Hamster Theatre

The Public Execution of Mister Personality/Quasi Day Room

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Even in a world where any musical style can crop up anywhere, it's a bit surprising that this band is from Boulder, Colorado. Hamster Theatre sound like they were jamming with the likes of Lars Hollmer, Momo Rossel, or Guigou Chenevier during their formative years -- which would place them in Sweden, Switzerland, or France, not someplace in the U.S.A. Then again, Hamster driving force accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Dave Willey took a trip to the Continent one day and brought some influences back to Boulder with him, and the North American continent is better for it. That helps explain how Hamster Theatre wound up sounding like they do, that plus the likelihood that the musicians' record collections tip more toward European folk, modern composition, Roma jazz, circus and cartoon music, and various Rock in Opposition bands than toward artists of a more commercial pop/rock persuasion. Regardless of inspirational sources, circa the early to mid-2000s no other American band was quite like Hamster Theatre. In August 2002 the Hamsters brought their show to the Progman Cometh festival in Seattle, and thanks to Cuneiform's 2006 release of the group's two-CD The Public Execution of Mister Personality/Quasi Day Room, home listeners could experience the music that led to jaws dropping all around Seattle's Moore Theatre when the rodents hit the stage. Close to the complete show, expertly mixed and mastered by Bob Drake, is featured on this package's Quasi Day Room disc, preceded by the 13-track Mister Personality studio disc, again with Drake's sonic imprimatur in evidence throughout. The Mister Personality track titles suggest an impenetrable in-joke (e.g., "Love Theme from 'All Clytemestra on the Western Front'"), but the music -- with an immediacy and cohesive band-like flow despite overdubbing and track-to-track personnel changes -- is easily appreciated by anyone who doesn't flee in terror from a musical challenge. Mister Personality has the complexity and technical skill of prog rock and includes occasional startling intrusions of abrasive textures and experimental noise, but is warmed considerably by Willey's accordion often in the center of the musical swirl, not to mention an appealing European folk melodicism mixed with a classicist's sense of composition.

Willey, keyboardist/trombonist Jon Stubbs, reedman Mark Harris, guitarist Mike Johnson, and drummer Raoul Rossiter (with bassist Matt Spencer and violist Emily Bowman on one track each) created something a bit darker in tone here than 2001's Cuneiform label debut Carnival Detournement, at times seeming to draw inspiration from Henry Cow's instrumental depictions of capitalist nightmares on 1979's Western Culture. "La Sacre d'Merde" begins in Leg End territory but soon recalls the ominousness of Present as Johnson draws long searing guitar lines à la Roger Trigaux across Willey's multi-layered keyboard ostinatos. Yet the moments of dark drama are leavened by an appealing folk-classical touch and instrumentation that includes "Jon's homemade fretless banjo," bells, marimba, and ukulele. There is subtle beauty and melodiousness, too, exemplified by Harris' moody clarinet, very much in the spirit of Aksak Maboul's Marc Hollander on the lovely but still-skewed "Phoenix." And on "Reddy 4 Luv," the Hamsters sound like avant-proggers out for a good time on a Caribbean beach. The live disc begins with 90 seconds of Drake's very creative solution to technical difficulties that prevented the beginning of the first piece, "Bean Dance," from being recorded, and the listener is then treated to a rousing, dynamic, and sometimes mysterious and beautiful musical trip, as Willey, Stubbs, Harris, Johnson, Rossiter, and bassist Brian McDougall roll out a diverse program drawing from Carnival, the Hamsters' 1998 independent release Siege on Hamburger City, and Willey's 1995 solo Songs from the Hamster Theatre. On a lovely piece like "Jeanne-Marie," wistfulness and delicacy are blended with the power of rock in a way that recalls Lars Hollmer at his best. Hamster Theatre remain unpredictable throughout, though, as the band segues from the Zappa-meets-dub of "Vermilion Hue Over Lake Lausanne" through the cabaret waltz of "Tick Fever" to the defiantly uncategorizable multi-sectioned "Ving Vang," with its subdued theremin-meets-accordion intro leading into a fractured-tempo car-chase soundtrack. No wonder the Hamsters wound up at or near the top of so many Progman Cometh best-of-festival lists. Comparable to Miriodor's Parade + Live at NEARfest, Hamster Theatre's The Public Execution of Mister Personality/Quasi Day Room is a landmark two-disc studio/live set proving that the European RIO-based sounds of the '70s and '80s can take root and sprout up almost anywhere, even in the post-millennial Rocky Mountain State.

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