Review of Primus & the Chocolate Factory (with the Fungi Ensemble) Album by Primus

Reviewing a Primus album is always a daunting task. Like a child's artwork, it seems that any music designed to inflict such joy should be immune from the critic's gaze. Let's not dwell on the weirdness of the latest release from California's funk metal trio (now reincorporating original drummer Tim Alexander) - it's a tag that they've long worn, like a pair of musty, yet loveable slippers. So hard-wired are eccentricity and originality within the group that after 2011's 'Green Naugahyde' they'd pretty much reached the edge of the map - but Primus wasn't done.

Primus Primus & the Chocolate Factory (with the Fungi Ensemble) Album

As far as musical pairings go, Primus paying tribute to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a masterstroke, first heard last New Year's Eve in Oakland (selling their own branded chocolate bars). Here, the rockers recruit a little cinematic assistance from the Fungi Ensemble: Critters Buggin percussionist Mike Dillon and Frog Brigade cellist Sam Bass.

Singer and bassist Les Claypool admits that 1971's disturbing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder's unsettling performance, and haunting soundtrack played a key role in his own musical beginnings.

The lavish tribute has all the catchiness and darkness of the original soundtrack, shaken up with the usual pugnacious bass riffs, distorted guitar and Claypool's frog croak vocals - he assumes each of Roald Dahl's cautionary tale's characters, from Mrs Bucket, to the Oompa Loompas and even Violet Beauregard.

Opener 'Hello Wonkites' is a foreboding prelude to the album's centrepiece, 'Pure Imagination', which may have sounded romantic in Mel Stuart's Technicolor, but instantly becomes dystopian and nightmarish in the twisted hands of Claypool's orchestra of gloom, thanks to plodding bass, ticking drums, a trickling marimba solo, and the frantic, baritone urge: "if you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it."

At times, the union feel unexpectedly, yet unquestionably harmonious - like peanut butter and jam - but often gives way to such silliness that it's hard to stay fully immersed. The once poignant and longing 'Cheer Up Charlie' sounds more like a performance by The Muppets choir with its cartoonish cackles and Kermit-esque vocals, while the titular 'Candy Man' is less harmless confectioner and more growling child-catcher with a fetish for marimbas. The movie's terrifying boat scene gets under the skin of the viewer regardless of age, and the band play up to this with a mechanic chugging rhythm, more evil laughing, and demented shouts that stop short before becoming truly haunting. The second half sees the band playing around with four variations of the movie's iconic 'Oompa Loompa' song before tacking on a further 'Pure Imagination' reference during the 'Farewell Wonkites' coda.

Claypool is clearly comfy in the grape-coloured tailcoat and top hat, and the many sinister undercurrents of the kids' tale lend well to the Primus aesthetic without asking too great a leap for the stalwart fan. Newcomers are likely to scratch their heads and dismiss the album as a bit of experimental frippery, but it looks like the Wonka guise is here to stay. It's well known that Dahl disapproved of the film and Primus & the Chocolate Factory could be seen as an effort to appease the author's memory, but it's not clear that this ultra-surreal passion project is supposed to be enjoyed.


Lauren James

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