Science Fiction, ‘Terrible Lizards’

Posted by on August 11, 2017


Stimulus Progression, 5.17.16

Science Fiction, the enigmatic West Coast avant-garde duo, is almost as mysterious in 2016 as it was in 1980. Comprised of M. Kappenman and R. Curtis, Science Fiction released one full-length record and a 7” single. It’s unknown how many copies of Science Fiction’s 1980 Terrible Lizards LP were originally pressed, but since Discogs’ inception, the LP has sold for up to ninety dollars. It’s a rare record, sure, but there are tons of rare records — what makes this one special? Well, first off, value, like beauty, is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. According to record collecting lore, the band surreptitiously slipped copies into record stores, perhaps wedged between unsuspecting copies of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and Barbra Streisand’s Guilty. It wasn’t like these guys toured, either — if you weren’t lucky enough to happen onto a copy, you weren’t going to hear it, until now.

Thanks to  Stimulus Progression, both Terrible Lizards and the band’s “Secret Agent Man/Breathless” 7” have found new life. Any band brave enough to cover Johnny Rivers’ espionage rock hit obviously regales itself in a fair bit of whimsy and absurdity, but Science Fiction manages to make the song into something more unsettling, blending a menagerie of analog studio tricks, and experimental techniques. “Breathless,” however, has more in common with Terrible Lizards. Frequently described as “Eno-esque,” it traffics in more of the ambient tape manipulation emblematic of their longer-form work — obviously not a bad thing.

The LP is comprised of two heady, side-long compositions. The A-side, “Science Fiction” is entirely driven by tape loops, foreshadowing the work of Jason Lescalleet and William Basinski. The track boasts a lulling effect, at least rhythmically, but regardless of sonic regularity and quality, Science Fiction never gives in to release. There is a tension even in the softest passage. “Science Fiction” begins as classic industrial, building a soundscape out of recurring patterns, but by the end, the patterns are gone, and the listener is left with a brief lithe flourish, and a rustling, mechanical tide going out.

Terrible Lizards’ B-side “City of God” is the killer, though. Sort of a musique-concrete “Maggot Brain,” the track swirls on the repetitive musing of an unidentified voice lamenting “Nature has entirely disappeared — we’ve found ourselves in the city of God.” Foregrounding this is a bluesy — yes, blues in experimental music — guitar and a meditative two-note piano section. It’s simple but moving, a musing on the intersection of sparseness, religion, and extinction that works like a Buddhist koan, one that washes over again and again until you’re left reckoning with the divine and the inevitable cycle of decay. In 1980, it had obvious resonance, but listening to it in 2016 is utterly profound. Rather than sounding like a cornerstone of its time, “City of God” seems eerily prophetic.

[Editor’s Note: this review originally ran in Decoder #2, and in an abridged form last year.]