Thinking Plague
(see also: 5uu's, Hamster Theatre, Science Group, Hail, Kissyfur)

Thinking Plague - 1998


| Discography

...a Thinking Plague (1984)
Moonsongs (1986)
In This Life (1989)
In Extremis (1998)

Early Plague Years (2000; re-release of the first two albums)

| More Info
| Profile

County Of Origin: USA
Established: c. 1983

Styles: Avant Garde, RIO

| Reviews


Mention the term "RIO" around a prog fan, and Thinking Plague is probably the first band that comes to mind.  This is not because they're archetypical of the genre; in fact, composer and guitarist Mike Johnson hates the term.  As a matter of fact, Thinking Plague is fairly eclectic, drawing from Henry Cow and Art Bears but also from a variety of styles ranging from symphonic prog (evident mainly on In Extremis) to post-punk (on the debut) to Peter Gabriel's solo work (on the title track of Moonsongs).  However, the band gets a good deal of visibility in the prog scene, partially due to the symphonic overtones of In Extremis and partially due to the fact that they're one of the more accessible RIO-influenced bands around, and thus get recommended fairly often.  Well, that and the fact that they frickin' rule. :)

Anyway.  Thinking Plague evolved in the early 80s from the work of Mike Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Bob Drake, who apparently met when Drake put up an ad seeking a guitar player "into Henry Cow, Yes, etc."  (there's that eclecticism again).  In 1983, they and a few co-conspirators recorded their first album, ...a Thinking Plague, in a meat-packing studio, surrounded by bloody entrails -- or at least, that's how Bob Drake tells it.  The music fit the location, drawing from RIO, punk, 20th-century classical music, new wave and progressive rock in varying amounts.  It was released in a limited edition on the band's own label, Dead Man's Curve, each cover hand-painted by Drake.  Instruments included bowed balalaika, casio mini-synth, metal pipes and cat, as well as the more standard vocals, guitars, bass and drums.

By the time of their second album, Moonsongs, things had improved a bit.  They now were recording in a warehouse called The Yogurt Factory (later shortened to "The Yog Factory"), and they had a new vocalist named Susanne Lewis.  In This Life was even released on CD by RéR, which gave it a good deal more exposure than the first two.  These albums were generally more focussed and serious than the debut, which probably helped as well.

Then things fell apart.  Susanne Lewis moved to New York to further her career as an indie/punk songwriter, and Bob Drake moved to LA to be a recording engineer, and then joined 5uu's.  It wasn't until the mid-to-late 90s that Thinking Plague reformed with new vocalist Deborah Perry, drummer Dave Kerman (from 5uu's), and a variety of others. 1998's In Extremis combined four new songs with a couple of older tracks recorded in the early 90s by a transitional incarnation of the band.  The album was surprisingly cohesive, given the way it was pieced together from new and old material, and is certainly their most popular album in the progressive rock community.

2000 brought Early Plague Years, a two-on-one CD rerelease that allowed many people to hear the first two albums for the first time.  A new Plague album is due out in 2003. - Alex Temple [October 2001]

...a Thinking Plague (1984)...a Thinking Plague (1984)

Thinking Plague's almost-self-titled debut may come as a surprise to listeners familiar with their more recent work.  Although the band's trademark angular melodies and dissonant chords are a constant throughout their career, the symphonic textures and seriousness of purpose of (most of) 1998's In Extremis are all but absent here.  The music has a stripped-down, almost punk feeling to it, as well as a mood of playful experimentation that would make it hard to take the music seriously if it weren't so damn good.  The album even gets downright silly at times.

For example, there's "I Do Not Live," in which the super-distorted voices of Bob Drake and Mike Johnson alternate with exaggeratedly tortured vocals from Sharon Bradford. This is combined with bizarre lyrics like "I am also using you using me / We're just like two laboratory rats," convulsive atonal guitar work, weird synth noises, and the violently abrupt mood shifts that result from recording more-than-four-track music on a four-track recorder.  Oh, and there's a funeral dirge in the middle, for no real reason other than "because they can."

Or how about "How To Clean Squid"?  This is the band's setting of instructions from a gourmet cooking magazine on... well, how to clean squid.  There's a mixture of sardonic chanting and creepily angelic singing, with occasional high sustained notes on words like "cartilage," suspended over a blistering punkish setting accompanied by what sound like new-wave drum machines.  The rhythms are typically disjointed, leading to prosody like "still at-TATCHED! un-der COLD! run-ning WA! terrr..."  Somehow, the song comes off as being not only bizarre but really scary, especially when phrases like "above eyes" are echoed with more highly-distorted vocals from the group's co-founders.

