Primus_&_The_Chocolate_FactoryHello, Wonkites! Occasionally I get to review a new release from a band that I really like. Occasionally I get something to review which I really don’t connect with. Today, the Candyman has brought me both of these at once. Primus & the Chocolate Factory is more-or-less a track-for-track re-make of the soundtrack of the 1971 film, starring Gene Wilder – but in the style of Primus.

The original line-up is back together, and this album certainly does contain all the elements that the band are renowned for – virtuoso bass playing; minimalist, off-kilter, atonal guitar work and slamming, tom-heavy, tight-as-you-like-it drums. There is much less slap bass, less franticness, and less of Les, though.

Along for the (Wondrous Boat) Ride are the Fungi Ensemble (members of one of Claypool’s innumerable side-projects, Frog Brigade). There are various bits of percussion, strings, synth and other random instruments which balance out the sound, thickening it up and giving it a bit more character. When you boil it down, though, it’s also, mostly, a collection of happy-go-lucky songs, played in an intense, dark, discordant, stripped-down style – and this dichotomy is a bit much.

Les Claypool says: “The whole Wonka thing was a massive part of my childhood. It just seemed like the perfect project to take on, in part because those tunes are all so strong.” This is where the problem lies, though, because the songs are so strong, well-written and showy (in a Broadway sense), that the vocal melodies and the characters are conjured up in your mind, even when they aren’t in the songs the way Primus perform them. Without a conspicuously humorous take on the material, this often causes the songs to fall a bit flat – especially in ‘Pure Imagination’. Chocolate Factory seems too forced, too twee, and lacking in substance, and not humorous enough to be the parody which it needs to be to engage the mature listener.

It’s not all bad; Chocolate Factory is everything I expected of it, in places, with ‘Golden Ticket’ being particularly Primus-esque – but the song is still very much defined by the strength of the original vocal. The Primus approach also works really well on ‘Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride’, where the new version provides a better soundtrack to the original segment of the movie than what’s on the movie itself (that is, if you don’t mind children suffering various kinds of breakdown while watching it).

‘I Want it Now’ is definitely my favourite track on Chocolate Factory, and better than the original. It really manages to capture the mood of the original material well – both the book and the spoiled brat lyrics. It’s aggressive, insistent and mildly unsettling. It’s funny in a juvenile, hyperactive sort of way, which is unfortunately missing in much of the rest of the album.

These three songs, and the three Oompa Loompa segments are great examples of something that Claypool is dead right about: that the 1971 film doesn’t do justice to the darkness of the Roald Dahl book. Primus’ take certainly comes closer to conveying that “eerie and somewhat menacing aspect” than the original – and yet lyrically the themes remain identical to the film. There is little darkness in the words themselves – it all has to be added by Claypool’s vocal performance, which often leaves the words seeming stranded or out of place, despite being the artistic foundation of the material.

Claypool also speaks for a lot of people when he says, “We were all pretty put off by the remake of the ‘Willy Wonka’ movie – the Tim Burton version.”. However, he clearly didn’t learn the lesson from this: – that a remake, even by one of the more creative artists of the day simply wasn’t such a good idea. I am pretty sure Tim Burton also talked about how, “I really wanted to pay homage to a film that was very important to me as a kid and very influential to me”, as Claypool describes his own motivations for the project.

With so much original material created for the Primus arrangements, and with so much effort put into the recording process, it’s hard to believe that putting the same amount of time into a non-derivative, original Primus release wouldn’t have yielded better results.

Anyway, back in the real world, Primus have already started to tour the Chocolate Factory, which makes a lot of sense. “We’re going to do some touring with it and we put together this pretty abstract stage production,” says Claypool, “We’re going to take it out there, around the planet, and see what happens. And, in light of the record business being gutted by the internet, we’ve made some PRIMUS brand chocolate bars to peddle as well.” Golden Ticket indeed.

It makes sense, not just because live is where the money is nowadays, but also because there is so much material to draw on to contribute to the performance of these songs. I bet it makes sense as a full theatrical performance, but on its own, the music leaves something to be desired. Or maybe I just lack the (Pure) Imagination to bring it to life.

That full-spectrum entertainment that is missing while just listening to the songs. I want to see Les Claypool as Willy Wonka; I want to know what the Wonkmobile is; I want to be connected with the narrative of the story – and I Want it Now, while I am listening to the album. And don’t forget the “demented Oompa Loompas”.

In the end, although this album is growing on me, there are other soundtracks that I would rather Primus had covered, and I would certainly rather watch Family Guy’s take on the movie than listen to Primus and the Chocolate Factory on its own. When it comes to a band as good and original as Primus are, that’s all a bit of a let-down.

5 out of 11

Release Date 03/11/2014 (Ato)

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Chris Oliver

I've been playing bass guitar and guitar for over half my life. I last played bass in in a band called Electromotive and as a singer-songwriter I have written songs about cheese and vajazzles (separate songs!). I started out listening to 60s, 70s and 80s rock as a kid and I was in to grunge and U.S. punk and ska in the 90s. Since then, I've broadened my tastes and I like the best of all styles of music, even country. I've been writing for Silent Radio since it started.