One could end up writing a book merely attempting to explain the Cardiacs. Really, how do you succinctly summarize a band so unique that critics had to collectively conceive an entirely new genre just to describe them? Since their formation in 1977 by singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Smith, the Cardiacs have both perplexed and divided critics and audiences alike with their sound, a schizophrenic blender mix of the sonic assault of punk rock, the experimental textures of post-punk, the grand orchestral harmonies of psychedelic pop and the occasional rabbit-punch burst of manic ska, all set against enough complex instrumental passages and ridiculous time signature changes which might recall a drunken brawl between Frank Zappa, Syd Barrett, Crass, Madness, Wire and Public Image Ltd. on the set of Eraserhead. Puzzled critics had little choice but to coin their own term exclusively to describe the Cardiacs: "pronk," the seemingly oxymoronic mix of progressive rock and punk.
Still with me after that last sentence? Alright, then.
Any one of the Cardiacs' albums are deserving of attention, each a brilliant oddity in their own right, but it's their seventh, the 1995 double album Sing to God, which commands the attention of both fans and the uninitiated. Right from the start, this album makes itself known, thrusting the listener into a one-two-three punch of Cardiacs 101: "Eat It Up Worms Hero" starts with an aural assault of short blasts of hardcore before shifting into a complete jumble of instrumental discord and stop-start melodies, somehow segueing into the slightly more coherent "Dog-Like Sparky," which has actual verses featuring Smith's sneering vocals yelping over a staccato guitar rhythm and a sing-songy chorus with huge multi-layered vocals and an odd time signature that gets progressively faster, while the outstanding "Firey Gun Hand" rips along at a jittery punk rhythm before escalating into a swirling instrumental hurricane of organs, brass and clinically insane guitar lines (which are allegedly a studio amalgamation of over 40 different solos). Whew.
This isn't to imply that Sing to God is an incomprehensible cacophony of instrumental self-indulgence. The Cardiacs may violently mash meters and rhythms against each other, but their methods are precise and calculated: there's not an ounce of insufferable prog noodling or weirdness-for-the-sake-of-randomness "experimental" pretentiousness. Even at their most avant-garde, there's a consistently overlying pop sensibility which keeps the Cardiacs' experimentalism in line, providing more melody than the outright dissonance of John Zorn's Naked City and more cohesiveness than the clashing fusions of Mr. Bungle. The result is both chaotic and melodic, a very focused unfocusedness which never gets too weird for its own good but still manages to be completely unhinged, unpredictable and--most importantly--never, ever boring. It's a listening experience that's unlike any other, far more compelling than it is confusing.
The scope of sounds on this album is amazing. Following the punk fury of the opening tracks, the rest of disc one is rounded out by heaping doses of alt-pop psychedelia, highlighted by the very catchy "Bellyeye," a Britpop-influenced tune which feels much like something Blur would perform if Damon Albarn was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and the euphoric "Manhoo," a crunchy Beatlesque track peppered with "Penny Lane" trumpets which gets progressively heavier before erupting into a combination metal breakdown/orchestral sting. The second disc shifts focus onto fuller, longer, and more cohesive arrangements and atmospherics, peaking with the absolutely stunning "Dirty Boy," an intense nine-minute post-punk epic setting Smith's quivery vocals and multi-layered harmonies against a sonic wall of droning guitar distortion. The disc continues into "Odd Even," an airy dip into baroque pop incorporating lush string arrangements, and further foray into abrasive art-punk: the awesome "Bell Clinks," with its tremolo guitar picking and operatic multi-tracked vocals, I could only attempt to describe as the meeting point between the Dead Kennedys and early Queen, while the 10-minute climax "Nurses Whispering Verses" is a killer track featuring some great riffs and eerie keyboard lines which fade into the gorgeous closer "Foundling", a spacey Floyd-ish song which ties everything together on an impossibly sublime note.
Obviously, words won't ever do this album justice. The Cardiacs have created some of the most original, challenging, compelling, ambitious and truly out-there music I've ever heard, showcasing more ideas within one album (and often within one song) than most bands do in their entire careers. There's little--if anything--in the whole of popular music that even comes close to the insanity contained within their albums, and as such, they're practically the textbook definition of "love it or hate it." One seems to either despise their experimentalism ("shrill," "unlistenable" and "absolute fucking nonsense" being among their detractors' favorite adjectives) or praise it with quasi-religious devotion (veritably dozens of fans and critics have favorably compared Smith to Beethoven). It's entirely subjective, and there's never any middle ground: you may love them, you may loathe them, but you will never forget them. Sing to God is, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece, and under no circumstances should it ever be overlooked.