You think that's weird?  You ain't heard nothin' yet.  "The Taste That Lingers On" is a repetitive little piece by Bradford, with lyrics about a "very sweet taste like over-sugared fruit" and "a gray mass that sticks to the teeth," set to music that's almost equally nauseating, especially at the end when the tape speed seems to waver, causing a gradual rise and fall of pitch.  This is surrounded on either side by two short compositions by Drake, one of which features a Speak-N-Spell recorded over a telephone, and the other of which seems to be played entirely on several bowed balalaikas.

As if to remind the listener that these are, in fact, serious musicians, there are also two longer and less silly songs, "Possessed" and "Thorns of Blue and Red / the War."  Strangely, these strike me as the two weaker songs on the album.  "Possessed," as those of you who own In This Life know, is a very good song featuring plaintive vocals and some fierce atonal rocking-out -- until about five minutes into it, when some insanely cheesy synth arpeggios suddenly appear and ruin everything. "Thorns of Blue and Red / the War" is a setting of two poems found in a trash can outside a mental hospital, and while it contains some excellent music (including vocals from Bradford's husband Mark, who has both a wonderful classical baritone and a powerful falsetto), it's just too long.  The improvised middle section by "Great Banana" (Drake, Johnson and the Bradfords on instruments including "noises, glasses, [and] cat") gets very close to inaudibility, and brings the song to a dead halt.  It would take another couple of years before Thinking Plague really gained the ability to do a great 15-minute song -- the astounding "Moonsongs" from the album of the same name.  Still, this is generally an excellent and underrated album, quite worthy of the Thinking Plague name and perhaps a good way to get fans of quirky post-punk like Kukl into the avant-prog/RIO scene. - Alex Temple [October 2001]

Click Here for Tracklist and Lineup Info

Moonsongs (1986)Moonsongs (1986)

From the very beginning of the album, you can tell that this band is pissed off.  "Warheads" is probably Thinking Plague's hardest-rocking tune, opening with an angry chromatic guitar and bass riff before joining them with loud synth drums (reminiscent of XTC's The Big Express) and the voice of TP's second vocalist, Susanne Lewis.  The lyrics are much more direct than on the band's other albums, as seen in the opening lines: "People killing time, hiding in their minds murder / They're looking for a goat, gonna cut his throat."  There's also a heavy dose of bitter irony: Lewis is quickly joined by a male voice apathetically reciting prayers: "Jesus loves me, this I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so."   As it continues, "Warheads" turns out to be practically a microcosm of the band's entire oeuvre, echoing the punk aggression of ...a Thinking Plague and predicting In Extremis's the skittery guitar lines and spacey drones.  Susanne Lewis, new at the time of Moonsongs' release, gets a chance to show her amazing versatility, from the aforementioned shrieks to her usual indie-rock disaffectedness to a surprising bit about three minutes in that sounds a little bit like Dagmar Krause.

"Warheads" is followed by "Etude for Combo," a brittle, percussive and somewhat minimalistic instrumental whose main motif later appeared in "Organism" and "Les Etudes d'Organism."  Here it's played live by Bob Drake, Mark Fuller, Eric Moon and Mike Johnson for a small audience of friends, and the tension is palpable when, halfway in, the band asks the onlookers to scream along with them: "ONE!  TWO!  ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!"  At that moment, the music seems to be momentary thrown off balance, as Thinking Plague's characteristic rhythmic disjointedness allows them to throw in a quick solo for something that sounds like a bicycle bell before starting on an amazing section that combines rock instrumentation and propulsiveness with 20th-century classical harmonic and melodic materials and the swung rhythms of jazz.  With its syncopated keyboard parts, this passage is surprisingly funky -- a quality that isn't usually associated with the RIO movement and its derivatives.

The next two tracks are quieter, and serve as a moment of respite before the title track.  "Collarless Fog that one day soon" is another instrumental track, improvised during the "Etude for Combo" sessions, and it consists mainly of quietly unsettling quasi-tonal guitar figures over a backdrop that sounds like Henry Cow gone ambient.  "Inside Out" is even more pulseless, featuring Susanne Lewis's disembodied voice floating over blurry keyboard drones from Bob Drake.  Lewis also wrote the lyrics, and they have a mysterious quality that's very different from Mike Johnson's political intellectualism; here we get phrases like "do we kill what we love the most?" and "how I am in your moving hand, loving you inside out."  It's an enormously beautiful, almost wistful song, almost never talked about and reminiscent of some of the more abstract vocal tracks on Biota's Object Holder.

