REVIEW: The Brain Surgeons, Box of Hammers (Glue Factory)

-Eric Hsu

This is the nicest sounding hard rock (modernspeak for heavy metal) band I’ve ever heard. And what’s the point of that? I mean, sure you’ve got the skillful guitar playing the usual “exotic” modes, and the steady (though curiously un-heavy) drumming, and the raspy emoting of the vocals. But on the usual dumbbell heavy metal scorecard, they fall short.

(1) Sex, and super-sexed male vocalists. We strike out here since the singer is a woman. There are guest male singers, but they sing on oddball covers and joke songs like “The Donkey Song”. A certain rock critic wrote in 1985, “Although other ever-popular topics for metal-rumination are power, death, revenge, and madness, most male teenagers – still metal’s prime audience – are not particularly interested in any product that does not offer the promise of getting laid, or at least clues to how to go about it.” That critic was Deborah Frost, the lead singer.

(2) Anti-intellectualism and elitism. Strike two, Frost is a Harvard graduate and rock critic and the drummer Al Bouchard, though an ex-leader of the Blue umlaut-Oyster Cult, does not seem interested in playing dumb. He said of BOC’s singer “It worried Eric that they would find out that he wasn’t a tough biker guy, but really college educated and kind of frail…” They don’t bother playing it blue-collar (e.g. the ending “Overture” has the strangely bleated and repeated chorus “cappuccino!”).

(3) Unyielding heaviosity. Strike three. They cover country songs, fer 666-sake, e.g. Dwight Tilley’s “I’m on Fire”. Very little in the way of musings about Hell(TM). Sure you get metal guitar tones and metallic modes and fleet soloing, but you get breaks from it, and I’m not talking long drum solos. Their music reflects multiple influences: blues, country, doo-wop.

So without the goofball trappings or working class pretensions of heavy metal, you get fairly complicated music in the same ballpark as Mr. Bungle, a sense of humor and play and a sense of good musicians who are fans of a lot of different kinds of music just playing whatever they like.

I must admit, the music doesn’t touch me emotionally, just like, for instance, circuses don’t touch me emotionally. But considering that I reflexively despise heavy metal (because (a) I’m an intellectual (nothing to proud of) and (b) I did not grow up a lower/middle class white male), this record is surprisingly inoffensive. Which is usually the kiss of death for a metal record, but I don’t think the Brain Surgeons are aiming at a broad metal market here. I think they’re aiming at the narrow band of listeners who enjoy complexity and play and a heavy sound, but not to the point of humorless and wrist-maiming Yngwie-type Bach-rock. It’s heavy, but varied and skillful and seems to have a good heart behind it. If you recognize yourself in that narrow band, give this CD a shot.