Booking shows for an experimental music venue/association can be a weird thing; you come across people who you might have not heard of, but meeting them in person (or, say, picking them up at the train station to take them to aforementioned venue for soundcheck) can be fascinating. It doesn’t take long before you start chatting about the most bizarre things. The two musicians I’m featuring this time around make enthralling but curious music and so, of course, their choice in records would be something just as bizarre, reflecting the many influences that might have come upon them.
“The Worst of the Flu 1985 – 1996” by Hilt
“Explosions in My Head” 2007-8. Inspired by equal parts strange life circumstances, drinking too much, and listening to this record.
I received Hilt’s The Worst of the Flu 1985 – 1996 by mail order immediately after its release in 2003. Before long I was listening it as often as circumstances would allow, eventually leading me to dub a cassette copy so that it could accompany me in my portable tape player on numerous long walks in the small town where I grew up. The album soon became my constant companion throughout the varied situations in which I found myself, be it stumbling home blindingly drunk, stealthily traversing side roads after jumping out of my then girlfriend’s parent’s house window at 4:30 in the morning, embarking upon the 5+ hour jaunt from the city after my late night radio program, or on any number of haphazard backwoods wanderings with friends when I’d bring the tape just so I could show them some of the wackiness. I know a few of my old pals would laugh in recognition today if in front of them I quoted, “That was THE car that did it. A dog this afternoon BIT A MAN.”
Many people remark as to how a record might dredge up memories of a certain period in their lives, but The Worst of the Flu has had such a presence in my affairs since the spring of 2003 that individual SONGS remind me of moments, good and bad, from the past 8 years. There’s one that immediately brings me to recall a party we threw at a dilapidated old house in Toronto in 2008 to celebrate my moving out of there – or so I thought, weeks later I would return to live in the laundry room for another 10 months. Then there’s another song which puts me in mind of having to say goodbye to some wonderful friends in 2010, along with one if not two selections that get me thinking about some wild trips on psilocybin mushrooms. When listening to one track in 2006 I noted how it lyrically summarized word for word how much I longed for a certain woman, which is followed by a different song that aptly described how eager I was to break up with her a short time later. The list goes on and on. But what remains most endearing about the album is that its worth extends far beyond its nostalgic value. Above all, the number of musical forms pursued (perhaps “maligned” or “invented” are better words to use) with such an otherworldly passion is enough to take anyone by surprise. As such, I’ve shamelessly played The Worst of the Flu at parties and gatherings over the years, usually announcing to whoever is sat in closest proximity, the name of the group, and how this is easily the most confused and over-the-top collection of music I have ever heard. Three or four songs in, that same person asks, “oh, and who is this we’re listening to now?”
While most compilation albums of a group’s output retain a certain amount of discontinuity, rarely do the songs therein go well beyond the established sounds of particular “eras” of a band’s work. Fortunately for Hilt, fluctuation in musical styles and arrangements seemed to be a very common theme throughout their history, evident in their all-too-brief series of studio recordings from 1989 – 1991 when they released two full-lengths and three EPs. In keeping with this tradition, The Worst of the Flu puts even the most jumbled retrospective and archival releases to shame, but only for the better. Amongst its many musical forms, this record contains songs which might fall into the categories of lo-fi shoegaze-esque ballads, bullshit reggae, hardcore punk meets harsh noise, jam band gone out of control, and pop so subtly off-kilter in its composition it would have made Joe Meek scratch his head in astonishment. And while it might seem somewhat contradictory at first, there is indeed cohesion on this album, manifesting itself in its humor, energy, and sincerity.
The story surrounding Hilt is very much related to a challenge that Nettwerk, the Canadian based label of Key and Goettel’s Skinny Puppy, put forward to have the pair under whatever moniker, record an album on a very limited budget. Taking them up on the offer, they brought in Al Nelson and company, and as a result Call The Ambulance (Before I Hurt Myself) was issued in 1989. But the origins of the group actually extend back years before the date of their debut LP. Key and Nelson were recording together at least as early as 1982, albeit not necessarily under the guise of a conceptual project. Alan Nelson commented in an interview with Alternative Press in 1990, “…we just started playing together and writing songs when we had nothing to do. Basically we were playing with whoever was in the room and using whatever instruments were around; one guy would play drums on a phone book and one guy would play acoustic guitar and someone else would bang pop cans together, and that would be a song. And if there was a tape recorder around we’d tape it.”
