Subtitled Minimal Compositions, Instrumentals, and Experiments 1980-1983, J.G. Thirlwell’s CD-DVD retrospective casts an entirely new and surprising light on his already diverse and infamous Foetus moniker. Some of these songs are close to being 30 years old, yet they share more in common with Thirlwell’s Manorexia and Steroid Maximus projects than with anything found on albums like Hole or Nail. Steeped in the theory and aesthetics of modern composition, Limb is a revelatory collection that adds even more depth to Thirlwell’s already rich musical history.
That Thirlwell decided to return to his past at this point in his career makes perfect sense. Each of the 13 pieces on Limb prefigure the ideas he has more recently explored as Manorexia and Steroid Maximus; they represent the beginning of his career as both a rock musician and a composer. His passion for soundtracks, modern classical music, and theory is fully formed and present on songs like “Te Deum” and “Primordial Industry,” both of which were previously available only on compilations. As such, they were partially divorced from the Foetus oeuvre and remained hidden to all but the most ravenous and attentive collectors. Still other songs were never released or only saw the light of day as b-sides on obscure 7″ records. Limb reabsorbs these lost tracks into the Foetus story and ties together Thirlwell’s many disparate interests while maintaining an album- like illusion.
While the term experimental applies very well to what Thirlwell was doing in the early ’80s, every song on Limb is immediate and attractive and removed from the aesthetics sometimes associated with experimental music. Thirlwell’s imagination and early output is far removed from the sometimes dry world of academic composition and theory-for-theory’s-sake performance. The sounds he manipulates and utilizes are ultimately invested in the pleasure of listening and not in the theory itself. The liner notes, which were written by Thirlwell, mention his interest in the mathematical and experimental aspects of 20th century musical theory, but a direct line can be drawn from songs like “Te Deum” and “Sjogren’s Syndrome” to the twisted pop of “I’ll Meet You in Poland Baby” or the forceful percussion of “The Only Good Christian Is a Dead Christian.” The techniques used to create the morose atmosphere of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” and the dizziness of “That We Forbid” ultimately helped to form every Foetus record both technologically and aesthetically. Throughout many of the songs Thirlwell’s love for hypnotic loops takes center stage, but they are complimented by big musical accompaniments and all manner of percussive mayhem. He fuses popular music and culture with the influence of Terry Riley and Phillip Glass and in the process forms something that is both confronational and alluring. The dark, creeping bass lines and tense, nerve-wracking melodies that populate many of his “jazz” and soundtrack-based works are also present on this record. Most striking, however, is the almost total lack of lyrics on every song. One of the most attractive elements of Thirlwell’s music was, for me, his lyrical ability. His scathing deliveries, biting lyrics, and often hilarious play on words highlighted many of his best songs, but Limb doesn’t feature even one of his characteristic growls. The focus is completely on his musical sensibilities and the sensations he’s capable of creating with little more than samples, everyday objects, and the occaisional synthesizer.
Limb also features a DVD, which is composed of a documentary directed by Clement Tuffreau and a series of brief live performances by each of Thirlwell’s major incarnations. The documentary provides excellent insight into Thirlwell’s world, his background, and features a host of familiar faces, including Michael Gira and Lydia Lunch. Tuffreau gets Thirlwell and company to talk about everything from his move to New York and his early musical endeavors to the various films he’s starred in and scored, as well as the circumstances surrounding the development of Steroid Maximus, Wiseblood, and Manorexia. Foetus may have been developed with a certain mythology in mind, but this documentary essentially collapses the space between Thirlwell and his fans. Despite all the drama of drugs and sex that might’ve been inserted into the film, Tuffreau keeps his focus almost completely on Thirlwell’s music and art. Thankfully, all of the individuals interviewed stay on topic, too, with Lydia, Matt Johnson, and Alexander Hacke providing some of the best commentary. For any Foetus fan this is an absolutely essential release. For the casual listener or the interested bystander, Limb is actually a great place to start listening to J.G. Thirlwell. The pop sensibilities that he is perhaps most known for are absent from the CD but his multi-faceted output is still well represented by this collection.