I wish this was a DVD. There’s so much theatricality in tales like ‘Road To Utah’ that sound alone doesn’t quite capture the dynamism of the song. Instruments flail wildly like animals escaped from a zoo: clarinet moans, synths wail, percussion hammers and a weird electronic backing swathes David Thomas’ voice. That voice is as characterful as any time in Ubu’s rich history, part unreliable narrator, part fairground barker in hell, savouring the language as he explains “I follow the clues”. The band are well into their fourth decade now but remain as weird, wonderful and uniquely off-planet as ever.
The album developed from a live underscore to Herk Harvey’s brilliant Carnival of Souls movie at a London film festival in 2013, before the songs organically evolved from the ideas expressed in the score. The recorded outcome, which is different for vinyl and CD releases (there are five one-minute ‘Strychnine Interludes’ woven into the vinyl version), mixes songs and soundtrack, making huge leaps from sublime romanticism to violent frenzy. ‘Golden Surf II’ has heavy riffs and synth whizzes alternating with quieter passages while ‘Visions of the Moon’ has Thomas crooning “I live in a box on the moon” to the sound of a soothing clarinet. Meanwhile, ‘Carnival’ is weirdness squared, menacing and darkly surrealistic; you really believe that monkey is loose in his head. The gorgeous ‘Irene’ is a softly-strummed love song wracked with doubt and sprinkled with glitschy electronica, while the 12-minute ‘Brother Ray’ is described as a prequel to Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, his 1939 novel of alienation and sleaze in Hollywood, here a low-burning piece of musical theatre.
David Thomas has published a 100 page book Cogs to accompany the record for those who need more explanation. Not many bands can sustain that level of deconstruction but Ubu aren’t "many bands”; their 18th album is as art-rock mesmering/ confusing/ engaging/ frustrating as the others, while Thomas threatens (in Cogs): “Here comes the Curve Ball of Discomfort!”