Art in Paradise: Gastric Cataclysm

Examine the current challenges faced by musicians, and you’ll find an over-arching issue that threatens to doom the whole enterprise of music-making: these several decades since the beginning of rock and roll have seriously depleted the conglomerations of words available to craft band names.

The easy ones were gone long ago. Everything animal, vegetable and mineral has been mined. It’s a problem that came to light fairly early—one can only imagine the weeping, wailing and poor decision-making that led to the Guess Who embracing their near miss of The Who, or to The Celibate Rifles trying to remake the much better name Sex Pistols.

The problem has progressed to intolerable levels. These days, band names are seldom mediocre. They are more often extraordinarily clever or total failures. This week, we examine some spectacular failures.

In coming up with candidates ripe for critique, a second problem comes to light. To wit—is it possible to separate the poor quality of a band’s music from its name? Does a bad band ruin even a great name? Mysteries abound.

It’s clear that a good band can overcome a bad name. If you’ve never heard of the band, you’d think Sonic Youth was some sort of YMCA glee club. But that group’s inimitable brand of noisemaking is so highly distinctive that such associations eventually fade.

More often, though, it seems impossible for even spectacular, innovative music to overcome the syllabic glop that taints it from word one. Take, for instance, Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel. Not, it’s safe to say, an act with designs on the Top 40. And in the same camp as that ’80s moniker, you’ll now find the Bloodvomits. It’s hard not to imagine Butthead snivelling in adolescent joy, imagining some poor sod of a music journalist opening another email and thinking of gastric cataclysm (which, come to think of it, is a slight improvement on that band name). This is the stuff that led to the development of email filters.

Offensive is comparatively easy, of course. These days, you’ll also find names of breathtaking redundancy. Exhibit A: Murder by Death. Must have been the result of a thunderclap of pure anti-genius of a depth unseen since a bunch of hairspray hoarders came up with Def Leppard. Makes you wonder what the other leading candidates were—Drunk by Alcohol? Poisoning by Poison? And okay, yes, there’s a poorly received, little-seen 1976 comedy film by that name—but that was 36 years ago, presumably long before the arrival on the planet of many of the band’s fans.

More subtle, but in the end more maddening yet, may be the Toronto outfit Broken Social Scene. Because, well, what could it mean? Nothing, that’s what. It sounds kind of deep, but then again, it actually isn’t. It also bears noting that the band released an album called You Forgot It in People. And you thought Canadians spoke English.

Over in what sounds like the hippie camp, somebody’s been reading MacBeth while stoned again. Because, look, here comes Taken By Trees, the solo project of Victoria Bergman (toward whom we can’t bear too much ill will, seeing as she’s Swedish). She may be a genius who can spell glockenspiel and outplay Jimi, but few will ever know. Because she’s been Taken By Trees.

And where has she been taken? I’m guessing it’s to the Sic Alps. Which will drive copyeditors crazy worldwide, seeing as that band name conjures visions of the Matterhorn upchucking on the Eiger and Jungfrau, and it would most correctly be written Sic [sic] Alps, since they left off the “k” (unless they are themselves copyeditors being funny, which isn’t funny).

Last and least, we have a monument to the computer world. Just as the prefix “cyber-” is mostly used by those who wish to be cool by being retro uncool, the British bandmembers of Alt-J might find their albums eventually residing in landfills several strata above the layer of Commodore 64s. But it gets worse. “Alt-J” isn’t really the band’s name. It’s actually ?. Which is pronounced “Alt-J.”

Author: James Heflin

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