1979 – the year of the eyeball. It was with the release of the album, Eskimo, that The Residents donned their tuxes and top hats and unveiled their ocular visages. From shadows and collages emerged an immediately recognisable band, though there was still no further clarity as to whom lurked beneath. It wasn’t the only refresh – after their disastrous/hugely successful Mole Show tour of Europe, they were now armed with both a shiny new synthesiser and accompanying musicians who offered a sense of how the band were being recognised by their contemporaries. Of note were Snakefinger on guitar – a long-time cohort of the band; percussionist Chris Cutler from Henry Cow, as well as Don Preston, best known for his stint in The Mothers of Invention but a remarkable musician in his own right. Fancifully, Brian Eno has long been rumoured to be involved. It seems both unlikely and unnecessary – there were Inuit to recruit first.
The synth, as you might imagine, is not used without an appropriate amount of inventiveness. Eskimo is one of The Residents most arresting albums because the place it transports you to is familiar. The constant swirl of arctic winds welcome patters of percussion which veer from tapped, stretched skins to clunks of tin and steel. Rhythmic chanting has the familiar nasal twang of The Residents and it seems fairly conclusive in 2019 exactly what the nature of the voices coming from the icy wastes are – more of that later. The winds continue to thrum, often drowning out other instruments as they subtly switch from sounds meteorological to those of landing flying saucers.
Though spilt into six tracks, you’re obliged to listen to it in one go, allowing the stern atmosphere give way to incoherent babbling and shards of sound. From the opening tone-setting of Walrus Hunt, we are dragged slowly across glaciers, seemingly towards a sacrificial ceremony – home-made instruments bitterly beckoning you forth. Brief forays into igloos get you closer to some semblance of humanity (louder chanting; murderous God-like bellowing; the sound of a baby being born), before once again the elements send the voices into the blinding white of the near horizon. A Spirit Steals a Child adds more voices, appearing from all angles, some words in detectable English (“we don’t know how to pray”), others those of the long-dead, or perhaps, the never-living. The sound of dog sleighs and slapping whips hurry us to somewhere we increasingly don’t want to go. There are some splattering sounds which rather suggest one of the animals has been offered to one of the unseen.
Eskimo concludes with The Festival of Death, exactly what we envisaged and feared. A solemn bell tolls and toils against the wind. Voices blend with the ambient sound and then emerge clearly, now far more euphoric than before and with the trumpeting of mammoths saluting them. It ends joyously, the dawning of a new day heralding a return to cohesion, our brief visit showing that the chaos, calamity and frigidity of their lives is as commonplace as any we might have in our cosy burrows.
The remarkable archaeology involved in the restoration of The Residents’ output is exemplified by the inclusion of an a cappella track at the end of disc one which (nearly) clarifies what the unintelligible voices are saying – rather like Penn and Teller, this glimpse behind the magic spoils nothing of the main event and adds layers upon layers of insight into the subtlety and artistry of their craft, not to mention oodles of humour. Are they saying “We Are Devo” or are they saying, “We Are Different”? It’s marvellous either way.
The second disc contains three previously-unreleased items that were recorded around the same time as Eskimo,pushing environment to the fore instead of sheer hellzapopping mayhem – Kenya and Middle East Dance are both suitably dusty. Also included is Diskomo, the 12” released around the time of the album which does little to ingratiate itself in the dance scene of the time, employing an incessant beat but with pseudo-Oriental motifs which all but forbid any dance-floor shape-shifting. The b-side is equally unruly, with four tracks – Disaster, Plants, Farmers and Twinkle – that are far nearer their earlier output, a disturbing suite of nursery rhymes conducted on distressed toy instruments.
There are still more treats – four tracks which appeared on a 1979 compilation put out by their own Ralph Records are enormous fun, especially a serial killer version of I Left My Heart in San Francisco, preempting, to some extent, their forthcoming Commercial Album. Another errant track, Sleeper, comes dangerously close to an attempt at a pop song but wisely thinks better of it and slinks back into its strange shell. As we’ve now become accustomed, the set ends with demo versions and live versions of some of the Eskimo tracks, with the added oddity of a treatment for a proposed opera of the album, dating to 1990. It feels more obvious than the real thing but shows the affection the band had for the album – an album which might very well be the peak of the band’s recorded output.
Originally Featured on The Reprobate