Man, I love music that isn’t afraid to smack you in the face with a crazy-hammer. You know, the kind of tunes you play at a party just to make your guests give you that look… and then a few minutes later ask if you wouldn't mind burning them a copy. The immortal Frank Zappa had that power, finding the beauty in pure weirdness, honing it to perfection with superior skills and unleashing it on an unprepared audience. I think I might have found some folks who have begun to tread the same dangerous path.
Hailing from France, self-described “Death Rock Cabaret” group Katzenjammer Kabarett mashes up their styles – a core of '80s-influenced goth/darkwave interwoven with threads of electro-punk, glam rock, even vaudeville, assembled with a diabolical sense of showmanship – and does it in such a schizophrenic way that it’s impossible to pin it to any particular genre. I consider this a good thing; challenging, but rewarding in the long run. And more importantly, it’s seriously creepy and sort of sexy at the same time… a fairly inviting combination, at least as far as I’m concerned. Then again, I’m sick like that.Slightly less experimental than their self-titled 2006 debut, Grand Guignol and Variétés is nevertheless one trippy outing, only occasionally dancing around the outer fringes of pop – and then only when they damn well feel like it. The crazy-quilt composition comes primarily from keyboardist Klischee and lyricist/guitarist Herr Katz (aka “HK”) who take the flamboyant styles of vintage lieder (19th century German story-songs), add a Dadaist sense of gleeful chaos, then sprinkle with glam showmanship and a dash of the early-‘80s post-punk nihilism you might expect from Joy Division or Siouxsie and the Banshees. The spicy concoction is then stirred vigorously by the guitar skills of one Mr. Guillotine and the theatrical but sensual vocal stylings of the quaintly-named (and quite easy on the eyes) Mary Komplikated.If this all sounds confusing, well… yeah, maybe it is. But if you hold on and go with it, you’ll find these kids aren’t just doing weird for weird’s sake… there’s a core of naughty fun driving this project, kinda like a noisy steam engine shaped like a giant sex toy. (Try to picture that just for a second. I’ll wait.) I don’t want to delve too deeply into the possible meaning behind the bizarre but often brilliant lyrics, for fear of killing the goose to get at the golden eggs. But I can try to explain how all the elements come together.Most of the twelve tracks open with a deceptively soothing intro, typically carried off by well-sampled baroque instruments – as in the opening cello strains of “Jack's Parade,” which suggests a much tamer outing than you'll eventually get. It's a chillingly effective conceit, setting the stage for Mary's silken vocals, set to a pulse-pounding, rolling synth, deep piano and suitably gothy guitar riffage. It's never repetitive, thanks to the intricacy contained within the hot-and-cold beat structures, and blackly humorous lyrics that never fail to unsettle and amuse... for example, “Hidden and Sick” tells the tale of a little boy's hide and seek that takes a seriously nasty turn, conveyed by excellent vocal harmonies that make turn its macabre imagery strangely beautiful.“Percy Has Returned” opts for an odd but catchy plucked-tone synth line fused to a detuned barroom piano like a deformed conjoined twin, and “Nothing But His” uses an even darker piano groove to set the stage for the tale of a man whose paranoid delusions literally begin to haunt him. Their twisted storytelling technique goes for broke with the crazed “At the Sunlight Sanitarium,” in which the band members act out several eccentric roles. Even the eerie blips and ambient groans that permeate “Once Eliot Turned Ugly in His Lover's Bed” are a perfect setting – along with Mary's spoken/sung vocals – helping to accentuate the EC Comics-meets-Henry-Miller tale of grotesque horror erotica.“Collage” and “Romance,” the album's closest-to-mainstream efforts, will take you right back to the Batcave-era '80s: the former with its Siouxsie-esque vocal delivery, and the latter for a bass line that's pure Bauhaus (note also the title “Wondered Colonel Killed Couple” is a riff on that legendary group's “Terror Couple Kill Colonel”). Closing cut “45” even hearkens to early Gary Numan (at his Pleasure Principle peak) with its buzzy sawtooth synths, albeit to a quirky be-bop beat. Throughout the record's 45 minutes, the mad scattering of styles is anchored by the consistent strength of the vocals and powerful keyboard work, with some unique, warm colors and razor-sharp accents provided by HK and Guillotine's guitars, and always memorable lyrics. There are enough wickedly witty moods and sonic textures coaxed forth by this talented quartet to accompany Michel Gondry's first horror film... that is, if he were of a mind to make one. If he heard this album, I'd suggest he might be inclined to do so.Grand Guignol and Variétés comes out on January 13th through Projekt Records. I recommend you make an appointment to get weird with them at once. In the meantime, check out some samples on their official site.