One of the foundational skills we learn as children is how to classify things. We’re taught the difference between plants and animals. Then we’re taught to break them into further categories. Fish, mammals, birds, etc. We use the most obvious traits to help us differentiate between these groups: fish have fins and swim, birds fly and have feathers, and mammals have fur and walk on their paws. But then something throws a wrench in our gears. Whales and dolphins are mammals? But they live in the sea and look like fish. Next you’ll be telling me that a tomato is a fruit.
No, I’m not about to embark on a lesson about sea mammals (although such an article will be forthcoming). My interest is in the classification of another fascinating life-form: musicians.
Because classification is the way the human mind understand things, we are inclined to divide music up into groups. And this makes sense. Nirvana sounds a lot more like The Rolling Stones than Mozart, so it only make sense that we identify their music as rock as opposed to anything else. But they don’t sound exactly the same as the Stones, so we we’ll divide them into categories like alternative and classic rock. But that’s still not specific enough, so we use grunge to identify the Seattle sound of the early 90s.
Occasionally an artist comes along for whom these classifications don’t work, because they transcend multiple genres and offers something truly unique. Such is the World/Inferno Friendship Society, a band my iTunes identifies as “unclassifiable.”
The band often gets lumped into the punk and ska scene because they play most of their shows with punk bands. But World/Inferno is only punk in the way that a tomato is a fruit. They have the same type of seeds – churning out powerful and cacophonous anthems of rebellion with a fiercely independent DIY approach – but in terms of taste they’re completely different from your typical punk band. Just like tomatoes they belong to a whole different type of salad.
The band operates more like an ever-rotating collective of musicians, featuring a line-up that balloons from seven to a dozen depending on the night, featuring the standard tools of rock music – guitar, drums, and bass – but also featuring keyboards, violins, and saxophones. The music shifts from punk to cabaret to jazz to swing to folk to orchestral, but the man at the center is always lead singer Jack Terricloth. With his ghostly pallor, eye shadow, dark suits and bottle of wine in hand Jack parades the stage like a creature from Tim Burton’s imagination come to life – he even leads celebrations in Hallowmas each year.
I caught World/Inferno most recently as the opener for the legendary British punk band, the Adicts, this past Saturday at Union Transfer in Philadelphia. I would recommend you check out both bands on this tour, but unfortunately I can’t because it seems “World/Inferno” have been kicked off the tour after Jack Terricloth got into a backstage altercation with the Adicts’ drummer.
Nonetheless, I offer my review of the show as a piece of earnest cultural journalism documenting an all too brief partnership of two of my favorite bands.
Union Transfer opened last year in a building that was once an industrial warehouse, that was later converted into an Italian family restaurant called the Spaghetti Warehouse which hosted my family's celebrations after first communions and confirmations. The loss of this childhood staple saddened me when I first heard about it, but I’ve come to realize that this new music venue is the kind of business I would have imagined opening when I was an adolescent, with tweaks to fit my needs as a twenty-something: an all-ages music venue with a huge dance-floor, but with three fully stocked bars separate from the main floor but overlooking the action. But that’s not the highlight – next to the bands’ merch booths they’ve got snacks – soft pretzels and homemade organic ice cream. This was the second time I’ve been to Union Transfer, but the first time I truly appreciated what an excellent addition in makes to the local music scene.
The Adicts are one of many old school punk bands making their way around the country lately. Just last month, the Bad Brains went on a small Northeast tour. The Adicts played on the heels of Cock Sparrer’s two day stint at Union Transfer, and the Cockney Rejects will come through town in July. The cynic in me knows they’re cashing in on punk nostalgia, having made little more than a tuppence the first time around. But the cool effect is that you get to see generations’ worth of fans when these bands come around: the people who’ve been around since ’77 standing next to the fourteen-year-old kids just looking to fuck shit up on the weekend. It makes you feel like part of a community. Even if it’s one that includes teenagers dumb enough to wear leather jackets in 80 degree heat.
Any cynicism I have about the scene is gone the moment that World/Inferno takes the stage. Scratch that. Any cynicism I have about the world period is gone the moment that World/Inferno takes the stage. Even crowd surfing, which in recent years has gone from one of my favorite activities at concerts into a major annoyance after being hit in the head by one too many pairs of Doc Martens, seems more fun – more beautiful even – when its occurring to a soundtrack of World/Inferno’s orchestral anthems. Jack warns the overly-aggressive bouncers to let the kids surf in peace, explaining, “You’re not here to protect me from them, you’re there to protect them from me.”
