Song: "Delicate Tendrils"
Album: Highball With The Devil
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For certain musicians, it seems as if there is never enough time in the day to completely empty themselves of all of the songs that live within them. Though these artists often have a staggering number of solo and side projects, it always seems as if they still have so much to say though their music, and in comparison, they are the most restless musicians in history. Such performers are scattered throughout the decades and genres, yet for a number of reasons, they often easily rise above their peers in terms of both talent and impact. Over the past few decades, few artists have shown a wider range of musical exploration or as unique a sound as one finds within the songs of Les Claypool. Whether recording with his main band, Primus, or one of his many side projects like Sausage, Bucket Of Bernie Brains, The Flying Frog Brigade, or a host of other lineups, it is always his distinctive sound on bass, his voice, and his completely individual musical approach that shines brightest. Yet even with all of these "formal" side projects, in the mid-1990's, Claypool released what is largely a solo record, bringing in a host of different musicians on each song and naming the band "The Holy Mackerel." From members of Primus to the great Charlie Hunter, the only album released under this name, 1996's Highball With The Devil, is a stunning work of music that remains largely unnoticed. While each song has its own personality, few songs in the Claypool catalog bring as much tension and a strange sense of darkness as one finds in Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel's 1996 song, "Delicate Tendrils."
The song begins "innocently" enough with a rapid-fire drum intro that moves into a grinding, aggressive attack from the guitar and bass. Finding their way into a simple, looped progression, it is impossible to explain how this continual repetition is able to build as much tension as it does as "Delicate Tendrils" plays. However, the tension is undeniable, and at many times, it almost feels as if the song itself is pacing back and forth or even making circles around the listener. This ability to convey such motion and mood sets "Delicate Tendrils" far apart from the rest of the Claypool catalog, as while many of his songs have an odd sense of darkness, none even come close to the tone set on this song. The distorted, battering guitar and bass are exceptionally imposing, and the way in which the song seems to be assaulting the listener over and over again proves the idea that "repetition works" when done properly. Perhaps the reason the song is able to achieve this unique sense of darkness and aggression is the fact that, as is the case on a number of songs on Highball With The Devil, Claypool plays every instrument on the track. With this in mind, Claypool had complete control over exactly how his music vision would be executed, and the three primary instruments fuse together to form a single, destructive sound. This perfectly deployed mixture of hostility and odd gloom makes "Delicate Tendrils" impossible to ignore, as well as one of the most imposing songs in the entire Claypool catalog.
The other element that sets "Delicate Tendrils" far apart from other works of Les Claypool is the presence and performance of vocalist Henry Rollins. Best known for fronting the hardcore band Black Flag, Rollins has a reputation for his own aggression and anger that he expresses via his songs. On "Delicate Tendrils," Rollins' voice is slow, somewhat soft, and yet the hostility in his delivery cannot be denied. The tension and dark, forceful sound of the music is perfectly replicated in Rollins' vocals, and it is this spoken-word style delivery that accentuates the strange sense of imposing, unnerving movement. Though he was once known for his screaming, in-your-face performances, on "Delicate Tendrils," it is his oddly restrained, yet equally unsettling delivery style that serves as the perfect finish to the overall mood Claypool has created. Furthermore, the lyrics, penned by Rollins, work brilliantly to make the feeling of frustration, anger, and ferocity come through perfectly. Written in Rollins' distinctive poetic style, the lyrics speak of the tension between the "haves" and the "have nots," and Rollins pushes this idea into thoughts on class, race, and many other social constructs. Rollins is able to capture the mood of the music within his words when he delivers the lines, "...you hated them because they looked weak and slightly scared...you circled the water hole and thought about closing in..." Pushing the tension higher and higher with each line, Rollins brings a furious mood of the unstable, paranoid, singular being with the lyric, "...hang spent bullet cases from fishing line outside all the windows of your house...put up signs..."please break in...I would love the opportunity to kill you legally..."" It is dark, aggressive sentiments like this that serve as an ideal compliment to the amazing mood that Claypool creates musically, and the spirit of "Delicate Tendrils."
Though at face value, Highball With The Devil may seem a bit of a scattered affair in terms of the music, the fact of the matter is, as an entire piece of work, one can see it as Les Claypool pulling in the proper individuals so he could completely realize his various musical visions. From fast-paced, quirky tunes to some of the darkest of his entire career, the album offers a peek into nearly every side of Claypool's personality, and in many ways, foreshadows many of the bands he would work with over the next decade. However, it is on the track "Delicate Tendrils" where Claypool's ability both as a musician and musical arranger come fully into focus. Playing drums, guitar, and of course the bass, Claypool took complete control and responsibility for the final product, and the song bring a mood and tone that is unlike anything else he has ever recorded. The overwhelming sense of impending doom and frustration that runs throughout the song is unparalleled, and it is almost impossible to comprehend how Claypool managed to pull this off by only using a simple, repetitive musical progression. Adding in the equally dark and dramatic vocals of Henry Rollins, "Delicate Tendrils" is truly like no other song ever released, as the way in which it assaults the listener is something that must be experienced to be understood. Though he has been the force behind many wonderfully unique songs, there is simply nothing else in recorded history that sounds or feels quite like Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel's 1996 song, "Delicate Tendrils."