness; this is no Enigma spirit-eroti-quest). In general, I refer to this whole “layer” of musicality (this whimsical, tongue-in-cheek attitude) as “the blues attitude”, even though there isn’t the slightest hint of blues in this CD. The ability to weather life’s hard knocks, come out of it with an intact sense of humor, and sing about it.

Enough generalizations; let’s get into a few of Lord Humungus’s tracks:

“Sharon and Karen” — The opener begins with cool processed guitar pluckings, morphing through some vocal-like effects into a dance-floor beat. Unfortunately the subject matter of the song, Sharon and Karen, doesn’t hold much interest for anyone perhaps except Lord Humungus. On the positive side, the vocals are wonderful, with lots of interesting and musical harmonies.

“Before I Get Near” — Discordant harmony parts create an irritating tension in this 2nd track. It’s effective as a tension-builder, but not really pleasant listening.

“Man Fall In Water” — Dreamy vocal parts weave a hypnotic melody over a very interesting sample-groove backdrop. Sampled chords (like extended orch-hits) are pitch-shifted over a multilayered percussion groove. An airy time-delayed mallet-like instrument plays a brief melody in the instrumental break. Overall, a mildly melancholic feel.

“Quit Ridin'” — As happens often on this CD, the intro leads you to expect one thing, then stops and the groove starts in a completely different direction. This one begins with a heavy, darkish swelling over a beat that promises to make all hell break loose and kick ass, but instead drops into a kind of electro-shuffle vocal tune. These one-eighties certainly keep you from falling asleep. As do the lyrics, if you’re listening: “Quit riding me man / Quit riding me man / Quit riding me man / Or I’ll kick your fucking teeth in.”

“Sweet Envelope” — “The paper boy was murdered today… I almost didn’t see it happen.” This could almost have been a Beatles song on the White Album, british accent and all. The vocal melody takes center stage in this short tune, in the style of “Dear Prudence”, and does it very effectively. (The fact that he sounds just a bit like Sting doesn’t hurt either.) This track showcases the songwriting genius of Lord Humungus: a very memorable, engaging tune with only the bare minimum of accompaniment (a guitar strumming mostly one chord). Bravo.

“Wooden Eye” — My favorite track on this CD, “Wooden Eye’s” lyrics were co-written with Laura E. Half-spoken lyrics with a limey accent cause one to crack a smile over the young man’s broodings. Comparisons of one’s misfortunes over having a wooden eye (“I can’t see shit”) with having a wooden leg, etc.

“I Say Cry” — If Korn lost their guitars and had to “sing” with laryngitis (I can dream, can’t I?), their hard rap might sound like this. But I could listen to this a lot longer.

“Long Pleasure” — Totally cool vocals, and vocal effects, propel this song towards an equally cool instrumental break that makes an entrance like a shreddin’ guitar solo, but ends up being a more flutish keyboard sound. The solo section ends with the only musically effective use of a steam whistle (or train whistle) sample I’ve ever heard (at 3:15). Two thumbs up on this creative montage of tongue-in-cheek eroticism (two – or three — puns intended).

“SWB Goes Shopping” — While a sampled harp plucking a minor melody would normally fail to engage me in the intro to a song, once the string pad comes in you can hear more musical genius from The Humungus One. The harp plucks a plodding 8th-note pattern, but after a few measures electronic percussion fills between the cracks with hyper-drive hi-hat and snare rolls, but not overdone. There is a wonderful balance here between sensitive, almost classical elements, and obtuse electronica. This CD ends with perhaps the most ingenious tune of all.

Lord Humungus’s vocals remind me at times of Wang Chung, Sting (well, just once), the Beatles, and Greg Lief (who’s Greg Lief? Anyone who procured a copy of the Hacker Compilation Tape, circa 1990 or so, heard Mr. Lief’s immortal “To Kill A Cow”.). And it’s the vocals on this project that tie it together. As mentioned above, often the lyrics are obscured by the vocal’s place in the mix, effects, or just plain purposeful garbling, but it is the vocals, perhaps more accurately the vocalizations, which make “Mint For Pillow” sound unique to my ears.

When asked about how he recorded his vocals, Lord Humungus stated: “Some vocals were recorded with a Realistic dynamic through the ASR’s inputs (yeesh!), some through a borrowed SM58 (great microphone) and, once I purchased it, my SM81 (which I will record with henceforth). Most vocals were recorded dry and with minimal or no compression. I found it easier to record vocals with the SM58 than with the SM81, however. All the vocals were tracked on the DA38, with about a million overdubs. It was incredibly easy to overdub and comp tracks on the DA38.”

His Royal Humungusness at times sounds just a wee bit sloppy in his production, with some sequence-timing glitches audible and an unbalanced (to my ears) mix in places. This is explained in part by the fact that Lord H monitors through headphones. But there is no question: “Mint For Pillow” expresses lots of musical genius. My only real big “suggestion” would be to place a stronger track in the first position on the CD.

If you enjoy listening to any of his lordship’s musical influences (Skinny Puppy, Depeche Mode, Orbital, etc.), I have no doubt you would be glad to get a hold of “Mint For Pillow.” Email Lord Humungus at info A T

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