Indeed, many of the selections found on The Worst of the Flu are sourced from this pre Call The Ambulance era, during which time Key and Nelson gradually came to refer to themselves as The Flu. But in Nelson’s description of the origins of Hilt/The Flu, what is most notable about their music is the fact that it was brought about without concern for success or audience reaction, for the simple fact that there was NO audience. Instead, Key, Nelson and friends played their music for their own ends – evident in how, before the offer from Nettwerk, The Flu’s efforts to release their work on any physical medium were minimal. Likewise, the group was not inclined to perform live in public settings, with the only properly documented occasion appearing to be under the Lee Chubby King moniker, when Alan Nelson was reportedly “punched out for lyrical content.” Given that Skinny Puppy had achieved significant attention during The Flu years, it is unlikely that it would have been an impossibility for the group to book gigs and issue recordings going on that angle alone. It appears from all available indications that The Flu served its proprietors well in itself – as a source of amusement, for the purposes of general camaraderie, and perhaps as a means to vent personal frustrations – often simultaneously. While songs such as “Being Green” or “Roll One Up” are undoubtedly lacking much beyond than the humor that exists on the surface, regularly lyrics in Hilt’s music are juxtaposed with matters which aren’t especially lighthearted. “Too Many Steps to the Door” and “Lyin On the Floor” seem too specific and personal in their details to be thematically based in anything but expression of less-than-pleasant emotion, although the humor still remains in subtle and conflicted ways. In the case of the latter selection, a near radio friendly pop demo with a bizarre twist, Nelson sings “I won’t touch you ever again/I won’t see you anymore/I won’t touch your beautiful skin/I’ve been saved”.
More than a decade after his death, Al Nelson remains a very intriguing, yet enigmatic character. Aside from a few transcribed articles online which make reference to him in the context of his involvement with a “Skinny Puppy side project” very little information concerning him is readily available. Shortly after the release of The Worst of the Flu in 2003, I actually tracked down the mailing address of Nelson’s parents and wrote them a letter on the topic of doing a radio documentary on their son’s life. They kindly responded by means of a postcard which included an email address, however my attempts to email the Nelsons in turn proved fruitless. I think if there is one person who has graced the face of the earth who deserves more attention, it is Alan Nelson.
I attended the Subcon Beyond Fest in Toronto last year, and was very grateful that cEvin Key had a few moments to chat about Hilt with me. He described how, years ago, he’d receive calls on his answering machine from Alan, who would leave long, bizarre recordings as cEvin just “let the tape roll.” Key elaborated further as to how these tape jams were “stranger” and “more experimental” than any of the previously released Hilt/Flu material, and how they just might make up the bulk of a forthcoming Hilt LP. I was of course very excited to hear the news – the fact that these cassettes still exist, and the personal and direct way in which they came about. I have no doubt that any such future archival releases will contain that same unparalleled sincerity and passion that has kept me drawn to Hilt all these years, of which The Worst of the Flu is a perfect example.
Religious music in general is often a rather tenebrous and deathly affair (and rightly so, as it often concerns itself with themes that haunt and plague human beings: death, eternity, God and wickedness.) Liturgical music is particularly gloomy; suffering beings alone with their wrathful God. A Congolese field recording called Missa Luba is that rare exception; exuberant and triumphant children adrift in the benevolent cosmos sing with a luminous joy that is worthy of St Francis of Assisi. The album was conceived and created by Father Guido Haazen, a Belgian Friar who emigrated to the Congo in the mid 50s and put together a group of 45 young natives to drastically reinterpret the mass. Encouraging them to improvise and use their traditional folk music, he calls God forth; the God who is too often absent in our empty rituals, our dying civilization and our false and empty words. The children’s ethereal voices and trance like performance call to mind an archetypal, esoteric, otherworldly communication with their Creator written before man had fallen and before death was loosed on the earth like a savage hunter. Instead of arguing with an Atheist when he posits that there isn’t a God, I think a religious person would do well to sit him down and let him listen to this album and say: if He exists for these ecstatic children, He exists for you as well, pal.