Primus have always made their name with goofy and surreal sound. Les Claypool’s slap-bass met with Larry LaLonde’s noise guitar and a rotating cast of drummers to create an odd sound that fused funk with thrash metal and stray hints of psychedelia to make them one of the stranger success stories of the 90’s rock scene. Three years ago the group put together their first LP since their hiatus/breakup in the early 2000’s in the form of Green Naugahyde. Now they’ve reunited with Tim Alexander, drummer for most of their popular breakthrough during the alt-rock days of the 90’s and most of the band’s pre-Naugahyde reunion shows for a totally left-field release in the form of a cover of the soundtrack to the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory film, entitled Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble. In interviews promoting the release, Claypool has professed a lifelong obsession with the film. Considering his fondness for narratives about strange characters and surreal imagery surrounding the band and his own solo work, it makes perfect sense that a bizarre children’s film have had such an effect on the musician.
To start with, this is not a rock record; there are no heavy metal re-imaginings of old Wonka tunes or any heavy metal to speak of whatsoever. The band’s jamming and traditional three-piece instrumental setup are tossed out the window, as Claypool’s bass is moved into the background and LaLonde’s otherworldly guitar experiments are replaced by the film’s melodies. Sonically, this record most closely resembles Claypool’s recent solo records in it’s marimba flourishes, stronger focus on melodies over riffs, and its wider sound in contrast to the interplay between the band members that their earlier work focused on. Maybe that’s appropriate because this is a re-imagining of a film score and not an original record by the band. It follows the order of the original soundtrack, meaning that the film’s narrative will be instantly familiar to anyone who knows the source material. There’s no additional story material on the record though, meaning that parts of the story are skipped and characters appear and disappear without context. Unlike the original, this is a much more downcast take on these songs, something far closer to the darker side of Primus’ output than the warm atmosphere the original picture had.
Readings of Pure Imagination bookended the original soundtrack, so of course they’ve been tweaked to fit Primus’ sound here. The album starts by building into the original song’s tune on Claypool’s cello / upright bass. Then things get going for real with the band’s rendition of Candy Man, one of the film’s most memorable and recognizable songs here sounds the most like anything the group have put out before. Instead of the original’s upbeat, bright melody, it’s built with a loping drum beat and Claypool’s deep bass noodling. It should provide the very first hint of how weird and creepy the band’s influence is going to make this children’s movie score. From there it just gets stranger and sadder with Cheer Up Charlie, a reworking that subtracts the original’s loving tone and leaves it with more than a hint of desperation and bleakness. Simply put, it’s one of the finer things the group has ever put to tape, with Claypool displaying an unusual amount of emotional depth in his singing to drive home the song’s message. Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride by contrast is an almost comical instrumental decorated with the sounds of Claypool doing his best Patchy The Pirate impression. For the record’s last big surprise, Larry LaLonde takes the lead vocal on I Want It Now, marking the first time anyone other than Claypool himself has sung solo lead vocals on a Primus record. LaLonde doesn’t have quite the range that Claypool does, but it’s a nice surprise and keeps everything sounding fresh. That’s pretty much it for the record; from there the disc passes through a few more variations on the famous Oompa-Lumpa tune and wraps up with one more rendition of the Pure Imagination melody.
There’s no denying that this disc is front-loaded with its best songs, but they’re arranged in the order of the film’s narrative so as long as it stays faithful to the original that’s unavoidable. This isn’t a note-for-note rerecording, it’s a reworking of the original material into something that resembles the band’s own sound. This shouldn’t be dismissed because of the odd concept, nor because it’s not the group’s typical sound. Primus have made a left-field record that sounds recognizable as the work of the artists but has no real comparison to any of their other records. This sort of experimentation should be rewarded, not denigrated. This is a fine record and one that fits right in with the rest of the band’s work both together and apart.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.