Primus is back to release their first full-length studio set since 2011’s Green Naugahyde. No matter what, this is a ginormous deal. Yet, I will need to balance the polarity of my emotions in what is a very specific dilemma to review Primus and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, perhaps the potential offered by my spectrum of opinion on the Primus/Wonka marriage lends itself particularly well to an unsentimental yet sympathetic approach to what is, depending on your stance, either a wacky concept album or the most unnecessary OST cover of those that exist (none?).
Context: in the 90s of my childhood everyone loved 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my siblings included. They would watch it often, while I was off doing whatever sensitive, single-digits children did in the 90s – reviewing Frizzle Fry or Sailing the Seas of Cheese, maybe. My indelible introduction to WWATCF was walking into our front room during the tunnel sequence (you know, the millipede crawling across the dead man’s face and the chicken being beheaded? In the kids film about chocolate and magic? Fuck you Roald Dahl, and/or the director whose name I’m not even going to look up on principle), staring for a while, and then running. Running in the opposite direction until I hit the back wall of the house and was gratefully plunged into unconsciousness.
More context: I. LOVE. PRIMUS. They’re in my top three. Which is apt, because Primus are the kings of three things – funk, weird, and creepy. And that’s only the surface – the skill and integrity of their musicianship and innovation is largely unmatched within whichever genre The Return of Sathington Willoughby can be classified (prog-political-satire?). I have a vested emotional interest in raving about anything that Primus does, so it smarts to have to type the following paragraph.
Before I quickly turned it off, the album began excitingly enough with “Hello Wonkites”. It’s rhythmic, pleasing and promisingly creepy – even the melody of “Pure Imagination”, a song that nauseates me (millipedes millipedes millipedes BEHEADED CHICKEN millipedes ON MY FACE) is suddenly tolerable when rendered by a cello, and underpinned by the beloved Antipopstars welcome return. Its forceful ending invites the dynamic opening to track two, “Candyman”. The bass moos like a cow, as vocalist and (best) bassist (ever to have lived) Les Claypool is wont to do, I suppose. As he begins to sneer “who can take a sunrise…”, it dawns on me that this is not so much a Primus album inspired by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as it is a tribute cover of the OST highlights, that just happens to be performed by Primus.
And why not? True to the spirit of all of Dahl’s work, the 1971 film very much represented themes of corruption and authority, suffering and peril that most people deemed not just unsuitable, but unnecessary, to discuss with children in a safe way (unless it causes them to run face-first into a wall). Primus, I think, also fulfill a desire to address themes around threat and morality (“Too Many Puppies”, “My Friend Fats”, “Winona’s Big Brown Beav” – wait), within their experimental musical play. Claypool himself says, “The notion wasn’t so much to go in and redo the soundtrack note for note as much as it was to utilize the classic elements of the music yet try to reflect some of the darker undertones of the Roald Dahl books, because when you read those books, there is an eerie and somewhat menacing aspect implied.” He notes that he’s been using the line, “There’s no earthly way of knowing…which direction we are going” on stage since the 80s anyway – and the top hat fits. One can certainly imagine Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka uttering the Frizzle Fry lyric, “It’s quite an irregular place to be, but never fear you’re safe with me…Well, maybe.”
I would never want to, nor can I, fault Primus on style, tone, skill, or relevance. But I was hoping for a new-Primus-album, rather than Primus’-pet-tribute-to-my-bad-memories. Above and beyond that, it smacks of novelty rather than the artistic triumph of frightening funk rock that only they can create. I can imagine Primus and the Chocolate Factory as an amateur tribute to the band, posted to YouTube by enthusiasts titled “If Primus Scored Willy Wonka! WTF!”. I can’t imagine putting it on my iPod.
We’re still cool though. As soon as Primus make a new album of new music, I will never speak of my disdain again, and all will be well in my temporarily troubled mind. Until then, however reluctantly, in the spirit of all hatchet jobs I have to file this under Oompa Loompa Doopety Don’t.