I always love music that creates its own world around it. And that is something that Ultra-eko has always been a master at. Past albums have offered us songs that are powerful and poignant yet written in the language of the streets, not necessarily the same streets that the rest of us walk it seems, and they seem set in a strange sonic world which sits somewhere between Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at The End of Time novels and a Ken Loach script. (Now that is a TV series that needs to be made.)
Tales From the Underside Pinguism seems the most realised vision of that world yet, a suite of songs, a sonic journey…perhaps even a concept album, call it what you will, which takes us through the heart of this dark and delicious alternate world. It is a world filled with strange and exotic characters, not just our eponymous (anti-)heroes but Grandad, a drug-addled Pingu, disgruntled actors, bounty hunters, human-spider hybrids and, not least, the villain of the piece, The Outsider Artist, a creative immortalising people by making art out of them to feed his psychopathic visions.
It is also about as “meta” as you can get. The album uses music and lyrics to create a fully realised world yet even the people who reside there don’t seem to know what is real and what is fantasy. We switch between this world (presumably) and the Underside, blurring the edges of both as we do so. The denizens of this world are a mix of heightened b-movie scream flick monsters and the people that you pass every day on the street. And of course Pingu the Penguin recast as a belligerent, bombed-out loser, and later (spoiler alert) as an arch creator of worlds. And, if that wasn’t layered enough we get pulled into an intermission where two of the characters, Bazza and Hartley, reveal themselves to be merely actors in Tales From the Underside Pinguism, a touring show and one that they are not too enamoured with. There are even musical contributions from The Echoes, the support band for the tour.
Confused? I don’t blame you but it will all make sense when Amazon Prime pick up the rights to the series and Sean Bean is picking fits in a penguin costume and shouting “Bastard!” at any who come near him. Or maybe it won’t.
And if the world created for this album to live in is ornate, unique, strange and unexpected…the same goes for the music. Baroom Brawl Part 1 might tell of futuristic bounty hunters grappling with unearthly adversaries but it does so over music that wanders between deft hip-hop salvos and soulful interludes. Lesser artists would have played a more obvious card, one of metal riffs and bombastic blasts, but it is the matter of fact lyrics…“It weren’t the best of days but it weren’t the worst either,” and the musical understatement which almost makes it all seem, well, real!
Outsider Artist, the track which introduces the arch-villain of the piece is perhaps the most in-depth debate on conceptual art that has ever happened in music – imagine Damien Hirst on Ketamine hosting Portrait Artist of the Year! Actually, best you don’t, you’ll have nightmares.
Jehovah is the sort of big soul number that Curtis Mayfield would have given his right arm to have in his repertoire, though I doubt it is the lyrical route that he would have taken. Clive Barker? Perhaps. When I Was A Lad reminds us of the humour that runs through the DNA of Ultra-eco’s creations, Grandad’s memories of his youth, Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch: The Musical, and proof of the adage, the older you get the better you were.
We end with The Magic Maker, a spoken word TED talk on Pingu as the creator, the supreme being, the omnipotent one…and you thought that he was just a strange cartoon penguin, that’s what he want’s you to believe, and the house band play us out as the credits roll and Bazza and Hartley talk over them.
If you get to the other end of the album and think, WTF? then I suspect that is the desired effect anyway. Why the need for everything to be spelt out for you? What’s wrong with feeling slightly lost? Isn’t that what adventures are all about?
In a string of unique releases, Tales From The Underside is the most brilliant yet and one that seems to pull all the previous threads together into a strange and seductive sonic design. Buy it now, this may be the one time in history that the soundtrack album gets written before the cult movie gets made. Eternal Donnie of the Spotless Darko? Nah, it doesn’t even come close to this.
Right, I’m off for a lie down!