r e v i e w s
LOST ON THE SEA OF UNREST
The Toiling Midgets raise obscurity to an art
Dean Kuipers April 6, 1994
Not so funny how things work out sometimes, how "sadcore" becomes an itchy-kinda-accurate bin label and how the avatars of a new movement (in the town where it allegedly all started) get no play. I read the BAM article on "sadcore" or the "new sincerity" and actually did end up feeling depressed. Mission accomplished, I guess. It maybe true that prophets cannot be loved in their own country, but the fact that the Midgets cannot play gigs for a decent fee or get booked on a decent bill or get a decent album deal (in fact have never made a penny) after 14 years is like being dissed by your own apostles.
That's right, 14 years. The Midgets' first show was opening for the motherfuckin' Dils at the Roosevelt on Market Street in December 1980. Which is not to say that American Music Club and some of these other bands ain't been struggling a long time themselves. (AMC's Mark Eitzel knows the score; he sat in to sing on the Midgets'1992 Matador release, SON.) I'm just trying to give you a timeline here.
But this is not an epitaph for the Toiling Midgets. They might turn 15 after all. Just last weekend they wrapped up a month's worth of recording at Tom Mallon's studio-the same guy who has been producing American Music Club, Wade, Lucky, the rest of the sadcore stuff, and dozens of other bands, and who recorded the first Midgets LP, Sea of Unrest, in 1982, and "deadbeats" in 1984, a 7-song casette-only release, and SON. The new songs maybe released as their fourth jarring, introspective album. But when it was done Craig skipped the country with no plan to come back.
The Midgets' music haunts me. Not because it's goth, or sadcore, or bloated with melodrama, but because it's exactly the opposite. Guitarists Paul Hood and Craig Gray compose a ringing, heavy, scraping guitar minimalism. On the right night, in the right room, these songs feel like rusty iron fingernails digging around your spine to find a nerve, and then sending melody juice through it to leave you all rung out.
The material they recorded with Ricky Williams, former frontman with the legendary Sleepers, is simply unsurpassed in its uneasy brilliance. Williams was a strung-out, unmanageable genius who would shuffle into recording sessions with no lyrics, no melody, no nothing except a headful of demon voices and just wing it. Filling his shoes was practically impossible, and they never stopped hoping he would come clean and come back until he died in '92. Ricky sang two of the best punk albums to ever come out of S.F.-Sea of Unrest and the Sleepers' Painless Nights.
There's another albums' worth of recorded matrial with Ricky. I've heard it, and it's chronic, but I think the Midgets are going to sit on it for a real long time.
Why aren't the Midgets punk heroes? Thinking about that shit drives me crazy! So what if they always turn their backs on the audience? Craig Gray was the guitarist in Negative Trend, one of the absolute best S.F. punk bands ever! The singles are worth hundred bucks! That's proof! Just how many great bands do you need to be in before you get a little grease?
I have always thought of the Toiling Midgets as a bridge between a past and a future San Francisco. They inherited a legacy of ambitious, serious, introspective guitar compositions, a kind of musical truth serum left in the wake of the Sleepers and the Residents and Chrome and such, and kept working that vein in perpetual trust that the motherlode was just a few feet away. Maybe now it is. I just hope they don't get shutout of two movements in one artistic lifetime.
In the last show they played, Feb. 20 at the Above Brainwash Theater, they were beautiful to watch. They still played more to themselves than any other band I've ever seen, they still turned their backs on the audience for most of the set, they still nutured their cult of obscurity- and it worked. They blew the room away. All-out moody guitar rock and roll. I wanted to sprint down to Club O and snag some goth freak by the orbit ring, drag his little Trent Rez-score ass back to the theater, and force him to listen, Clockwork Orange style. He woulda been so overwhelmed he'd drop the Toiling Midgets' name around the Temple like they were the biggest secret in the cobweb kingdom, and by now the Midgets would own like half of Florida or something.
As it was, 20 people were there. The Midgets were asked to play another set, and they did, and everyone stayed. Part of me is still there, in that room on that night, because it might be the last Toiling Midgets show ever and, that would be wrong.
