The first piece of music I remember hearing by JG Thirlwell was “DI1-9026” from 1985’s Nail album, which deliriously skewers the Charles Manson mythology. I found it hilarious. “Throne of Agony” and “Descent into the Inferno” were the next tracks from Nail that grabbed me, two bleakly comic tales about depraved protagonists relentlessly resigned to their infernal fates. The music, a mixture of 1940s big band sounds punctuated by explosive and percussive synthesizers, was catchy as hell and further enhanced by Thirlwell’s deep growls and swoonworthy crooning.
WTUL, Tulane University’s college radio station in New Orleans, is definitely responsible for what happened next. After they played these songs on the radio on repeat throughout the year, I went to Toxic Shock records and bought my own vinyl copy of Nail. The purchase of this album, credited to Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel (one of Thirlwell’s innumerably clever plays on words), did not sit well with my mother, who warned me not to play it on the living room stereo. So I stayed in my room and devoured it.
When I got to “Enter the Exterminator” and “Pigswill” I was less amused and more alarmed. The former is sung from the point of view of concentration camp victims desperate to be put out of their misery, while the latter is on a whole other level of transgression, a fevered tale of murder and menstruation with a repeated refrain of “DESTROY ALL GIRLS” that thoroughly upset me. This was by far the most fucked up music I’d ever heard.
JG Thirlwell has been known by a variety of identities – Foetus, Clint Ruin, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia – each representing a different part of a musical persona who still continues to thrill and sometimes terrify. Less concerned with specific genre trappings like vampires, ghosts, zombies, and other ghouls, his music evokes rather than explains, like many of the best horror films.
After Nail, the collective known as Steroid Maximus (the album Gondwanaland!) was the next Thirlwell project to assault my ears, and despite a lack of lyrics, it was still disquieting. The four-part opus “The Bowel of Beelzebub” boasts the bombastic orchestral touches for which Thirlwell has become known, but in the fourth movement, “Crawling Goliath,” the sounds of heartbeats, flatlining, and orgasms are combined with lurching bass and spidery synths and finished off with a scary scream queen flourish. “I Will Love You Always (Wild Irish Rose)” samples a waterlogged, repetitive version of the titular song and is backed by a stuttering drumbeat and intermittent chimes of doom. This is not an album to fall asleep to, unless you like having vivid nightmares.
In 1992, I picked up the twisted double live CD Male, which served as my introduction to a few of the more perverse tunes in the Thirlwell oeuvre, such as “English Faggot/Nothin’ Man” (from 1988’s Thaw album), a composition sung from the point of view of a stalker that culminates with squealing pigs and the screamed refrain of “I know where you live! I know where you’re hiding!” Rather than a tender greeting, the sickening stance of “Honey, I’m Home” resembles a pernicious threat, while “Someone Drowned in My Pool” puts a deeply disturbing spin on the police procedural cliché of “she was alive when I left her” by throwing an unexpected pregnancy into the mix.
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that I finally acquired a copy of Thaw when it was reissued on CD. It’s even more unhinged than Nail, with the shrieking “Don’t Hide It, Provide It” starting things off, followed by the instrumental “Asbestos,” a track that sounds like “A Night In A Haunted House” if it were actually scary. The album closes with “A Prayer for My Death,” seven minutes of unflinching nihilism that contains possibly the most hook-filled plea for sweet release ever recorded.
A reissued compilation of various singles and B-sides, 1989’s Sink contains a slew of spooky tracks from the maestro of malevolence, several of them instrumentals. “Diabolus in Musica” utilizes the augmented fourth, or the tritone, a series of notes that was referred to as “the Devil’s music” in medieval times. Satan is all over the place on Sink, including “Lilith,” which incorporates Bernard Hermann-like strings, dripping water, and Gregorian chants to create an underworldly atmosphere, and the cheeky “Baphomet,” a spoof of subliminal messaging in music, including phrases like “Turn me on, dead man” and “Number 9” (The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”) as well as “My sweet Satan” (Led Zep’s “Stairway to Heaven”).
