By Ben van D
The truly terrific soundtrack should be harmonious with its narrative and transcend and elevate the work as a whole. After all, Psycho isn’t Psycho without its violent shower strings; Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without its “Imperial March;” and the panther isn’t pink without Mancini setting the palette. JG Thirlwell is equally inseparable from the DNA of the Venture Bros., and this collection is hard evidence as to why.
Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick’s epic scramble through all things pulp, pop, sci-fi, and boy adventurer exists at that same universal crossroads as Mad Magazine, nimbly distorting a name here and a detail there to sidestep legal boundaries and create a world of lampooned archetypes and icons. It is the Cronenbergian fusing of a pubescent boy’s Saturday morning in 1986 with a cinephile’s schlock vault.
The music is a chance meeting on a convention table of a blunt machete and a lime daiquiri, a globe-trotting pisstake with the omniscient specter of Bowie pervading every corner, and a perfect vehicle for Thirlwell’s particular brand of high-octane genius, batting the pendulum from black tar machismo, to pastel palm beach, to space age synesthesia.
This score matches the show in its pop references blow for blow. Re-contextualizing revered works has been a career-spanning characteristic for Thirlwell, ever the one-man orchestra (and gang-bang, respectively). From 1981’s Foetus under Glass’s nod to Phillip Glass, to the bombastic Garage Monsters version of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” (you’ll know the original from any Looney Tunes factory scene), to countless perversions of phrase that color the Foetus discography (Yma Sumac and the “Mission Impossible” theme never sounded so good). There have been a number of soundtracks along the way, such as notable collaborations with Richard Kern in the 1980s and the more recent score for The Blue Eyes, but those are decidedly different animals from what The Venture Bros. represents.
Here is a breakdown of the goods.
“Ham and Cheese Hero” kicks things off with a double-sized American cheese Kraft single slice of a synth riff, a victorious white horse ride through the Old West, the tongue firmly in cheek until abruptly bitten off just under the minute mark by a massive swell of furious drums and a San Francisco car chase pick up. Was that a bongo solo? The thing flies gloriously off the rails and careens through every fruit stand and baby carriage in its path, blissfully flipping off the vendors and innocent bystanders.
“Chickenhawk” is a drum and brass fueled soar through the Grand Canyon, an Icarus regiment of angels trying to get by on cardboard wings. “Big Rooter” smash cuts to a futuristic synth funk, with the characteristic big band horn swells and rumbles bleating over top as dial tones and strings scream by on the way to the finish line. It feels a bit like Steroid Maximus’s “Chain Reaction” stripped down to the chassis with the pedal to the metal. With “Pay the Piper” the tone flips again, and we land deep in the Pacific for a satanic rite where King Kong faces off with Mephistopheles.
With “Optimistic Space Travel,” the title says it all: Sputnik-era bliss, a 1960s travel ad for a rocket cruise to Jupiter. On the other hand “Ready for Takeoff” has a much sterner tone, a solid climb with the bulk of the payoff coming at the end. Many of the songs on the soundtrack are built like Brel ballads, a great hook of a start, an intense build, and an explosive finish. This one would not seem out of place in a Challenger documentary, as it’s heroic and somber at once.
“Scenester” hearkens back to old Hollywood, Hitchcocktails and lavender leisure suits. Glamorous in that classic way, Thirlwell’s big band chops come out to play on this one, but don’t play too rough for a change. I would love an entire neo-exotica album in this style. However, if you’d like a clinical drama set on a 16-bit sound card then you’ll love “Cosmic Rays,” which evokes the sound of radiation on skin with its unabashed synthiness, sterile and playful as a neutered puppy.
One of the more complex pieces, and an easy favorite, is “Hank Goes It Alone,” an intense spy sneak through hostile territory or the nimble scrambling of a tarantula across a booby-trapped xylophone. Noir strings lull you into a smoky haze with “Fantomas Office” and cellos saw away at your nerves while John Carpenter keys slice out your eyes. It’s a nice tip of the hat to 1980s horror scores that doesn’t become one. “Plucked” is a great tension builder, and there’s a more militaristic feel to this one, but just here and there. It’s got a lot of room to it without feeling gappy.
“Battlestations” is a strutting gilt mirror-ball of a track, music to transform into a purple Cadillac to. It lives on the same block as “Big Rooter” but on a more Pierre Henry tip. Funk elements keep this one bright and fragrant, and it’ll run you down. “Brock to the Rescue” is Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton score bayoneting Elmer Bernstein’s “Betrayal” on its road to glory but it’s “Plasium” that displays a purely Thirwellian voice. I really can’t liken it to anyone else; it’s a bit like a Manorexia track, but the changes come fast and keep you on your toes. There is familiar phrasing, but timing is everything in this one, like your mom doing a Christopher Walken impression.
A grand old march in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Chosen March” is probably the most straightforward piece in the lot, and delightful, if a little dull, while “Ventronik” plays a lot like a reprise of “Ham and Cheese Hero,” built up to keep your pulse pounding through the credits.
More than anything, the Venture Bros. soundtrack is informed by the leaps and bounds made in Thirlwell’s excellent Steroid Maximus and Manorexia projects, taking the best lessons of both and using that as a basis for sketching out the details of each scene and scenario, giving each a unique style to strike a stark contrast between scenes and mete out explosive action, dread, and levity in spades. Fans of Thirlwell’s past incarnations will recognize those threads that twist through the lot of them. A bold singular vision, Brechtian theatricality, and the clinical precision of an ever evolving perfectionist abound. These constants are what bind together a sprawling series of vignettes into a cohesive whole, and thankfully, are not understated, but flow freely until they come to a boil.
The Venture Bros. Original Score Volume Two is a strong showing, and more diverse than the first. It is available to purchase on the Foetus.org shop.