DWARF! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
Everett True January 23, 1993
''SON'' is the unholy result of a full-blooded collision between California's semi-legendary and until recently, lost Toiling Midgets and American Music Club's on-fire f***ed up tortured romantic loser, Mark Eitzel. It's an inspired pairing: Eitzel's wailing, grandiose voice fleshes out the Midget's vast, catatonic guitar vistas, giving them a focus which ends up halfway between the bottle and hell.Imagine the soundtrack to "Resevoir Dogs" played by Thin White Rope. You'd be nowhere close.
The mood is dense, unremittingly heavy. "SON" is only the Toiling Midgets' third album in over a decade, and they sure ain't gonna bother pissing around with the niceties of acoustic sound. When the Midgets' go for a song, they go for it: throttle it by the throat and lift it screaming and kicking into darkened places most of us wouldn't even want to dream of. Scattered across the sleeve are sundry tarot cards-the devil, the hanged man, queen of swords, five of cups. Each of them has a place here.
"Toiling" is a great way to describe the way the guitars flail, in and out behind Eitzel's always climatic voice. On "Fabric" he screams" Sleep/Why don't you give me what I want," and instantly I'm reminded of Neil Gaiman's epic "Sandman" portrayals slashed across in vivid hues of red and hubris, or some damned insane creatures tossing endlessly in the night, waiting for a solace which will never be theirs.
Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" is another image which comes to mind, listening to the feedback-drenched, rain-lashed near-orchestral guitar instrumental "Slaughter on Sumner St.". Or maybe it's the soundtrack to a film noir version of "The Phantom of the Opera", as great echoing chunks of organ slide out from under the tortured phantom's finger-tips.
Usually, you can't make out the words."I can tell..." Eitzel wails on "Listen". Tell what? Who? Where? Maybe it's a pity we don't know what he's saying. But listening to the way that wracked, self-deprecating soul bares his heart-always at full tilt-one can't help feeling it's a relief. We don't want to know what visions haunt him.There's too much finality in his voice. We don't want to know the signifigance of the upturned cards or the inspiration for those gloriously apocalyptic guitars.
"Process Words", an astonishing, moving, gilded arrangement of strings and echoing, strung-out chords, almost recalls some of Cranes' later, darker moments-their purity of sound, the lushness and inherent magic. Yet this track is a relief, appearing as it does halfway through the album after "Faux Pony" (Neil Young's climatic "Don't Cry", slightly revisited) and the rest. It's followed by the richly atmospheric, tolling "Clinging Fire/ Clams", a track created for the sheer pleasure of hearing those guitars echo out of the amps, before it changes into a 'billy-esque beat which charges, turbulent through the debris.
"SON" finishes with the darkly opulent instrumental, "Chains" and the silence which resounds at the end of the track has blessed (lack of) sound. Not until the wailing guitars stop do you realise how drained you were feeling. Thirty feet under, and still slipping down.
Bottom of the Hill
Tim Kenneally February 26,1993
Toiling Midgets headlined the show, sporting a new rythm section and a vocalist, David Ripley, making his onstage debut with the band. Fueled primarily by the dissonant, often sparse guitar work of Craig Gray and Paul Hood, the Midgets' sound is the voice of introspective despair, the tune you hum to yourself out on the window ledge. It's a sound that's apparently catching on in England, where the band has piqued the interest of both NME and Melody Maker. During some of their more upbeat moments (a term of extreme relativity), they could almost qualify as shoe-gazing pop, if their sonorous quagmire were not so completely without commercial potential. In their frequent forays into somnabulistic dirge, such as "Slaughter" and "Younger Brother," they out-Swan the Swans in the field of echo-drenched desolation. Stark, indeed, but oddly reassuring and ultimately satisfying.
Peter Davis July 1992
Perhaps had anyone here in Minneapolis known that Mark Eitzel was a part of this group then maybe the Uptown Bar would have been as full as last time American Music Club played, but I'd like to take this oppurtunity to point out that it took AMC four or five times through this backward burg to finally fill the room (no, Minneapolitans are not "on top of it" as you may have been led to believe. Somebody lied to you about that.) Well, it made no difference anyway, 'cause Eitzel wasn't in attendace, which didn't make much difference either as the Toiling Midgets performance that evening, with or without him, was one of the most riveting live displays of beautifully melodic feedback manipulation I've had the chance to witness in the last year (and I did so by dumb luck as I didn't even know they were playing; I had merely stepped in for a beer). What bliss though: no fucking idiots pretending they knew the score all along, and that's something around here, but I digress; that Eitzel can be heard in accompaniment on SON is a truly splendid thing and with any luck the next time through will be as sparsely attended and with Mark in tow...selfish, ain't I?
