Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Best Music You've Never Heard - Nine-Headed Cactus Demon

"The hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, mescaline, and peyote are not rude per se. But it can be difficult to observe all the niceties of etiquette when you're being chased down the street by a nine-headed cactus demon." - PJ O'Rourke from "Modern Manners: An Ettiquite Book For Rude People"

Okay, so I know what you're thinking: "Nine-Headed Cactus Demon? Sounds like some obscure black metal band, or maybe some obscure 60's psychadelic or acid rock band."  You'd be wrong on both counts, however.  Nine-Headed Cactus Demon (NHCD, as they shall be heretofore known) was a short-lived alternative/indie "college band" in the literal sense, in that they were a group of students at the prestigious MIT university in the early-mid 1990's.  NHCD is particularly of interest to me because of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter David Penner.  He is originally from my hometown of Aurora, Nebraska, and his younger sister was in my class in school, though I didn't get the opportunity to know her very well.  You see, her parents worked in some government-related discipline, so this classmate spent most of her time in Pakistan at the US Embassy.  Quite the swanky gig, and quite an eye-opening experience for a young girl in a country dominated by Islam, where women and females in general aren't well regarded.  So while I knew her by her brief attendance during my 5th grade year and occasional visits back to the US through Junior High, I can't say I actually knew her.

Fast-forward from 5th grade to the end of my Junior year of high school, approximately April of 1995.  I was riding high on having a car again (after totalling my first car within a month and a half of purchasing it), and my friends and I were working toward our ACT tests, and were preparing to take those.  Having only a cassette deck at that point, I of course had the wonderful tape adapter that would plug into the headphone jack of my portable CD player (an early model with some limited "skip protection".  It was this device that fueled much of my early CD purchases, as having the ability to "crank up" these tunes in the car was a real treat.  I had borrowed this underground CD from a friend (earning me cool factor points in nerd-land), and had spun it a few times, but other than casually enjoying what I heard, it hadn't quite "clicked" with me fully yet.  The morning we were to take our ACT tests I got up WAY too early, and went out driving to go pick up friends.  Turns out, they weren't planning on me picking them up until a few minutes before we were supposed to leave to drive the 30 minutes to the large regional high school where we'd be taking the test.  So in the meantime, because I was wide awake, couldn't go back home and go to sleep, and needed to de-stress from the thoughts of ACT test failure looming in my head, I just drove around in the dark and played some new tunes.  Among those was the Megadeth odds-and-ends CD "Hidden Treasures", which still has a couple favorites for me from the band.

After jamming out to some metal, I decided to change things up and played the NHCD disc.  Though I had listened to it before and enjoyed it, the full realization of how awesome it was had failed to capture me - until that morning.  As the sun was rising and I played that 6-song EP through, it dawned on me (see what I did there?) what I had been missing thus far.  The CD had its own sound, its own vibe, its own unique feel.  Not only that, but while the band was far from the over-produced "alternative" music we were being fed on the radio, they still sounded professional and like they weren't just some fly-by-night band making a CD because it sounded like a fun thing to do.  This band was more truly "alternative" than most of what my generation was being told was actually so.  Suffice to say, I ended up liking the CD so much that I just conveniently forgot to return it to my friend...

What makes NHCD more special is the variety in songwriting and performances.  They mix a laid-back guitar pop/rock sound (though not jangly) with some jazz influences, as well as a bit of neo-folk, funk, light grunge, and adult contemporary (don't let that tag scare you, this isn't Michael Buble) to forge a relatively broad, open-ended sound that has a lot going for it.  In terms of songwriting, these 6 nuggets represent a very strong batch of material that David and his bandmates composed, and the diversity of material is more of a strength to the EP than it is a weakness, like it often is for bands that have trouble finding their identity.  Instead, NCHD's identity is in the loose feel and leisurely pacing of the material, coupled at once with the precision of their performance.  It is this balance that has made "Gone" such a consistent player in my car or van, and on my iPhone.  I keep coming back to it time after time, and 15 years after it's release, it still sounds great, and still represents a real "alternative" to most of the rock and pop on the radio at that time.

Sadly, NHCD seemed destined to be a shortlived project, as many "college bands" tend to be.  A guy who was a year ahead of me in high school went on to MIT and supposedly joined NHCD (on bass) for a time.  When he was back in our hometown visiting his family, we struck up a conversation with him, asking if the band was going to make any more CDs, and he said they were (then) currently working on new songs and recording.  I don't know if anything came of those times or not, because "Gone" is the only evidence I have that they released recorded material.  This upperclass guy also said he would bring some more copies of "Gone" back with him on his next visit because they still had a box of them sitting around unsold, but that also never transpired.  If anyone has any other NHCD demos, EPs, or albums that I am unaware of, I would love to get copies.  I would also love to get another copy or two of "Gone", preferably in mint condition, as I've played the heck out of my copy and it's seen better days.  Copies of "Gone" are few and far between, and there's very little out there on the internet about NHCD, though Amazon has a couple copies of it (as of this writing) that are priced higher than I'd like to pay for a replacement copy.

After the demise of NHCD, David Penner went on to join (or possibly form) the techno-dance outfit Andain, which was poised (according to the press release, anyway) to take the dance/house world by storm.  As it stands, however, they only made one CD single (with numerous remixes) that has since gone on to have some level of internet fame, in part due to the music video with a rather attractive woman writing around amidst colored laser lights and such.  It's a great danceable synthpop tune, and would have been a good direction for David if he'd have stuck with it.  I suspect he chose the professional route, however, as his MIT degree likely would have been wasted on such things as pop music.  Andain fizzled out prior to an official release of their album, but have reformed as a duo (sans David) and have new music, so at least part of that legacy lives on.  But my fondest memories of David's music will always be the little 6-song EP he and his college buddies recorded, because it's such a raw expression of what real musical talent unencumbered by record company politics can truly be, while maintaining an excellent sense of melody, songwriting, and professionalism through it all.  Bravo to you, David.

Oh, and, sorry Matt - you can't have the CD back!

As a side note, since it's 15 years now since the release of the CD and there's virtually no chance that it's ever going to be re-issued, I have decided to take the chance of uploading the disc in variable-rate MP3 format, so others can hear the music and experience what I've been enjoying all these years.  If any of the band members decide they want the link taken down I will certainly oblige, but my guess is, they probably won't mind having the music out there for others to hear.  Either way, be my guest and download what is probably one of the most unique and interesting indie releases to come out of the "alternative" era.

Download here


Gray Hair Monkey Bear said...

This album is one of my proudest accomplishments - belated thanks for the belated review! :)

-Sean Hogarty (keyboards & backing vocals)

Gray Hair Monkey Bear said...

Here's the full album up on soundcloud: