Written by: John Short
Often when I encounter people who dislike the mainstream alternative rock scene of the 1990s, I will point them to one of several off-the-beaten path bands that became popular during the early part (pre-1996) of the decade, and Primus is always one of the first that I mention. One of the most successful of a large group of left-of-center bands who broke into the mainstream concurrently with the grunge/alternative rock boom of the 1990s, Primus are in my opinion nothing short of one of the greatest bands to emerge out of that cynical, flannel clad decade.
While originating in the California funk-metal scene of the late 80s, Les Claypool and cohorts presented a radically different take on the genre then the girl-crazy opiate-addled whiteboy-funk offered up by contemporaries such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and early Faith No More. The music offered on the first two Primus albums is essentially funk metal turned sideways, with a heavy helping of weirdness for flavouring, while psychedelic and progressive rock influences become increasingly apparent on Pork Soda and Tales From The Punchbowl, before being toned down massively for the more rootsy and retro-rock Brown album and the highly commercial and Nu-metal tinged Antipop. The band effectively broke up in 2000, and although they reconvened with the original drummer Tim Alexander for an EP in 2003 and toured throughout the decade, it would be over a decade before Primus would release a comeback album in 2011 and a cover of the Willy Wonka Soundtrack in 2014.
With the slobbering adulation out of the way, I will address some of the more obvious faults of this band. Primus are not particularly original: they borrow heavily from both Frank Zappa and the Residents in their comedic zaniness, while owing an obvious debt to earlier funk and thrash metal acts (indeed, Les Claypool went to high school with Kirk Hammett and auditioned for Cliff Burton’s spot in Metallica following the latter’s tragic death in 1986) Like many other 90s bands Primus do not create something new so much as synthesize what has come before into a chimeric sound that is novel and interesting, but nonetheless may not satisfy those who place a high premium on originality in music.
Primus (and indeed any project that Les Claypool is fronting) are not particularly diverse: get used to funk metal, sea shanties, and bass-heavy prog with this band, because they really don’t do much else, and barring a few significant detours (Pork Soda, Brown Album, Antipop) the majority of Primus’s recorded output sounds very similar.
With that said, if one can accept these faults Primus are an extremely rewarding group. The instrumental prowess of the band is very high, while the often nonsensical lyrics and themes of the band (Pigs, Fish, cheese, etc) provide amusement for the inner child/immature teenager in all of us. In short, this is just a fun band, and one that I highly recommend to anyone who has a taste for humor and wackiness in their music.