Lorry Fleming October 30, 1992
Toiling Midgets SON grows on you like some of the important records you grew up with when you were a naive, spindly teen hungering for cerebral, culturally enlightening soul food. SON is sensual and beautiful and comforting. (Will Ricky Williams make an appearance on the next album? Sigh...)
Eric Weisbard December 1992
Every writer in town published a Toiling Midgets story, then wondered where the promised record was. Well it finally came out, to no attention. But guest singer Mark Eitzel (Ricky Williams R.I.P.) has never had tougher backing, and, well into their second decade playing together, these SF punks have proven themselves to the clamor born.
August 19, 1983
The heavy-melancholy-metal Toiling Midgets were hinting at a light-hearted turn of character. Their long-time doom-dirge obsession which images of trolls marching into the mountain seems to have run its course. You can only flatten yourself forcibly against the floor with thick minor chords till the pressure snaps and you bounce back up. Tonight's show was almost merry, rather like elves dancing in the woods.
Mysterious, introverted guitarist Craig Gray left his backstage post more than twice to confront the audience through his long black hair. A mic was frequented by guitarist Paul Hood to address the audience and sing "Twin Veins" from their FOUR TRACK MIND cassette. As always Tim Mooney's drumming was upbeat and full of unusual percussion, but this time the music matched.
Along with the usual deathly Toilng Midgets crowd of Flipper-ish creatures, skate-punks, and silent cerebalists in black there was a good number of "normal" people who seem to have found it a sneaking pleasure to crawl out of the grave for some fresh air. The unexcpectedly uptempo enticed dancing from them, disrupting the thick cloud of Midgetheads drawn loyaly close to the stage.
Their characteristic sounds where still there: Craig's gritty' odd-timed riffs (like a Stone Age Keith Richards playing classical music) a perfect canvas for Paul's abstract splattering. Aaron's bass was a notibly dominant rythm and lead addition. The music seemed purged from the complicated guitar extravaganzas of past Midgets--the sea of sound submerging the audience was spontaneous and full but careful, with simplicity and empty space valuably employed.
It's difficult to place the songs because the band creates complexly different versions each time they play. A Toiling Midgets show was never heard before, will never be heard again. Audiences generally draw to music they can know, with lyrics to sing to; a beat they can count on to dance or thrash.
Well, here is a typical four piece band playing instrumental songs full of odd beats and rythms-- songs that are light years away from rock and punk, despite raunchy overtones. The rich, complete melodies set them apart equally from experimental and industrial music.
The audience was all attentive and somewhat awestruck by the enveloping complexity of the compositions, applauding politely after each number as at a symphony concert. Toiling Midgets always created an air of melancholy romance, but this time the mood was marred by spurts of cheerfulness, as if their clinging statement. "Nothing the fuck matters" were suddenly followed up by a question: "So who cares?"-- shrugging off all the doom Joy Division ever predicted.
New York Times
Robert Palmer January 1982
Romeo Void and Flipper, the most critically acclaimed of San Francisco's newer groups don't seem to have much in common...but these efforts pale beside the Toiling Midgets' first album,"Sea of Unrest". Ricky Williams vocals (Bowie meets Iggy at a party on acid) are barely held in check by a deliberately out-of-kilter rythm section, some attractive and relatively straightforward guitar riffs, and distorted lead guitar lines that seem to drip and ooze into the music's interstices. There are some surprising changes of pace, including a moody acoustic ballad, but even when the sound is insufficiently varied, sturdy melodies and a sure sense of dynamics and pacing keep things interesting. The Toiling Midgets sound like a band with a future. It may be difficult to imagine a group with such a silly name going on to make a second or fifth or fifteenth album, but remember, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were silly group names too.
