All hail… Lungfish
In the past year I’ve happened upon a series of discoveries, of what I now regard as cultural treasures, each of which has posed the question: “How in the hell have I missed this shit until now?” The question is rhetorical, and voiced with a gleeful smile; it’s not pained, regretfully pondering on lack or the sense of having missed out. It comes as an affirmation of a wider sense of the universe being ever-surprising, ever full of novelty, even when you think you’ve seen it all.
I’ll try to write about each of these discoveries in a little “All hail…” series of posts. First up for reverence is the band Lungfish.
I can’t remember how I happened upon the piece on the web, around September last year, where I first read about Lungfish. I learned that they were long-time time residents at the Washington D.C. hardcore label Dischord (I’ve been a big fan of Dischord’s centrepiece Fugazi since their inception). And I learned that they were highly feted by Joan Jett (whose hit ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is one of the first songs I remember being addicted to). Such a description begged attention. I went to a 2nd-hand CD shop in Soho soon after to trade some old CDs, and picked up a copy of Lungfish’s most recent album, Feral Hymns, whose bold title just added to the excitement.
It took a few listens to sink in, but it stuck once it was there. The music hinges chiefly on repetition, and like any such music, it will either be shed like water on a duck, or it will soak deep and encourage strange new things to grow. Constant members Mitchell Feldstein (drums), Asa Osborne (guitar) and off-and-on bassist Sean Meadows (other bassists include John Chriest and Nathan Bell) create a solid, driving surface of entrancing rhythms and riffs, upon which the possessed vocals of Daniel Higgs leap and dive. On Feral Hymns, once you’ve heard the opening riff, you’ve heard the song. There are no verse-chorus structures, and only a couple of instances where the music’s locked insistence lets melodic variations in. All the energy released by variation in most rock music is held in a dynamic tension, seeping out with crackling intensity through Higgs’s screams, and along the fissures created by the phrasing of fingers on guitar strings and sticks on drum skins. The riffs are pounded out with the joy in repetition that possesses small children, but with the discipline and subtlety of aged professionals.
Singer Daniel Higgs is also a poet, painter and tattoo artist. His little book The Doomsday Bonnet (Blind I Books, 1996 – available from Dischord), composed of his surreal drawings and prose poetry, is like the children’s book that J.G. Ballard might have diligently created had he never recovered from his single hellish LSD trip. Too disciplined too be classed among Outsider Art, it nevertheless evokes schizophrenia, an effort to throw oneself totally open to the real world, an effort that is twisted and turned inward by struggle, creating beauty, nonsense and an unblockable fount of juxtapositions that fascinate and entangle.
You are a tree bearing news of good fruit
You are the winding, the winding of the mammalian root
You are the I-Am-That-I-Am you are
You are the bright and the morning star
You Are The War (Feral Hymns)
Thanks to Dischord’s efficient, cheap mail-order service and the ubiquitous eBay, I’ve amassed most of their albums now. Let me take you on a brief chronological tour.
Talking Songs For Walking is the first record and my least favourite. It’s still cracking rock music, with soaring choruses and great guitar hooks, but the sound doesn’t have the resonant colours of their later work. And Higgs’s lyrics are obviously prior to some form of transformation that lead to his trademark mantric Dada theology. Some people love it; maybe it was too much of a shock for me to listen to it straight after their most recent album.
I’ve not got Rainbows From Atoms and Pass And Stow yet—my collection picks up the story with Sound In Time, where transformation is in evidence in both the lyrics and the music. Talking Songs‘s raw rock is muted by a folky quality, and a psychedelic patience that allows simple little melodies to float along with occasional eruptions of buzzing riffs.
