Sometimes an esoteric combination of musical ingredients comes together in a way that is so unique that it stands as an event, a happening that will not be repeated for at least one hundred years. Like the Actinide and Lanthanide series elements of the periodic table, they are memorialized and have some quantifiable qualities, but mostly live in the limbo between imagination and fact, existence and non-existence. These musical phenomena are so rare and nigh-impossibly laborious to synthesize that they are best left as mysteries, bright singularities that winked into our world then quickly burned away, leaving a few wonderful memories for those who were in the right time and place with their eyes and minds open.
Consider Dog Faced Hermans, a Scottish anarcho-punk band active in the late 80’s and early 90’s. With their trumpet-playing woman lead singer, bizarre, abrasive scratchy guitar sounds and bluntly political themes and lyrics, they sound on paper like an unlistenable pretentious mess waiting to happen. Fortunately, The Hermans also possessed a great deal of taste and sensibility, using coy, clever phrasing, humanitarian appeals and their weird European folk-punk racket to make statement after statement. Perhaps their best musical moment is Volkswagen, a towering edifice of a song that spreads its dark wings and soars into unexpected territories.
You are taking a long and solitary midnight walk in the European countryside. It is not dark however, as the moon is full and resplendent. Your pace is a rolling carefree gait. The night holds a frozen splendor that is all yours to explore. The hills and valleys unfurl before you in silvery forms and hypnotic progressions unique to this night. Animals sleep in their pastures. As you crest a hill you see it – a veritable second moon, bright and round, impassive and low on the horizon. It is the Volkwagen sign, venerable, inimitable. It waxes in each night as long as there is work.
There is a strange musical coincidence going on here. Volkswagen’s towering crescendos – resplendent with panoramic tremolo guitar, a barreling, loping, accented snare roll and symphonic trumpet overtures – sound uncannily like fucking black metal. Not just some wan imitation or sly homage either, but a spirited, awesome conjuring of the same sinister might and dark grandiosity. Indeed, lead singer Marion Coutts, singing as though disembodied, screaming and crooning creepily, sounds like a woman wandering the Nightside Eclipse, looking for a liaison with the Nightspirit.
But even if you don’t care about black metal, Volkswagen is a singularly impressive song. The ebbs, anchored by a lilting bassline and clattering woodblock, serve as perfect counterpoint to the aforementioned flows. You just won’t find a song that lives in the same moment, that gazes on the same dark countryside from this kind of clear-eyed vantage, ever. And Dog Faced Hermans execute the song flawlessly, creating an unforgettable scene that lives on well after the final sounds fade.
It’s natural to want more, more like this one. I know I did. Alas, sometimes, you just have to take what you can get, and know that it is precious. Dog Faced Hermans were a rare bird, and they have other brilliant strokes. Seek out the My Lai horror of Calley, the near boiling immigrant discontent of Hear the Dogs, and the bitingly clever political brouhaha of Blessed are the Follies. However none of these sound like Volkswagen. It is one of a kind, and an achievement that should be cherished and celebrated as an underground classic.