But then again, it's easy to understand how "Inside Out" could be overshadowed by the final track of the album. "Moonsongs" is an orgy of tribal percussion, furious bass playing, "vocal parts" played on sampling keyboards, gritty atonal guitar solos and apocalyptically environmentalist lyrics.  At one point Susanne Lewis takes on the persona of a pagan priestess, creating a call-and-response chant in which her vaguely religious-sounding declarations ("I am a lure from paradise") are answered by similar exaltations by Drake and Johnson ("She is a flood across a plain").  The aforementioned sampling keyboard section is a truly wonderful moment that will make any TP neophyte's jaw drop in confusion as you giggle mischievously, in which growling synths, guitar and slap bass battle with "oo"s and "ta"s manipulated into squelchy dissonant counterpoint.  The climax of the piece finds Lewis playing the part of Nature as an innocent little girl, singing lines like "They kill and rape my children / Preach falsehoods, which they say God gave them" in a flat, childlike voice.  Quiet piano figures and ominous synths lie in wait for about half a minute before the the opening tune reappears over the 80s-sounding drums of "Warheads," no longer calmly floating but filled with biterness and disgust. Lewis angrily denounces industrial pollution with all the heavy-handedness of Thinking Plague's early idols the Art Bears, combined with pseudo-Lovecraftian rhetoric like "Very soon you will know again the darkness of my timeless womb."  A series of absolutely killer guitar solos bring the song to a conclusion before it fades into the distance with a minute or so of quiet synth and guitar work.

Weirdly, when I look back at my description of "Moonsongs" here, it sounds terrible.  Vocal posturing, pretentious lyrics, "world music" influences -- aren't these things I usually complain about?  Well, yes they are, but Thinking Plague manages to pull it off admirably, due partially to their impeccable sense of timing, partially to Susanne Lewis's strong anti-symphonic tastes (not to mention the fact that she's simply a brilliant vocalist), and partially to the sheer strength and consistency of Mike Johnson's compositional vision.  "Moonsongs" is one of the best songs the band has released yet, and Moonsongs, the album, is nothing short of amazing.  If there's  anything bad I can say about this album, it's that it's not long enough. - Alex Temple [October 2001]

Click Here for Tracklist and Lineup Info

In This Life (1989)In This Life (1989)

One of the first phrases that comes up when Thinking Plague is mentioned on is "accessible RIO."  Composer and guitarist Mike Johnson's distaste for the term "RIO" notwithstanding, the description is fairly accurate, and nowhere is it more so than on this album.  While all the usual elements of Thinking Plague's sound -- constantly changing meters, dissonant harmonies, non-tonal pitch language -- are present on In This Life, the album is definitely warmer and friendlier than the rest of the band's output.  Rhythms are more fluid than in their earlier work -- sure, a song like "Lycanthrope" still switches between 5/4 and 4/4 every other measure, but the effect is strangely natural rather than aggressively jumpy.  The texture is also simpler: for the most part, the bombastic symphonics of In Extremis and the jerky heaviness of the first two albums are replaced by a more chambery texture, heavy on woodwinds and featuring a lot of acoustic and undistorted electric guitar playing. The arrangements are very deliberate; Johnson makes extensive use of the technique of punctuating a downbeat by removing rather than adding an instrument.  "Run Amok," for instance, opens as a bouncy, vaguely klezmer-ish tune for clarinet, piano and voice, but every other measure is underscored by a thud of heavy electric guitar, drums and baritone sax.  Elsewhere, synthesizers are used to emphasize certain sections: much of "Lycanthrope" is fleshed out by barely audible synth lines in the background, and the sudden, unexpected entrace of a huge pile of dissonant synth chords (think Gentle Giant's "Proclamation") two and a half minutes into "Love" is one of the most powerful moments on the album.

What really makes the album so listener-friendly, though, is Susanne Lewis.  Her background was not avant-prog but indie rock, and she has the warm, unaffected simplicity that would later become popular among bands like the Essex Green and Freezepop.  (In fact, she only does one note with vibrato on the entire album -- but I'll let you find that.  It's a killer.)  She's also a very good indie songwriter, as evidenced by her later band Hail; In This Life is a more collaborative effort than a lot of Plague, and here Lewis writes a good number of the vocal melodies.  While they certainly don't sound like indie (except for "Fountain of All Tears" and the slightly sardonic  spoken-word sections of "Love"), they're also catchier and more conventionally "melodic" than most of Johnson's melodies.  Rather than being convoluted and angular like In Extremis, many of the tunes here are at their core octatonic, modal, or even tonal -- although pure tonality is always thrown off by out-notes in some other instrument.

