Foetus, Hide

Published on January 30th, 2011 in: All You Need Is Now, Current Faves, Issues, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By Less Lee Moore

“Don’t ask me any questions you don’t want the answer to.”
From “You’re Trying To Break Me”

At the risk of beginning a Foetus review with reference to another, I will do just that. If Sparks, the uncategorizable band composed (mostly) of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, can be said to make music that is practically theatrical, then Foetus, also known as JG Thirlwell, makes music that is downright cinematical.

And you know those annoying people who claim to despise movies that make them think? Those people will never appreciate JG Thirlwell. Sometimes it feels exhausting trying to figure out all his references and nods and motifs, especially when he keeps his true self so close to the chest. But for those of us who love listening to his music over and over—digging and pondering, delving deeper and deeper into it—the payoff is outstanding.

foetus hide

2005’s Love was the last “proper” Foetus release. In the interim we had Vein (its companion remix album), Damp (a compilation closer in spirit to Love than Vein), and Limb, an assortment of archival Foetus recordings.

In the interim, Thirlwell has spent a lot of time recording the soundtrack to The Venture Bros. as well as both recording for and conducting the live, orchestral performances of other side “projects” like Baby Zizanie, Manorexia, and Steroid Maximus.

Far from diluting his creativity, this burst of output seems to have strengthened it considerably. It must put a terrible strain on him to not only juggle all these various outlets, but also keep them distinct and separate. And in that latter regard, he seems to have failed miserably. This “failure” has resulted in the vibrant, marvelously compelling Hide.

Continuing in the longstanding tradition of monosyllabic four letter word titles, speculation on the layers of meaning of the title Hide is impossible to avoid. Thirlwell, especially as Foetus, is as easily read as hieroglyphs pre-Rosetta Stone. One suspects that perhaps all those years of burying himself (in music, characters, puns, sarcasm, and other practices) have rendered Our (Anti) Hero with quite a thick skin.

Ironically, it’s the last few Foetus releases that have revealed more of the man behind the mask than any previous ones. In that regard, Hide is a fitting title, as there is less of the personal and more of the universal on the album. Yet this is not a handicap.

Hide is a magnificent apocalyptic vision. Instead of a cold, nuclear winter, however, we are left melting in the unsympathetic countenance of a fireball, trudging through a sweltering, sludgy swamp of crude oil. Instead of cockroaches, we battle mosquitoes.

First, I must praise Thirlwell’s vocals on Hide. In “Cosmetics,” they sometimes manifest in the deepest registers he can attain, while in other parts of the song they are barely audible growls; his malevolent whispering sounds like Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s Sauron.

Such processed (or practically absent) vocals have, and continue to be, the subject of much discussion among fans, some even pondering if Thirlwell can still hit the high notes (so to speak). Yet as the album progresses, the layers are peeled away, providing a delicious, aural tease; in “Oilfields,” the fifth track, there is little if any veneer.

Even so, there’s no denying that Thirlwell’s voice is stronger than ever, particularly in tracks like “Paper Slippers” and “Stood Up” (and “Oilfields”) where he sings his heart out. Even with some processing, there is undeniable passion and not necessarily the kind that incites violence. The layers are slowly reapplied as the album progresses further; by “O Putrid Sun,” they are exquisitely flawed, perfect in their imperfection.

Musically, Hide is marvelous, too. Like any good visionary, Thirlwell embarks on his discourse ambitiously, and perhaps arrogantly, with the grandiose, eight-minute-plus “Cosmetics.” In yet another sly move, he introduces us to the album by way of someone else’s voice: in this case the startling mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer, interrupting herself with layer upon layer of chanting. In Latin.

It’s a bold move, and likely one that will either beguile or enrage Foetus fans. One can’t escape the obvious religious connotations of operatic vocals in Latin and I don’t think we are meant to do so. But an analysis of the English translations (try the Internet if you aren’t a member of the clergy) reveals that the recurring Foetus themes are present and accounted for.

After the baroque cacophony of “Cosmetics,” the next song, “Paper Slippers” is almost a numbing comedown, like a eulogy for someone entombed in a mental hospital, or a corpse at a crime scene; who else but doctors or morticians wear paper slippers?

“Stood Up” begins a bit like a Wiseblood song, but the presence of violins quickly nixes that comparison and when it kicks in, you can feel your pulse quicken. Even the line “Hyperion and on” is a fairly typical Foetus pun, but again, there’s another layer to it; he’s only one of several Greek characters name checked throughout the album (Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, was referenced in “Cosmetics”). Hyperion is a Titan, the Lord of light, literally “Sun High One,” which adds more fuel to the fire and brimstone of Hide.

