3 out of 5
Produced by: Bob Weston (Queen Hygiene II), Weasel Walter (Rough Day At the Orifice)
One’s reception to this compilation of AOR’s first two albums will likely be down to where you jumped on the bandwagon with the group: before or after Weasel Walter. Were you there in the early days, sweating in whatever cramped clubs where the first iteration of the group, with bassist Andrea Fiset, pumped out its dance punk jitters? Or did you join in when Skin Graft Records picked the team up for Soak the Saddle and Yahweh or the Highway?
Early purveyors of the late 90s / early 00s no-wave resurgence, Arab on Radar’s aural offenses – repeated, atonal, juxtaposed guitar licks; Eric Paul’s sex-obsessed lyrics and high-pitched talk-screech delivery – were initially married to a sense of rhythm, grounded by a funky bass line and a forward-looking danciness that would later be picked up and formalized into a full-on “scene” by groups like Radio 4 and the like. Which isn’t to suggest there’s a “sounds like” direct bridge between the two: AOR had the feet-shuffling momentum, but the sound was more Beefhearted weird and angular. This is well-represented on Queen Hygiene II, recorded with appreciative warmth by Bob Weston, pushing the move-yer-body agenda forward. Paul’s not yet in caterwaul mode, and Fiset’s bass adds a slinky groove to things. This does sort of reconnect with the direction of later AOR-adjacent projects like Chinese Stars, but at this early stage, the group still favored being fitful over singles and choruses; Queen Hygiene II has a lot of instantly grabbing moments – the run of its first three tracks is pretty phenomenal – but then things feel stretched for originality thereafter, hitting the same basic setup (a problem I did kind of have with some of Chinese Stars’ stuff as well, come to think of it.). And for those of us that came to the party via Saddle or Yahweh, it’s maybe not quite as caustic as it feels it could be.
…And so enter Rough Day at the Orifice: the amped up low end and disassembled drumming immediately show off a shift in the group’s sensibilities. As do the lyrics: Paul, though profane as ever, starts going weirder and more violently bizarre with things, as opposed to the more childish rants found in QHII’s lyric sheet. Not that it’s still not just out to offend to some extent, but you can start to sense the mania driving these things, and I’d say that’s felt in the music, as well: it’s driven; it’s not just a “sound” that’s reminiscent of a scene and its bands, but, suddenly, a movement that can only be described as AOR. Rough Day does lack the front-to-back seamlessness of subsequent albums with Weasel, though – the tracks here feel rather separately considered; you could mistake it for a singles comp. However, they’re pretty damn good singles, with riffs and blasts of backwardsness that can stack up alongside the greats on their (at this point) forthcoming albums.
But given the reviews I’ve read for this, which tend to highlight Queen Hygiene over Rough Day, I’d again underline that I’m guessing opinions will shift to or fro depending on which “version” of AOR you dig. And if it ain’t obvious, I picked up Yahweh or the Highway as my intro to the band.
31G did a nice job with the reissue: it seems we’re getting full reprints of the liner notes from both releases, printed on the flipsides of one foldout liner sheet. It’s not the AOR album I return to most often, but I do like going back to it on occasion to hear, in one sitting, the evolution the group went through, formalizing the ideas and sounds that went into what I consider to be two pretty classic no-wave discs.