Buck Gooter - Finer Thorns
Buck Gooter - Finer Thorns
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Finer Thorns is the Buck Gooter’s 18th album in 14 years, and second for independent Philadelphia label Ramp Local. The duo -- self-described as a "primal industrial blues band" -- has managed to gain the recognition of underground luminaries like Henry Rollins, and has toured both the United States (every year for the past 14 years) and Europe with A Place To Bury Strangers, Guerrilla Toss, The Sediment Club and ONO. Their live shows are possibly even more energetic than their breakneck recordings; in performance, vocalist/synthethist/percussionist Billy Brett will flail around the room, brandishing his iconic serpent-like facial expression -- tongue out, eyes rolled into the back of his head. Terry Turtle dons his signature mask and chain mail, his acoustic guitar hangs low around his neck and is adorned with a hallucinatory painted finish; he's a stoic figure while Billy thrashes about the stage.
Musically, Buck Gooter's sound is filled with manic howls, melodic synth sequences, crisp and pummeling drum machines, and highly distorted guitar, resulting in a cacophonous punk-industrial haze a la Nine Inch Nails, Iggy Pop and Grinderman. Finer Thorns is their most refined record, but by no means should “refined” be confused with “gentle.” In many ways, Finer Thorns is a protest album, musing on the environment, violence, resource allocation, and colonialism - spoiler alert: they’re not into colonialism. Buck Gooter’s interpersonal dynamic is also moving, and imperative to understanding why the band is so unique. There’s about a thirty year age gap between Billy and Terry, but you probably couldn’t tell by the band’s balance. Spend a few minutes talking to Buck Gooter, and you’re liable to be shocked and inspired. In the band’s 14 years, Buck Gooter’s been a subcultural force, but following their first LP on Ramp Local, 100 Bells, they've finally started to crest their head out of their underground hole.
“Family deaths, trips to the psych ward, break ups,” Billy Brett, vocalist, synthesist, and percussionist for Virginia primal industrial blues duo Buck Gooter, lists out, touching on the various life stuffs that they’ve weathered. “My life got turned completely around [at one point], and the band stayed there, although I was kind of curled up in a corner,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got all this baggage,” bandmate Terry Turtle, guitarist and vocalist, says. “Prisons, my friend murdered, and every now and then I have these meltdowns. I haven’t had one in a while, but I’ve been sober for two years, and it’s been the best time in my life.” Spend a few minutes talking to Terry and Billy, and you’re liable to hear something both shocking and inspiring. Despite periods of volatility, every week the duo meets to practice in a basement because Buck Gooter is a steadying constant for both Billy and Terry, and as the project has increasingly become their life’s motivating force, the creative process has become streamlined, and their material has crystallized into something relentlessly seething and profoundly moving.
Buck Gooter’s interpersonal dynamic is also moving. There’s about a thirty year age gap between Billy and Terry, but you probably couldn’t tell by the band’s balance. Terry’s a veteran musician, having spent decades playing solo guitar or in bands like Blacks Run Goats, named after the Blacks Run creek/sewer that runs through Harrisonburg, but after the death of a bandmate, Terry couldn’t find someone he could play music the way he wanted. Then he met Billy. In the short documentary “The Man Named Turtle,” Terry talks about the two of them meeting at Harrisonburg collective establishment The Little Grill. Terry’s worked at the grill for decades, washing dishes, an activity he loves. Billy had been immediately drawn into Terry’s visual art, hallucinatory amalgamations of personal experience and fantasy, displayed on the wall. Soon after, they became co-workers as Billy joined up at the Grill, and in June 2005, they made Buck Gooter.
Since then, Buck Gooter’s been unstoppable - following their first LP on Ramp Local, 100 Bells, Buck Gooter’s finally started to crest their head out of the underground, even garnering credit from Time Out New York’s Best Shows of 2017 We’ve Seen So Far. Finer Thorns is the band’s eighteenth album in fourteen years, and second on Ramp Local, but they’ve been hitting the road non-stop. It has certainly made an impact. The band has managed to gain the recognition of subcultural luminaries like Henry Rollins while touring in both the United States and Europe with A Place To Bury Strangers, Guerrilla Toss, and ONO - their live shows are possibly even more energetic than their breakneck recordings.
Finer Thorns is a crystallization of what the band does best. It’s their most refined record, but by no means should “refined” be confused with “gentle.” In some ways, Finer Thorns is a protest album, musing on the environment, violence, resource allocation, and colonialism- spoiler alert: they’re not into colonialism. From the outset, on opening banger “Peace Siren,” Billy’s manic howl is buffeted by melodic synth sequences, a crisp, pummeling drum machine, and distorted guitar, detailing the way music can be used to promote empathy and understanding. Other songs function as a damning cry, such as “Joshua Rising,” the first Buck Gooter song to feature a guest appearance. Travis, who fronts the gospel industrial band ONO, begins with the classic hymn “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” before the track sinks into a dirgeful warning and rallying cry to tear down the wall (read: borders). At the song’s end Turtle’s low, soulful moan has a few choice words on the U.S. president - “As the wall comes tumbling down/We’ll eject the smirking clown/Don’t need no racist fools around.”
I wouldn’t be doing the band justice if I didn’t touch on their sense of humor. The cover on Finer Thorns is hysterical for a few reasons. One - the “Gooter” patch on Billy’s jacket in the picture references Kenneth Anger’s monumental short film ritual Lucifer Rising, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking Buck Gooter doesn’t exactly scream chaos magick, but it also nods to a time that Terry bought a vinyl boxset of Bobby Beausoleil’s soundtrack to the film for $75 in a blackout stupor, and woke up with a head full of buyer’s remorse. Billy took the record off his hands. Two - the drawing beneath the lyrics on the back is one of Bryan Lewis Saunders’ daily self-portraits, and it’s one he made while attending a Buck Gooter show. Appropriately, it’s called "Daily self portrait #11,182 - Listening to Buck Gooter while blind. Day 4." Or - God - what about the absurd, not-subtle-whatsoever lyrics to “Skunks are Cool” that you can read on the back, in which Terry calls skunks “so political with that perfect smell (oh yeah)?”
Doom and gloom, this record is not. But meaningless, it is also not. Finer Thorns shows a band that is working their ass off hard, saying something, and having a good time while doing it. Luckily, they’re taking us along for the ride.
- Jordan Reyes