Sleepytime Gorilla Museum Write the Story 'of the Last Human Being'

BY Chris BrysonPublished Feb 21, 2024


Even before the exacerbating effects of small screens and societal disconnect, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum foresaw the struggles of the last human being. Resurrected after 13 years, the band’s return is, for many, the awaited homecoming of their weirdo rock messiahs. The band has preached about the last human for over a decade now. In their world, the apocalypse already happened; we’re just caught in its ever-present wake.

SGM built their sound — an otherworldly confluence of ambitious prog, maniacal metal, magnetic rock, offbeat cabaret and eerie avant-garde —  around interests in 20th century contemporary classical composition and industrial music’s textural emphasis. Conceptually, it involves much more. This is oppositional rock, “ROCK AGAINST ROCK,” as is buried in the album’s notes; genre signifiers rarely encapsulate the full spectacle on display.

In the group’s early years, friendships led SGM to release their sophomore album Of Natural History on Trey Spruance’s Web of Mimicry label, creating artistic associations that still apply. But it’s SGM’s fearless boundary blurring between music, theatre, humour and visual art, along with Dadaist impulses — irrationality, absurdity, unorthodoxy and a revolutionary vision teetering between terror and triumph – that helped them amass their cult-like following.

If it doesn’t seem like much has changed, it’s because the band began most songs on their new self-produced fourth LP, of the Last Human Being, around 2010, adding overdubs in the years since. So, while it doesn’t break the mould, SGM’s existence still does, and no doubt its followers will embrace the return to form. Several tracks originate from show tunes about the album’s main character, yet despite SGM’s claims of their haphazardness and songs from different periods, the collection is atypically cohesive. Production choices and use of instrumental oddities ranging from the everyday (pots, pans, bells, saw blades, a mounted bicycle wheel), to the homemade (electric pancreas, slide-piano log, pedal-action wiggler), to the rare (marxophone, nyckelharpa, glockenspiel), instill a distinct DIY edge, contributing to SGM’s uncanny, unclassifiable sound.

SGM lore spins a complex web of mythos. The group’s multi-instrumentalists (Nils Frykdahl, Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, Dan Rathbun, and Michael Mellender) are rotating vocalists, the first two offering the most exciting dynamics with the latter of these a lithe, angelic foil to the former's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Opener “Salamander in Two Worlds” is like a musical séance, where after a serenade of chimes, whistles and incantations, a possession sets, unleashing torrential drums and frenetic riffs as Frykdahl bellows and breathes fury over the deranged storm around him. Lyrically, it speaks of the salamander’s growth and becoming “strong from poison,” a refrain Frykdahl has said celebrates “the barely possible fragility and resilience of the victims of progress.” Salamanders have been associated with fire, renewal and transformation. The music and meanings are multidimensional, with the track’s title derived from Theodora Kroeber’s book “Ishi in Two Worlds,” a biography on the captured and dehumanized Ishi, the last known member of the Yahi Native American people.

Recorded in 2004 and previously released as a 7” single, “S.P.Q.R.” amplifies the barnburner into a run-for-your-life chase scene, retaining the original’s relentlessness but with a hungry bassline — like some spawn of Pacman and Beetlejuice’s sandworm — chomping at its tail. The band specializes in conjuring bizarre imagery, from the music down to stage getups and witchy visuals, and the track’s derision of Roman Empire brutality aligns with the Museum’s humanist concerns. “The Gift” could be its name or a curse, yet its verse of, “Leave your home / The sun still shines / On a world not made / In your mind” urges hope and inner fortitude. The group’s flair for sky-scraping anti-anthems is also intact, like the titular phrase droning into oblivion on “Burn Into Light,” which also hosts one of the LP’s most hellraising hooks and grin-grabbing breakdowns, while “El Evil” is a call and response march through labyrinthine funk and Frykdahl’s rabid satanic spells, flashing through many methods to the band’s madness.

Cryptic and often inspired by esoteric viewpoints, the band’s lyrics utilize surrealism, symbolism, allegories and metaphor to tell twisted tales tied to nature, society, life and death. Kihlstedt-led tracks like “Silverfish” build brooding moods and evocative storylines, hanging upon her measured, entrancing vocals, violin and sustained tones before progressing to Celtic jig sweeps and unhinged cathartic chants, pushing through loneliness to dance again. “We Must Know More” balances campy cabaret, and the spastic “Save It!” smells of Primus, Bungle or Beefheart strangeness, while the dark and dramatic “Hush, Hush,” recorded post-band reunion, has Kihlstedt honouring angels and demons that come when dusk arrives. While some lyrics scan as cliché, lines like “Hide and seek / Finders keepers / Losers weepers” are seldom delivered so grippingly.

The Museum’s adoring fans crowdfunded this epic end-times tragicomedy, an accompanying short film and an extensive tour that includes summoning tension, terror and triumph at the Stanley Hotel, the home of The Shining, for two March nights. The penultimate track’s “Old Grey Heron” lived a life of distinction, fighting a world war just to march for peace “again and again and again.” He was compassionate, knew life’s true treasures, and because it isn’t fair, he “always tried to share the things he owned.” As the heron slips away, the record’s final words are a plea for community, for connection and continuance from the Museum to its devotees and vice versa: “We love you, please, stay with us one more day.”


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