That's the "accessible" part.  As for the "RIO" part... yes, it's true that the term technically only refers to the eight bands that participated in the RIO festivals in the late 70s, but the influence of those bands is probably stronger here than only any other Plague release.  "Malaise" has some of the heavy starkness of the Art Bears, although Lewis's voice is nothing like Dagmar Krause's.  Parts of the album suggest late Henry Cow in their harmonic motion, and "Love" ends with a bit of circus music -- an homage to Samla?  But the centerpiece of the album is the astounding "Organism," which reminds me more than anythiing else of Aksak Maboul -- it's got hints of Middle Eastern music, repetetive percussion grooves, and even Fred Frith!  The song is another "percussive epic" like the title track of Moonsongs, but constructed differently -- more minimalist than maximalist.  It opens with a gradual but very intense polyrhythmic buildup, in which a chromatic 7/8 groove and 4/4 drumming are overlaid with increasingly noisy improvisation from Frith's guitar and Lawrence Haugseth's piano.  The middle section of the piece contains a beautiful passage that would later get ruined in In Extremis's "Les Études d'Organism," in which Susanne Lewis sings strangely evocative lyrics ("Droplet / Held between glass for platelet high or low") to an octatonic melody so compressed that when it leaps a fourth it feels like an octave.  Later, Drake's rather unorthodox violin playing and ethnic percussion give the song an Arabic flavor.  Halfway in, a brief passage with Drake, Johnson and Haugseth singing over heavy guitars gives way to a "breakdown" cadence played on junk.  The track ends with five and a half minutes of gradual buildup and release, the basic rhythm alternating measures of 4/4 and 5/4 as different types of percussion provide variations in timbre and intensity -- a bit like the ending of the Art Bears' "Moeris Dancing."

These RIO comparisons are, of course, not meant to suggest that In This Life is in any way derivative or lacking in creativity.  Indeed, its surreal, calm but tense beauty is unlike any other piece of music I know.  The RIO influence is strong, but it's tempered by the aforementioned Susanne Lewis DIY vibe, subtle hints of symphonic prog (particularly Gentle Giant and 70's Crimson) and the distinctive and instantly recognizable harmonic language of Mike Johnson.  The album is an astounding piece of work, and it would be an excellent choice either as an introduction to avant-prog (it was mine) or as a worthy companion for the RIO fan's Henry Cow and 5uu's albums.

Oh, right. Bonus tracks.  At the time this CD was released, it made sense to include tracks from the first two albums, which were out of print.  Now that Early Plague Years has been released, they're pretty superfluous, especially since this mix of "Moonsongs" is less energetic and thus less powerful than the original.  The contemplative lyricism of "Fountain of All Tears" makes a better ending anyway. - Alex Temple [January 2002]

Click Here for Tracklist and Lineup Info

In Extremis (1998)In Extremis (1998)

The first time I heard Thinking Plague was at NEARfest 2000, when I found them interesting in a novelty kind of way.  Being my first experience with the RIO sub-genre, I was pleasantly surprised by their somehow soothing and melodically inventive style.  I found myself closing my eyes and just feeling the music.. as well as dozing off a couple times during the set.  My first experience with this album didn't last too long.  I turned if off midway, and listened to the rest later.  The music was just a little to strange for me to get into.  However, I recently pulled it out again and have been listening incessantly, and each time I find myself getting more and more involved in it's wonderful collage of displaced melodies, churning rhythms and completely creative instrumentation.  The overarching feel is immense and dissonant, yet not as oppressive or difficult to listen to as I'd expected from a RIO group.  After sitting down with the album, the brilliant complexity and care of the arrangements really shines through.

"Dead Silence" is a magnificent opener, kicking off with a chugging guitar line and Deborah Perry's distinctive vocals.  Her voice is initially off-putting, as it has a tendency to jump from note to note in a seemingly illogical and atonal fashion, though it's remarkable how natural and pretty it actually sounds after getting used to it.  Another major treat is the cool "Les Etudes D'Organism", which actually features some semi-conventional "prog" melodies amongst it's chaotic carinval-from-hell like feel.  This is just a magnificently composed work, and I really wish I could see them live again after hearing this album.  Don't be scared off by the RIO label, this is simply truly progressive music that pushes boundaries.  Definitely on the cutting edge of the current progressive rock scene. - Greg Northrup [February 2001]

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