Jack bases his style on Peter Lorre, the Austrian actor made famous to American audiences by his ambiguous, villainous roles opposite Humphrey Bogart in classics like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Chances are if you're reading this site, you know who Peter Lorre is. But, in the spirit of being inclusive, I’ll remind you that he’s the creepy guy cartoon characters always impersonate. Though Lorre was short and stout, the tall and lanky Jack allows Lorre’s essence to inhabit his body and permeate the songs of the band. They even recorded a concept album, Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s 20th Century, full of allusions to German cinema and theater of the Weimar era.
And World/Inferno is most certainly an allusion-heavy band. Their name alone is a reference to the poetry of Dante. Any given album includes allusions to a wide range of figures, ranging from Phillip K. Dick to Bertolt Brecht, Gustav Klimt and Flip Wilson. The amount of people in the population that actually absorb all the literary, artistic, cinematic, historic, and pop cultural references are probably less than .0000001 percent. And while it’s probably one of many reasons that World/Inferno remains a cult band, it should by no means discourage you from checking them out. The music which flirts with so many different genres without ever settling down, which provides its own concurrent odyssey.
This may all seem like pretentious crap. But please don’t mistake this band for some sort of indulgent, self-serious hipster fare. At they’re very core, what World/Inferno is most of all is fun. Whether sharing beers with rowdy audience members, leading us in mass finger snaps, or teaching punks how to dance the waltz (as they did when I saw them last July with the Bouncing Souls), it is clear that the guy who named himself Terricloth does not take himself too seriously. The little secret about music is that it's supposed to be fun. And even if they flirt with high art, at the end of the day this band is playing party music. One of their early albums is titled Just the Best Party after all.
That’s why Lorre is the perfect mascot for the band. Yes, he starred in Fritz Lang’s M and a score of other cinema classics. But he also was the first actor to ever play a Bond villain; the star of a series of detective films as Mr. Moto (a Japanese character). He is the perfect intersection of high art and low art, and maybe a little bit too weird for most people, indicative of his fantastic orchestral punk band.
It’s a shame that World/Inferno’s partnership with the Adicts had to end so suddenly because the two bands seem like the perfect partnership. Like their former opener, The Adicts just doesn’t seem to fit in, but have earned adoration from a small but fervent cult nonetheless.
British bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols introduced politics to punk, but the Adicts (don’t ask me why, but they misspell the words on purpose) eschewed politics and have always been a band more in the fun-loving and joking tradition of the Ramones (their lead singer even pointed out that the concert coincidentally fell on Joey Ramone’s birthday). Yes, they have a song called “Viva La Revólucion” but the songs that far better define their oeuvre are the ones about Chinese takeout, spilt beer, and dancing the tango.
The Adicts dress like the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, but their lead singer Monkey goes further, adding Joker face paint to Alex’s style. Seriously, it’s like watching the Joker from Batman: The Animated Series perform live. And it’s awesome. I hesitate to talk too much about the costumes and stage antics for fear that it will create the sense that the band is nothing but gimmicks. So let me first say, the band sounds great, and more importantly, Monkey’s voice is as good as it has ever been.
That said, the stage antics are ridiculous. Monkey came out on stage in a sequin suit and top hat, throwing playing cards. That was the most subtle and restrained he was the entire night. Throughout the performance he performed magic tricks, threw confetti and streamers at the audience, and even performed the occasional magic trick. But he never missed a note in any song. I’ll admit, I felt a little bit of sympathy for the bouncers who had their hands full with crowd surfers in the pit and probably weren’t expecting to be covered in that much glitter. Live and learn.
All of this tomfoolery (I mean he’s dressed as a clown – can you think of a better word?) doesn’t detract from the quality of the music itself; it enhances the mood of the evening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performer as fun. And fun is a good thing. Art doesn’t have to be serious. If the primary reason we listen to music is to enjoy it, then is there a higher compliment you can pay to a performer then to say their set was fun? A whole lot of fucking fun.
I’ve always wondered why some of these bands don’t become more popular. I can understand why a group like Black Flag, very much an acquired taste, doesn’t appeal to everyone. But why do bands like the Adicts and World/Inferno remain secrets to so many people? Are they too eccentric? Perhaps. But Monkey’s Joker face seems pretty understated when compared to Lady Gaga. Is it the stigma of punk? Possibly. Punks are hardly the best sales department for any artist, oftentimes acting openly hostile to newcomers. But that didn’t stop Green Day from becoming an arena rock band. And of course I’d hate to see these shows – I was able to get right next to the stage for both bands – turn into stadium events where I had to look at the action from afar, seated in nosebleeds, rather than enjoy direct participation.
It just always makes my head scratch as to why a band like World/Inferno – who for my money are easily one of the best three bands to record music in the past ten years – remain in relative obscurity while mediocrity prospers. And before you accuse me of being unreasonable, let me remind you that we live in a world in which Nickelback is a household name. But I suppose I shouldn’t whine, because I’m one of the lucky few that knows only anarchists are pretty.
Images courtesy of the author