At six discs and over three hours of ‘new’ material, there is no doubting that The Residents’ reissue programme’s latest instalment is an abject lesson in how to both treat your audience and your catalogue with reverence. Now literally more than a trilogy and nearer a saga, the project was a result of both ambition and a frustration at the lack of wide-spread critical and commercial success with their previous releases – Eskimo (despite nomination, it didn’t win a Grammy) and The Commercial Album – as well as the arrival of the first affordable sampler. The result was both an unmitigated disaster and an artistic triumph, depending on which band member you were or what day of the week it was.
It’s 1981 and Reagan rules the world. Mark of the Mole, the first of the Mole releases, has the kind of genuine anger and bitterness that many bands of the time had pouring out of their music, whether it be Dead Kennedys or Grandmaster Flash. With good reason, it’s still not an album that stands up well to its constituent tracks being listened to in isolation. No less angular than their earlier work and with no particular concession to making the strength of the theme palatable for a mass audience, it’s in its entirety that Mark of the Mole still hits the spot. It’s the sound of The Residents playing as Rome is burning.
Always intended as a multi-release project, Mark of the Mole introduces the protagonists, the Mohelmot – a race of industrious, cloaked subterranean beings forced to flee their caves after a natural disaster. Seeking sanctuary, the surviving population of malformed ‘Mole’ refugees reach the coastal home of the Chubs, a self-satisfied people living for pleasure alone. Happy to grant them residence in return for their cheap labour, they exist peacefully, the Mole’s religious beliefs informing them that serving is in the best interests of all, the Chubs happy to sit back and enjoy the finer things in life. Inevitably, all doesn’t go swimmingly in the long-term. The Moles are first mocked for their servility and unattractiveness, then viewed as potential thieves and rapists. When a Chub scientist invents a machine that does the work the Moles are employed to do far more efficiently (i.e. cheaply), tensions reach breaking point and war ensues. Peace comes at a price with the Moles now deemed the lowest of the low and the Mohelmot culture and language banned. No parallels there then.
The transition from the Mole’s world into the land of the Chubs in the fourth movement, Another Land, is a harrowing listen, as much news report and documentary footage as musical. That the album has its own narrator of sorts, the radio announcer (Penn Jillette), should not lull you into thinking Mark of the Mole is a War of the Worlds experience. It’s an affecting listen but one you’d not recommend for motorway driving. As with the second two thirds of the project, it now features added live tracks.
This was never intended as a stand-alone piece and the second release, The Tunes of Two Cities is viewed as a prequel, though more accurately it’s a look at the two communities in isolation, a peek at what their everyday lives looked like. The Chub’s world is revealed to be filled with the kind of 1920’s jazz decadence that thrilled Americans of a certain type. Parping Muzak twists on In the Mood (Smack Your Lips (Clap Your Teeth), as it’s brilliantly titled) and Stan Kenton (Mousetrap) – frivolous, humorous and self-involved. Meanwhile, the Moles tracks are industrial and monotonous, the drilling and hammering of drones interspersed with chanting and solemn tones. It’s not a life-changing piece of satire, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable. By the track Song of the Wild, the Chub’s jazz has become piercing and oddly affecting, rather like a swan song. This is balanced by the Moles’ The Evil Disposer, now more structured, angrier and energetic.
Prominently featuring the EM-U Emulator, the first commercially available, The Tunes of Two Cities is one of the band’s most successful works, allowing the music to do the talking with only one track featuring any lyrics, the devastating Kenton-reworking, Happy Home. Extras come in the form of Open Up, Anvil Forest and Scent of Mint, three tracks which have now long been available, plus rehearsal tracks and three tracks performed live in the studio at the time (1982).
