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Thinking Plague - In Extremis CD (album) cover

IN EXTREMIS

Thinking Plague

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

4.28 | 121 ratings

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kurtrongey
5 stars Let me first warn you that Thinking Plague's _In This Life_ is one of my desert island discs (presuming there's an AC outlet or an unlimited source of AA batteries on the island of course).

Something like 8 years after _In This Life_ came out, everybody who was waiting for a follow-up had more or less given up. Every year or so, somebody would tell me that they'd heard from someone that Mike Johnson was almost through with a new Thinking Plague album. Well what do you know, suddenly in 1998 here it was, and it was a masterpiece.

_In This Life_ was attractive to many people because it was stylistically much like the best RIO bands, but without the brittleness and the tendency for long improvised jams for short wave radio and prepared shopping cart. Don't get me wrong, the short wave radio and prepared shopping cart were there, but woven into really engaging musical structures deliberately and carefully composed. And it also rocked hard. In fact, Mike Johnson's ability to come up with intense, sometimes brain-shattering sounds and textures and orchestrate them so compellingly makes him, to me, the Beethoven of RIO.

_In Extremis_ is, if anything, more elaborately constructed than _In This Life_ and seems more of an integrated project than the somewhat "assembled" _In This Life_. That's amazing in that _In Extremis_ was recorded over such a long period of time. The lyrics seem to deal for the most part with disgust at the state of things and the attempt to escape all of it. It comes off like the gesticulations of a mad prophet who's not quite sure of his prophesies. The first song, "Dead Silence" immediately introduces the voice of Deborah Perry. She has very much the same range as the band's previous singer, Suzanne Lewis, but her delivery is more precise and even more emotionally detached, which many times makes a thrilling contrast to the whirlwind of sound she's embedded in. She often gives the impression of a boy soprano.

Johnson avoids pure major and minor triads...er...like the plague. In fact, this album offers plenty of compelling evidence that atonal chord structures can have very clear, audible comprehensible musical functions for the non-theoretically-minded. The music is constantly changing metrically, harmonically and texturally. As I remarked, he has a huge pallette to work with and he doesn't stick to one thing for long. That's not to say everything is a chaotic string of episodes. Cohesiveness is achieved through rampant development of small harmonic and rhythmic kernels. What this means is that the first couple listens can be a little bewildering. But as in the best classical music, each listen reveals new details and layers of musical correspondences. Each listen takes you deeper and deeper in. In the face of all this theoretical stuff, this album rocks.

Fans of _In This Life_'s "Organism" will be interested in track 4, "Les Etudes d'Organism," a free fantasy on themes from that tune. Interestingly, a couple minutes in the middle of this song evoke the same kind of underworld carnival atmosphere that people familiar with Mr. Bungle's _Disco Volante_ will recognize. It's the only part of the album that I never quite came to terms with. It's followed however, by one of the album's most beautiful moments, a sublime section of heartbreaking guitar melody over a brooding string bed in 7/4.

Bob Drake sings and wrote the lyrics to "This Weird Wind," my favorite track (musically at least) at the moment.

Another of my favorite moments is the beginning of the last track "Kingdom Come" which starts with a mindblowing bit of tone painting, as a musical tornado comes and picks up the singer's character, who shrieks in ecstasy "As my body rises, I understand this is paradise!"

As for the playing of individual members. Well, they're all hot. But they're mostly doing material that's subservient to the compositions. Mike Johnson squeezes every kind of sound out of whatever guitar he happens to be playing, choking total anguish out of it at one moment, soaring above the atmosphere in the next. Production quality is magnificent.

kurtrongey | 5/5 |

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