Mike Dillon has been described by the Hyena Records website as the world’s only Punk vibraphonist and it’s probably true. Originally hailing from Texas, Dillon is one fourth of Seattle’s eclectic electric Jazz band Critters Buggin’ as well as a member of Les Claypool’s Fancy Band and Garage A Trois. In all three capacities, he serves as a percussionist, playing the marimba, vibes, tabla and whatever else you can hit with hands or stick.
I’ve seen Dillon live twice, once from far away performing with his Go-Go Jungle and once up close, performing with Les Claypool. At both shows I was impressed by Dillon’s improvisational chops. During the Les Claypool show, Dillon and drummer Paul Baldi did a ten-minute drum and vibes jam that went through the roof. The music Dillon creates or helps to create is always fun, funky and unusual and the Go-Go Jungle is no different. A trio, Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle is comprised of Mike D. and two former members of Dillon’s old band Billy Goat: J.J. “Jungle” Richards (Bass) and “Go-Go” Ray Pollard (Drums.) Formed in 2006, the group generates a blend of Jazz, Punk and Funk that’ll have your head go from bobbing to banging in a second.
Their first album, Battery Milk, was a piece of Funk energy that was like an adrenalin injection straight to the brain. Forget coffee, that album is all you need in the morning to get going. This new album, Rock Star Bench Press, is considerably different on a number of levels.
The album brings Dillon’s vocals more to the forefront than the previous Battery Milk did. There were vocal tracks on that album, but they were fewer and Dillon didn’t really sing, rather, he would mutter these deranged ramblings about bank jobs and voyeurism. A few of the vocal tracks featured “Jungle” Richards singing instead, and his voice was a far cry from Dillon’s, being clean and melodic. Richard’s voice and the muttering are (mostly) gone from this release, in favor of Dillon’s punk cries of defiance and more pronounced ramblings. I don’t entirely know how I feel about this. On one hand, clearer vocals make for a more understandable experience. On the other, I liked the muttering, it gave the funky music a weirder vibe to complement the vibes (I’m sorry, I’ll stop.)
The music on Rock Star Bench Press follows Dillon’s voice, becoming more aggressive and fast-paced, less funky than before. This works to the music’s advantage on some tracks, especially on the band’s relatively straight take on the Minutemen’s “Vietnam”, but it distracts from it on tracks like “Hole In My Stomach” which would have been fine as an instrumental.
Of the album's cover songs, a couple are slightly out of date (but still relevant): “Vietnam” by the Minutemen and another being “Summertime Rolls” by Jane’s Addiction. Thankfully, Dillon does not try to emulate Perry Farrell’s signature vocals and leaves the track to its instrumental strength. It’s not a good sign when two of the best tracks on an album are covers, but they’re not the only gems and two of my favorites are original compositions by Dillon and crew. These are the opener: “Go-Go’s Theme (Song No. 2)” which is the sister track to the opening track on Battery Milk, “Go-Go’s Theme.” The song is instrumental, funky and heavy on vibes and/or marimba. In short, a signature Dillon piece. The other standout track is the second, the ferocious title track “Rock Star Bench Press.”
After the easy-going opener, the title track is like a bucket of cold water dumped over your head. It’s aggressive, angry and features lots of Dillon’s oddball yelling about… I have no idea what, the lyrics sound very stream of consciousness and don’t make a lot of sense. At one point Dillon stops yelling words and devolves into spluttered gobbledygook. It’s this song, more than the opener, that sets the tone of the album and that is either a good thing or a bad one depending on what angle you’re approaching the album.
If you want an album of jazzy vibraphone and funky bass lines, it’s only partially there. But if you want the world’s first and foremost Punk Rock vibraphonist and his bundle of mayhem, it’s there for the taking. This album isn’t as easily swallowed as Battery Milk was, but that’s OK, it grows on you, if you give it time.