The increasing influence of the trance-out side of The Velvet Underground is as evident on the cover of Indivisible as it is on listening to it. It’s just black, with a white line bisecting horizontally, “Lungfish” above, “Indivisible” below. The white-heat focus of the music and Higgs’s obsession with paradox and dualism is right there. Occult and mystical themes blossom: ‘You Did Not Exist’ asks you over and over if you remember the time before you were born, backed by ponderous, shimmering layers of sound; homage is paid, in distorted wailings, to astrological muse Urania and Ouija board manufacturer William Fuld (who, like Lungfish, claimed Baltimore, Maryland as his hometown). ‘Organ Harvest’ is a gem, foreshadowing the much later Love Is Love album as its rolling, droning melody propels Higgs’s radiant images: “A fragrant herd of hungry flames / In fixed circles our cells migrate”. The anger of their earlier records is still there; it’s just been distilled. The brash, celebratory pulse of ‘Tick Tock’ embraces the world of manifestation:
Push and pull, open and close
Ears and mouth and eyes and nose
Big and small, short and tall
Light and dark, rise and fall
(Tick Tock, Tick Tock)
But the loveliness of the following instrumental, ‘Cut To Fit The Mouth’ gives way to the juggernaut frustration of ‘Fill The Days’, with its withering hatred for the stagnancy of day-to-day life:
Fill the day with significant waste
Fill the day with meaningful refuse
Fill the day with interesting things to say
Fill the day with a gradual decay
‘Sin To Live’ rounds off with muted static and the sound of a terminal melancholic playing a beautiful little dirge on an old acoustic guitar.
My collection now skips past the eagerly awaited Artificial Horizon (I got a CD off eBay but the central hole was warped and it wouldn’t play) to The Unanimous Hour. Higgs is now in a full flow of psychedelic fury. The opening ‘Space Orgy’ is more brutal and sparse than anything else so far, at once more aggressively apocalyptic and obscurely pagan:
The bibles maintain a monotone drone
The birds coalesce in a human form
Its stride is a worldwide broadcast
As all earthly species exhale
‘Vulgar Theories’ prefers to ramp up the droning pulsation that feeds much of their music, to the point where it overshadows all else. The bass thunders, the guitars are fixated. Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye adds his voice to the lilting, hymnal ‘God’s Will’: “God’s will / Not yours / Not mine”. Such a sentiment has been used to mask some of the most hideously oppressive social phenomena we’ve known. But the gentle passion in this song means this history melts away; we just feel the sweet release, the amor fati. To anyone whose imagination is fed by the mysteries of prehistory, the haunting instrumental ‘Return To The Caves’ can hardly fail to send shivers down the spine. And the awesome ‘Hallucinatorium’, split into two phases, stitched together by feedback, transfigures the family in dream imagery:
My mother excretes a reality
My mother puts her torch to sleep
My mother spreads her ribcage wide
To guide the trumpet blast inside
Necrophones probably has the strongest strain of folk of all their albums: ‘The Words’ bursts with an almost anthemic undulation, making it plain why some people have described Higgs’s songs as sailor’s songs. It continues, more gently, in ‘The Way’, before Higgs departs for ‘Necrophones’, one of the band’s simplest and best instrumentals: jaunty, pretty and delicately textured. ‘All Day And All Night Long’ is one of the occasional songs that remind you that straight rock ‘n’ roll is never that far from Lungfish’s minds, rejoicing in simplicity before ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Hanging Bird’ bring back the poignancy of complexity.
Even to my Hawkwind-deprived ears, the driving cosmic guitars of ‘Shapes In Space’ have that band all over them; a fine wig-out. The album tails off for me after that, although the acoustic ‘Sex War’ and the Hecate-saturated ‘Cross Road’ have definite charms.
Love Is Love, along with the subsequent Feral Hymns, is among their most assured and consistent albums (among their earlier work, only Indivisible comes close). The title track is a stomping ecstasy of affirmation, setting a tone that is never as directly expressed again, but which seeps into all tracks. ‘Fearfully And Wonderfully’, whose opening chords lift my soul in seconds, seems to achieve the hallucinatory intensity of actual chemicals:
Holy holy Christ Beast
Christ Beast bear your message
About a godform that’s formless
and forming in your baby, in your mind
With wings like rainbow oars of fire
Inscribing signs across the water
Gently, gently upon the water
Signs becoming what they signify
My other highlight, ‘Peace Mountains Of Peace’, eschews the cryptic surrealism of much of Higgs’s mystically-inspired lyrics in favour of a plain, impassioned meditation on death:
Will you keep your shape for long enough at least
To establish peace, mountains of peace?
Suspended in a no-man’s land between legendary status and genuine obscurity, Lungfish make music I’ve been wanting to listen to for a long time.