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Pengo - A Nervous Splendor

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Artist: Pengo

Album: A Nervous Splendor

Label: Haoma

Review date: Jun. 26, 2003

Apocalypse Now: Luxe & Reduxe

Pengo are a dark-bright beacon of madness in the subterranean swamp of psychedelic junk collectors and crummy mystics scavenging the wreckage of our ongoing cultural meltdown. The web of like-minded misfits stretches to Brooklyn, to Montreal, to Sun City, Arizona, to Tokyo, and now, thanks to Pengo, there’s another pin on the map in Rochester, New York. Rochester fancies itself “the Flower City,” but that’s all just a half-truth, a cover. Due to the city’s many flour mills, somebody long ago decided to swap homonyms and the name (and all of its attendant sunny promise) understandably stuck. This is a minor point, but it is a pertinent one – as Pengo proclaim on the back of their new record sleeve, “there is faith that is actually denial and there is denial that is actually faith.” The Rochester trio (Jason Finkbeiner, John Schoen, and Joe Tunis – all very active in a host of other musical projects) view their mission as “reliving the bad vibes of the post love generation and the failed utopia that became the 1970s and now.” In other words, in 2003, they’ve taken it upon themselves to reassert the ’70s then-reassertion that we’ve all just been fooling ourselves, and in order to prove it you’ve got to play the dream and the nightmare simultaneously.

The lp-only A Nervous Splendor is the trio’s second full-length, and first for their Haoma Recordings imprint. It sounds very little like their first record, which is as much of a trademark as the band cares to possess. Live shows are equally unpredictable, so it’s impossible to know whether a Pengo concert will consist of cheesy love songs and fake blood, broken turntables playing Metal Machine Music, or band members reading the newspaper aloud for nearly an hour (shows 2/13/99, 10/4/01, and 1/8/00 respectively). For their first record – on band member Tunis’ fantastic Carbon label – Pengo penned a score to the first 31 minutes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain. With A Nervous Splendor they’re tumbling down from their trip, and things are funny, violent, bleak, and wondrous.

The first side sticks its trowel into the same fertile, black earth as primitivist/psych/eastern/drone/whatever collectives like NNCK and Sunburned Hand of the Man. Bells tinkle, a kazoo-like banshee wails, cymbals crash irregularly, and Pengo strum for the high heavens. Eventually the band settles into a cyclical groove, and a field recording of a born-again Christian’s (obviously well-rehearsed) conversion testimony floats over the proceedings. The man’s voice sounds tired and lethargic, so, mid-sentence, Pengo kick it up a few RPMs. The tinny, racing monologue now sounds a bit like Richie Cunningham on a trip that’s bound to end badly – its balance of frenzy and serene certitude communicates an aura of transcendence and hysteria coupled perfectly. “The Ill Fitting Tourniquet” is a dark, swampy, and repetitive dirge that sounds like one of Ben Chasny’s deeper meditations. Its thunderous, vibrating rumble eventually culminates in a maddening banjo stomp, “The Miraculous Gimp Returns From the Moon.” There’s lots of hissy incantation, hand-clapping, trilling flute sounds, and a rasping satanic presence reminiscent of the Sun City Girls’ Dante’s Disneyland Inferno. A barely intelligible answering machine message, a seven-year old’s multiple-choice quiz about Pokémon, is like the gatekeeper’s riddle in some epic quest narrative.

The specter that haunts A Nervous Splendor, and all of the pomp and regalia of the record sleeve’s imagery, is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The entire b-side, “What do you mean, Idi Amin?” is a sonic chronicling of the ’60s boundless promise crashing and burning in the wake of Amin’s barbaric reign from 1971 – 1979, in which half a million Ugandans were brutally slaughtered. Along with Carbon records regular Nuuj, Pengo paddle into Amin’s (and the 1970s…and the 2000s) heart of darkness. Drums thunder, sludgy guitars moan, birds chirp from the jungle trees, and a free jazz saxophone squawks. You almost yearn to hear Richie Cunningham return again, quaking in dread and soaked with terror. Instead, Amin’s voice emerges, calmly recounting his own Horatio Alger story of rising from humble peasant beginnings to become the powerful murderer of hundreds of thousands. Nearly ten minutes of a Red Crayola-worthy Free Form Freakout promptly ensue before Amin returns to share an aphorism worthy of the Pokémon answering machine message: “The people love me very much. The reason I am very popular is because I always speak the truth and if I don’t have anything to tell them I keep quiet.” A Nervous Splendor ends, and the sound of the needle lifting will creep you right out.

By Nathan Hogan

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