Graded on a Curve:
Sun City Girls,
Torch of the Mystics

Sun City Girls weren’t girls and didn’t hail from Sun City (it’s an unincorporated retirement community in their hometown of Phoenix, Arizona). They were post-hardcore Three Stooges turned amateur ethnomusicologists, and over the course of their long career produced some of the most idiosyncratic, dada-damaged music of our time.

Sun City Girls get labeled an experimental band and I suppose they were, if you call making impossible to label music for their own enjoyment an experiment. It wasn’t like they were standing around a particle accelerator in white lab coats.

Sun City Girls produced enough studio, live, cassette, soundtrack and compilation recordings to give Mark E. Smith a run for his money, and I can’t think of any two that sound the same. You can detect traces of other bands in their music–the Minutemen, fellow Arizonans the Meat Puppets, Frank Zappa, the Butthole Surfers, Captain Beefheart, and Sun Ra all come to mind.

But unlike the above-named they spent their career producing absurdly twisted pastiches of folk music from around the globe. The Middle East, Southeast Asia, Haiti, Mexico, South America–there were very few places they didn’t look to for inspiration. But it would be a mistake to lump Sun City Girls in with the Paul Simons and David Byrnes of the world—their music was lo-fi, off-the-cuff and twisted, and there was no way they were going to win any Grammys.

Sun City Girls might dedicate an entire LP to their bizarre riffs on a specific country’s folk tradition. But just as often they’d throw everything at you on one album. Such is the case with 1990 cult fave and excellent band introduction Torch of the Mystics, which was recorded on 8-track and loosely based on the field recordings of vocalist/bass player and multi-instrumentalist Alan Bishop (the band’s other members included his brother Richard on guitar and vocals and the late Charles Gocher on drums and percussion). The LP—the band’s fourth—is dizzyingly eclectic, but features enough guitar-based songs that won’t lead your average indie rock fan to seek safety in the nearest fallout shelter.

The LP opens with “Blue Mamba.” After some start-stop fueled by Richard’s power chords and brother Alan’s rumbling, landside bass, the song—which features some way-back-in-the-mix vocals by Alan—Richard commences to shred and doesn’t stop until the smoke clears and the band launches into “Tarmac 23,” on which Bishop and his electric guitar go on a psychedelic expedition into an uncharted jungle filled with jabbering aboriginals, at least one of whom sounds like Gibby Haynes.

Instrumental “Esoterica of Abyssinia” gallops like the Meat Puppets in triple time. No exotic flavoring—despite its title—that I can detect, but it demonstrates what a tight trio Sun City Girls were. They may have thrown a spanner into the works of rock and roll every chance they got, but they could have killed on college radio had the very notion not induced a collective case of Lovecraftian horror. “Space Prophet Dogon” sets what sounds to me like Middle Eastern gibberish to a melody Robert Pollard dreams about at night, and goes its stately way until the Girls draw an end to the proceedings with some free jazz fireworks.

“The Shining Path” is a straight-faced cover of a Bolivian folk song (not to be mistaken for the anthem of the Peruvian terrorist group of the same name) and features plucked acoustic guitar, some happy-go-lucky whistling, yearning vocals, and flute, and would sound great on the radio of a rickety bus packed with peasant women holding chickens winding its precarious way up some treacherous cliffside road up some mist-enshrouded Andean mountain.

The raga-flavored “The Flower” is a blue lotus offering to Lord Shiva that would probably horrify Ravi Shankar. “Café Batik” comes to you from some distant realm and features what sounds to me like an off-pitch castrato mourning his lost balls. Alan Bishop’s voice is a shape-shifter, and it’s in rare form here.

Instrumental “Radar 1941″ is a luau-tinged guitar workout and as user-friendly as Sun City Girls get. The band’s rabid fan base may love Sun City Girls for their eccentricities, but “Radar 1941″ is proof that you could dress them up and take them to a fancy restaurant without having to worry about them jumping on the table and break into something really twisted like “Papa Legba,” with it’s eerie gris-gris vibe, houngan moans, and a clucking chicken, who’s letting it be known in no uncertain terms he has no intention of showing up for the sacrifice ceremony.

“The Vinegar Stroke” is Liverpool slang for ejaculation, but I detect no Liverpudlian influences on the instrumental of the same name, which proceeds in a trippy, percussion heavy rush from somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.“Burial in the Sky” is approximately four minutes of otherworldly vocal drone and squealing saxophone and guaranteed to lead your dog to seek shelter beneath the couch, along with granny and everybody else in your extended family.

In 2004 Alan Bishop told The Wire that the downside of Sun City Girls’ prolific output was “there is too much for people to digest. The upside is that it’s fearless… So we leave a few diamonds by the roadside and we leave a few heaps of pterodactyl shit as well.” In 2009 brother Steve had this to say of the band’s prolix polymorphic perversity: “We just thought, ‘What the hell, get it out there, who cares what people think… we released stuff that no band in their right mind would ever consider releasing. It was a beautiful thing.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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