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Steroid Maximus - Ectopia

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Artist: Steroid Maximus

Album: Ectopia

Label: Ipecac

Review date: Aug. 15, 2002

Another twelve outbursts from this alter-ego of JG Thirlwell, aka Foetus. It may be safe to say that nobody else can so successfully create a symphonic or big band song via samplers and programming. Having been a Foetus fan for longer than I'd care to admit, I've found it interesting to trace his progress and the divergence of personalities in his various projects. In the days of "Nail", misanthropic lyrics, heaviness, and orchestral abandon mixed together. Later, Thirlwell seemed to decide that Foetus was the place for loud guitars and rock star excessiveness, while Steroid Maximus was his forum for instrumental expression. Nowadays, he's also got his Manorexia project for more experimental and electronic work, and with Ectopia, Steroid Maximus continues to delve further into methods of modernizing the big band, symphonic, and jazz genres.

"The Trembler" opens things here with a deceptively calm atmosphere. Echoing, distant drums begin to pick up the beat, then horns and woodwinds give things a feel akin to a 70’s cop show, all suspenseful and cool. "Seventy Cops" begins quite differently, with a synth-bass pulse and synthesizer tone over tribal percussion. Chanting voices enter, then the horns, and finally the drums kick in more heavily, turning the song into a fast-driving piece of energy.

This album is all about drama and setting a mood. I'd bet a fair amount that Thirlwell's a film noir fan, as there's quite a bit of that feel spread throughout this music. The frequent use of horn breaks and percussion, mixed with fat synth lines, immediately places me in that "someone's double-crossing me" frame of mind.

"L'Espion que a Pleure" is based around a spy-movie horn break with strong drums and delicate percussion, together with a goofy, cool synth line. The pounding piano may make you drive well over the speed limit if you drop this in your car. Somewhat unique here, "Chain Reaction" is a heavier electronic hip-hop/big band conglomeration, if you can imagine such a thing. Excellent synth bass over powerful drums leads into horn and keyboard imaginings. Another odd bird on the album is "Wm," a strange, quiet piece filled with buzzings, distant minimal drums, and eerie sounds. A repeated electronic tone wavers through like a warning as the song progresses.

"Bad Day in Greenpoint" is a slower, ominous piece with operatic vocals, clanking percussion, and doom-laden strings. It would be a fine soundtrack to a really good horror film, while "Pusher Jones" is clearly an exploitation flick soundtrack, some guy selling drugs to kids outside a high school. It sounds just like that. You know what I mean. Suddenly halfway through we hit the chase, as the guy runs through the back alleys with the cops right behind him.

"Chaiste" picks up the pace again with fast drums and a thick synth progression. When the drums kick in even heavier, it's like a boot to the head, and things really take off. Then "Enzymes" concludes the album on a quieter, mysterious note. Couldn't tell you what the title might mean, but the delicate woodwind-like sounds and xylophone over a gently insistent rhythm provides a cloudy, rainy-day feel. Perhaps this is musical accompaniment to a chemical reaction.

For someone like me who cherishes instrumental music, and what it can say without words, Ectopia is like a long-awaited prize. I admired Thirlwell's prior Steroid Maximus releases, but with this one he's combined all of the big band bombast of those with a wider sound palette and a perfect feel for dynamics. Each song is structured just so, and the album perfectly balances quiet moods with outbursts of energy. As much as I love the Foetus releases, and was impressed by the recent Manorexia album, this is certainly one of Thirlwell's finest achievements.

By Mason Jones

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