Every once in a blue moon, an album reminds you of a parallel universe. My college years were a numbing sprawl of novels and theorems, myriad logic systems and symbol maps, tortuous roads through the human psyche. Little wonder, then, that post-punk dominated my horizon in this time. Little wonder, either, that I’ve since drifted away, choked as I was then in such an existential fog that I couldn’t even finish the creative writing program. As is, I don’t know if I’ll ever sit through another Pere Ubu or Fall album with the same intellectual acuity, with the byroads and road signs now hazy outlines instead of the everyday commute.
But now, this BKGD (pronounced ‘Background’) tape lifts the fog, through sheer light and brazen nonsense. From every angle, a crooked grin in a new color smiles back, and not one shade compliments the other. Rhythms bounce and rattle like clockwork from another civilization, or perhaps just a clock shattering the sound barrier. Vocalist Tony Gary weaves through the ruckus with the same animated gestures as a younger Mark E. Smith. And yet, as garish and alien as these twisting vignettes might seem, absurdity cuts a clear path through it all, from the prosaic to the otherworldly, so that no mystery separates the two. It’s a deceptively meaty tape (especially given the blitzkrieg running time, just under 20 minutes), and I’m still chewing on every flavor that BKGD have to offer.
The band cleaves the route from mundane to sublime from the outset via the disjointed funk of “Cleaning a Room.” When asked if they talk to God, Gray replies, “Yeah,” with an implied “Duh, who doesn’t?” They then counter that question with “But do your gods talk to you? They never do.” This exchange — and the following proposition, that the deities would only boss us around like snooty parents if they did deign to reply — reduces the concept of the creator to just that… a concept.
As the band kick away logic and sanctity, Background morphs into a crazy carnival over the ruins of concepts. The subterranean, Zappa-esque “Tongueless World” smears at least three levels of consciousness within a hemorrhage of sax squawking; “Into the Wall” careens through redemption in a bloody sugar rush. But the magnum opus of deconstruction lies halfway in, with the computer-voiced collage “God.” There, BKGD checked out the Supreme Being on Google and mashed the results together, merging questions and facts with the throwaway phrases that litter the Internet: In the beginning, there’s a place we’ve tried to cover up with searches related to God. Of course the monologue that follows is hilarious, but “God” also demonstrates how the Internet’s vast info matrix can mangle even the most revered of subjects into an indiscernible stew of words, and stupefy rather than enlighten.
All computers and bludgeoning tools aside, though, BKGD’s most potent wrecking ball to the institution of concepts lies in Tony Gary. Remarkably androgynous in their delivery, the singer snarls and smirks, weighing each word with wit. Even in utterly meaningless salvos like “Zeeko” and “Yes,” nonsense is transfigured into cartoon speech bubbles of expression, with fonts and colors that transcend language alone.
No doubt, Background is a boldly zany debut, one that dares to defy the limits of constructs and comfort. I’m only so at ease here, because this noodle pile of a road map leads me back to an interstate I’m familiar with — the highway to the absurd. Less seasoned drivers might wrestle with the complex directions. But you know what? As long as you don’t lose yourself completely in fog, a little wrestling always does a mind good. And now that I’ve found my bearings again, I can’t wait to see where BKGD steer me next. Here’s hoping this is just the first leg of a long, strange journey.
BKGD will perform tomorrow night at 529 alongside Suffer Dragon, BIG DED, B|_ank, and Salsa Chest. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $7. 21+ to enter.