In 1991, Thirlwell, along with Lydia Lunch, recorded a terrific cover of one of the creepiest songs ever written, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” but it was more of an homage than an attempt to outdo the original. More frightening are two songs about real-life murderers released around the same time period.
The first comes from the 1987 Wiseblood release Dirtdish, a project that consisted of Thirlwell and Roli Mosimann of Swans. “Where Evil Dwells (0-0)” is a violent vision of teenaged Ricky Kasso, Long Island’s “Acid King” who murdered former classmate Gary Lauwers over stolen drugs and supposedly forced him to “Say You Love Satan” before he stabbed him to death. The 1992 Foetus, Inc. single “Butterfly Potion” was about serial killer Joseph Kallinger, profiled in Flora Rheta Schreiber’s unforgettably ghastly 1983 book The Shoemaker. It’s an exceedingly evil-sounding song that lyrically references many of the specific details of Kallinger’s warped mentality and murderous actions.
It’s difficult to imagine that someone as fiercely iconoclastic as JG Thirlwell would ever have signed to a major label, but that’s exactly what happened in 1995, when Gash was released by Sony/Columbia. Even more viscerally violent than Thaw, Gash is the sound of a psyche in crisis, a soul tormented by the demons of the pit. Yet, amongst devastating tracks like “Downfall” and “Steal Your Life Away,” Thirlwell injects humor into the proceedings: “Take It Outside, Godboy” is an intense slab of sound whose title is derived from an episode of The Simpsons.
Thirlwell returned with Flow in 2001. It was a big departure from Gash, although it’s a vital piece of work, with tracks like “Mandelay,” “Suspect,” and “Kreibabe” providing many of its unpleasant pleasures. It’s an album that represents a bridge between the songs that most people associate with Thirlwell and the somewhat more subtle, but still substantially unsettling music for which he is currently known. While several of Thirlwell’s best-known recordings have revolved around specific people or feel like the first person narratives of film noir or pulp fiction characters (“Bedrock,” for example), with his more recent releases, the line between the personal and universal has become blurred and ultimately, more profoundly monstrous.
Love is an ironic title for the 2005 Foetus album that is anything but warm and fuzzy. Dominated by the chilling tone of the harpsichord, it opens with “(Not Adam),” which is like part two of “Someone Drowned In My Pool,” but decidedly more hysterical. This is the flipside of love, and like the tattoos on Robert Mitchum’s fingers in The Night of the Hunter, you can’t have one without the other.
One of Thirlwell’s frequent references to David Bowie, “Aladdin Reverse” is a funhouse mirror version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story which is already significantly warped. “Don’t Want Me Anymore” is genuinely ghostly, so vivid in its portrayal of decrepit desire that you can fairly see the spectral beings in the room, while “Blessed Evening” feels like the prelude to something grisly. “Pareidolia” presents, in uncomfortable detail, along with eerie violins, the symptoms of a psychological condition in which the mind perceives a pattern where none exists.
Every Foetus release since Gash has been accompanied a year or two later by an interim album, containing unreleased tracks and other ephemera. 2011’s Damp features one of the more tragic and heartbreaking songs in the Foetus oeuvre, “Chimera,” which borrows a melody from Pino Donaggio’s score for Carrie and features deeply personal lyrics, something which I would not have imagined possible when I first heard “Pigswill.” This is horror of a different kind; it’s naked, quivering emotion.
The last Foetus album proper, 2010’s Hide, is an apocalyptic vision, culminating in “O Putrid Sun,” one of the most intensely ominous yet joyous songs I’ve ever heard. That album’s companion piece, Soak, came out in 2013 and “Alabaster,” “Spat,” and “Mesmerin” reveal that Thirlwell is not resting on his laurels; these songs are just as powerfully sinister as anything he’s released thus far.
Since the dawn of this new millennium, Thirlwell has also released music via other pseudonyms (Manorexia and Baby Zizanie), composed the score for a film called The Blue Eyes, and continues to score The Venture Bros. for Adult Swim, which begins its sixth season in 2016. He also continues to perform live in various capacities around the world and shows no sign of slowing down.
I have said it before but I’ll say it again: where JG Thirlwell is concerned, there is no rest for the wicked. And thank the Dark Gods for that.