By 1985, the band were ready to release the next part of the trilogy – part four. Part three was jettisoned, as were parts five and six. Mythology, incompetence or marketing, The Big Bubble picks up the story from Mark of the Mole and after the conclusion of their stage show. Moles still exist uneasily alongside the Chubs and have even interbred, creating a race known as ‘Cross’. A political movement founded by The Moles, The Zinkenites, is campaigning to reintroduce the Mohelmot’s language and beliefs and found an independent state. Led by a second generation Cross, Kula Bocca, The Zinkenites see an opportunity to stir up some sympathy for their cause by having Ramsey, the lead singer for a band called The Big Bubble who plays at their rallies to be ‘arrested’. As part of their underground work they ‘free’ Ramsey from prison, enlisting the help of a Chub record label owner to release the band’s debut album to rapturous acclaim.
The final official part of the Mole cycle is a disappointment in some ways. Often unintelligible, both musically and lyrically, it does feel like the audience has missed a significant part of the narrative which would endear us to at least one faction of the Chubs/Mohelmots/Cross, yet we feel quite detached from all of them. Doubtless, this is at least partly intentional – the divide between the three groups becoming increasingly blurred, The Big Bubble pedalling a hybrid of jazz-lite and spastic rhythms which does little to suggest a happy ending for any of those concerned. Whether the band are mocking or employing deliberately naïve techniques to convey the conclusion of the story, it certainly leaves you feeling something… mostly dissatisfied.
As has now been revealed, the album cover, featuring the foursome who make up Big Bubble, are not The Residents sans disguise. Looking both alarming and alarmed, they comprise hired actors and a lucky German fan in the right place at the right time. If this had been the last album the band had ever released, it would be almost cruelly poignant, and released in an age when there was no telling what was to happen next, to most fans it must have felt as though the band had pulled away its final tablecloth. We can only guess what the proposed concluding two parts would have consisted of.
The extras include Jingle Bell, a track of undecided heritage but thought to be another of Big Bubble’s single releases. It’s got an epic feel to it, slightly more cohesive than much of the main album. Likewise, an Untitled track, exhibiting a much more obvious Mole influence, is an intriguing listen, more satisfying than some of the tracks which actually made the cut. Perhaps the relative lack of dissonance went against it as it offers a fairly structured, if dramatic construction. Demos and live tracks offer an unusually revealing insight into the band’s real intentions for the album, the a cappella tracks in particular, as the now accepted understanding is that many, if not all the tracks, were built around their vocals rather than their standard approach of ‘music comes first’.
These albums would only tell some of The Mole Saga‘s story if it weren’t accompanied by at least some examples of The Residents performing it in a live setting. Duly, this set covers this admirably across two discs: the first, a combination of two shows at the Roxy in Los Angeles on October 30th 1982, with Penn Jillette on MC duties; the second, the concluding date in Washington DC with their manager Bill Gerber on narration and both Penn and half their usual stage equipment elsewhere. Both are exceptional and fascinating documents of their extraordinarily ambitious concept, one which actually conveys their intentions far better than the studio albums.
The Roxy shows are slick, despite the projected chaos from the stage. Jillette is increasingly dismissive of the audience (“how many of you are actually following the plot?”) and his diatribes become more and more unhinged. The music itself is a well-chosen mix of tracks from Mark of the Mole and Tunes of Two Cities, losing nothing by omitting part four. The Washington date is another matter entirely, a furious performance which really drives home the fundamental themes which often threatened to be diluted by over-egging the pudding. A rendition of The Star Spangled Banner offers a perfect sign off for a project which wowed critics in the live arena but haemorrhaged money at a ruinous rate.
The final disc, alas, does not pull any rabbits out of sleeves to reveal the lost segments of the Mole trilogy, though odd pieces most likely once attempted to expand the story. The 25-minute opener combines some of the original albums’ industrial Mole themes into one movement, stripping away the vocals and leaving the otherworldly zings and thrums the dance around uninhibited. It’s telling that this actually translates better in terms of the listener’s understanding than the originals to a large extent. At this stage it seems inconceivable that any more archaeology will unearth elements of the lost third, fifth and sixth parts, but perhaps its fractured existence is exactly the turmoil the project demanded. This is not a collection of the best music by The Residents but it is one of their best realised concepts, a tale necessary to be told by some of the most extraordinary imaginations to have graced recorded music.