Claudio Sorge 1982
Gli Sleepers non hanno avuto fortuna. Non e loro bastato incidere uno degli album piu balli del 1981 ("Painless Nights") per riscuotere la considerazione delpubblico alla lunga ed essere incoraggiati su una strada che - ne siamo sicuri - avrebbe dato alla lunga buoni risulati. Poco male, si ricomincia. La nuova incarnadi Ricky Williams, ex-cantante degli Sleepers, sono questi Toiling Midgets, gruppo nel quale militano anche Tim Mooney (primo batterista degli originali Sleepers, quelli di "Seventh World") e Craig Gray, fondatore, insieme a Mooney dei mitici NEGATIVE TREND, anche loro scom-parsi nell'anonimato che ha inghiottito molte punk bands della prima ora californiana."Sea of Unrest" e un album piuttosto difficile, pieno di angoli bui ed inesplorati che solo un ascolto assiduo ed attento puo contribuire a mettere in luca.
Il disco si apra con "Destiny", una canzone che sembra uscita dal repetorio dei vecchin Sleepers; la consueta smorfia bowiana che si accoppia da un lato ad una violenza diantica matrice punk e dall'altro ad una schizofrenica tipicamente moderna: rallenta- menti di tempo, accelerazioni, isterismi improvvisi, forte espressivita drammatica. Si prosegue con "Trauma Girl", un oscuro episodio dark-punk con la voce di Ricky sempre in evidenza, in una performance che io colloca di diritto nella tradizione dei piu` puri rock and roll animals. "Late Show" vede le luci della ribalta spegnersi ed assurgere al proscenio, ancora una volta. Ricky "pierrot" Williams che canta la sua a luna:`e ancora il Bowie di Ziggy Stardust che fa capolino. Un po' ubriaco, forse. L'unico difetto che mi sento di attribuire a Ricky `e la sua cronica incapacita` nel riuscire a dare una giusta calibratura ai propri interventi vocali. Sovente l'istrione prende ia mano cantante; e Ricky tende a strafare, cambiando, nel giro di un minuto, cinque-se intonazioni vocali: un'altalena di alti e bassi che alla lunga diventa anche un po' stucchevole.
"All the Girls Cry" (una vera ossessione, per lui, le ragazze!) `e uno strumento sagomen- to e potente: un set di rock stranito ed allucinato, ma dallo forte fibra d'acciaio. Si conclude con la canzone che da` il titolo all'album, "Sea of Unrest", una ballata acustica onirica e dilanianta da improvvise impennate di chitarra "out of control". Non `e davvero azzardato accostare in questo brano, il nome di Syd Barret alla poetica interpretaizone di Ricky. Con i Toiling Midgets, concludendo, si ritorna alla musica "carnale" di un punk post '77 che risente indubbiamente della lezione dei vecchi Sleepers dei Negative Trend, ma che non rinuncia a pagine di alto, strugente lirismo.
OK, `e tutto per quello che io considero l'album del momento. Suscitero` un vespaio se mi permetto di consigliare l'acquisto di questo disco agli hard-rockers come possibile alternativa al suono stereotipita di ALCUNE bands da loro favorite.
I had feared that the Toiling Midgets set might end up being a bit boring and lengthy, especially since they no longer had a singer. All to the contrary, they were stunning-- really mesmerizing.
There they stood with there backs to the audience, with shitty looking equipment, the bare, bare minimals, making a most heavenly hellish guitar noise. The drummer, on his ravaged, toylike drumset, stole away my entire respect. Unelaborate and deliberate, he seemed to provide the melody of the songs, the guitars blooming softly or savagely around his sharp, rythm-changing leads. It was if he controlled and inspired each movement of the band like a muse, and the sounds created were all related, playing with and off each other with the utmost complimentarity. Songs born with the drumbeat growing in stages through bass to guitar adulthood...
Or should adulthood involve a vocalist? I couldn't help thinking how difficult it would be to find the right vocalist for the Toiling Midgets. And how it could be their crowning glory. But I dare them to find such a singer, because one that wasn't absolutely a Toiling Midget would flaw them, even ruin them.
During the performance the guitars meshed into a wall of dream like noise, with melodies just audibly enough to create without effort or pretension. The songs seemed
meticulously composed. They were moody, softly or brutally dooming and minor-keyed.
There was a slideshow of artwork, painted stand-up figures of simple gloomy surreal men. They seemed portraits of many toiling midgets....
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