The beautiful, haunting “Here Comes The Rain” is reminiscent of “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” (Love), but instead of harpsichords creating a tension between the archaic and contemporary, there is piano, which pushes us uncomfortably towards the “omega point.”

“Oilfields” is physically and sonically the album’s centerpiece, pulling us out of the rain and into the fire, a nightmarish apparition of peak oil shortages filtered through religious fundamentalism. The impenetrable, repeated bass riffs anchor the song against Fischer’s staccato vocals, which provide an almost-literal Greek chorus. Strings swell, Thirlwell’s voice soars into a flamboyant fake-out ending, and then there’s a musical break like the inexorable trajectory of a missile shot through space.

The brief, astonishing “Concrete” is best heard with headphones as it drills through the layers of hide; yet another metaphor is revealed as Thirlwell’s voice is so distorted here it sounds like the half-forgotten memory of an exhalation of breath.

A 180-degree turn then, from an experimental noise collage into the most accessible song on the whole album, the nearly-whimsical “The Ballad Of Sisyphus T. Jones,” told as a Spaghetti Western, Mount Olympus style, complete with flamenco guitar and whip cracks! Here “Sissy” travels with his sidekick, pyromaniac Icarus, after being arrested by Thanatos and later breaking out of Pluto‘s jail.

There have been complaints, and they have some merit, that the vocals are buried in the mix; if they were in the foreground, however, you might not feel the visceral rush of the music or hear the thunderous hoof beats. (Or the horn flourish that’s a sped-up reiteration of the one from the Steroid Maximus track “Destino Matar.”)

If anything could be called “classic Foetus,” it would likely be this song. It does seem a bit anachronistic in the midst of all the bleakness, but it also provides some much needed levity.

“By Endurance We Conquer” is the English translation of the next song, “Fortitudine Vincemus.” “Graviora manent” (the worst is yet to come) it warns; with references to “anthrax in the envelope” and “mass hallucination” it may be the mostly obviously political song I’ve ever heard from Foetus (and at 47 seconds, also one of the shortest).

By contrast, “You’re Trying To Break Me” is epic: at eight minutes, 32 seconds it is exactly as long as Love‘s “How To Vibrate,” which is interesting as it feels an awful lot like it. Although it comes off as a bit of a retread, some powerfully amazing drums bust in around the two-minute mark, the impact of which cannot be denied. There is also a repeated, maddening, addictive, musical motif that can only be described as a “whoooo!”

Layers of strings, fuzz guitar, and other industrial noise are added in to this cement mixer to give the whole thing a similar texture to Gash‘s “Steal Your Life Away,” yet another aspect which might render this a “love it or leave it” song by Foetus fan standards, especially when combined with the painfully repetitive ending. Still, despite heavy static in the vocals, Thirlwell sounds wonderful—ravenous and unhinged—even belting it out at times. There’s also a vocal bridge that is superb, a brief, yet glorious nod to straightforward song structure that keeps the whole thing from teetering over the brink as it dissolves into interference.

The elegant piano and graceful strings of “O Putrid Sun,” are soothing balm then, even as they represent a report from inside the black hole of annihilation, evoking the inevitable, fiery doom at the end of Danny Boyle’s terribly underrated film Sunshine.

Hide is excruciating and exhilarating. It’s not a question of how something so tragic can sound so beautiful; it’s a question of how I never thought I’d wonder such a thing about a Foetus album.

Hide was released in September 2010. To purchase a copy, please visit Foetus.org.

3 Responses to “Foetus, Hide


  1. Jo:
    January 31st, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Great review, with lots of points to ponder 🙂

  2. Popshifter » Livide, A Film by Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo:
    September 13th, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    […] my favorite movie (and it still is). I’ve even done background research to fully understand albums by artists who I’ve been following for more than 20 […]

  3. Popshifter » Best Of 2011: Less Lee Moore:
    December 31st, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    […] Foetus, Hide: Unlike some music critics who listen to and review hundreds of new releases, I’m a lot pickier. This does not mean, however, that Hide isn’t deserving of the highest accolades. I do genuinely like every new release I reviewed this year, but Hide is by far the best, and one of the best albums of JG Thirlwell’s thoroughly compelling career. The way he manages to constantly expand upon and improve his already-inimitable style is a continuous source of amazement and inspiration. (Read my review here.) […]

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