Reptile Palace Orchestra, Iguana Iguana (Omnium, 1999)
There is just something mind-bogglingly unreal about the Reptile Palace Orchestra. Unreal, surreal, and captivating. I can honestly say that I've never heard anything quite like them before. And I've listened to a wide range of styles, thanks to Folk Tales.
These guys are a breed all unto themselves. Every time I thought I'd found a way to nail down just what this group was about, they'd switch tracks completely, hopping from one train of thought to the next like musical hobos. Part Bulgarian, part Colombian, part swing, part Balkan, part guy-with-an-iguana-head-riding-in-a-motorboat-with-three-kids, the Reptile Palace Orchestra certainly can't have any rivals for whatever the heck it is they do. For one thing, I don't know if the world's big enough to support more than one of them!
I'll say this, they play more instruments than I ever dreamed existed. The liner notes' listing of the musicians that make up the RPO, and the instruments they play, runs like this:
Siggi Baldursson: drumkit, dumbek, surdo, shakers, percussion, vocals
Seth Blair: Jenson 6-string electric cello, vocals
Doug Code: clarinets, saxophone, accordion
Bill Feeny: guitar, vocals, Arp Odyssey
Anna Purnell: lead vocals, trumpet
Robert Schoville: surdo, bells, shaker, cajon, other percussion
Biff Uranus: electric and acoustic violins, Mandoblaster, Stratocaster, Therolin, balalaika, vocals
Now, the reason I went to the trouble of listing all of those is because you have to comprehend the sheer range of instruments utilized in turning out the music that the RPO does. (Biff Uranus? Do I even dare wonder?)
Now, curiosity took me to the RPO's Web site, located just off of the Omnium Web site. Fascination made me stay. I just have to share this blurb from their site, as it sums up the RPO in less words than I can:
"RPO delight concertgoers with their original mixing of East and West, Funk and Folk and skin-shedding torch tunes. Gypsy Rock? Traditional toe-twisters? Balkan Lounge Funk? There's a lizard trying to fit into a pigeonhole. Elvis + Armenia + Funkadelic + Bulgaria = RPO."
Macedonian guitar jock? Scientist turned Turkmanistani cello star? Grapelli-cum-Zappa? These guys really do have it all. And I haven't even gotten to the music.
By the eternal lateness of Godot, the music. Compelling, haunting, jaunty, personal, demanding, and devouring. I've wrestled with this CD for months, trying to find a way to do it justice.
Where do I start? At the beginning, with "El Pescador," a charming little classic Colombian tune about a fisherman? As the notes say, "If it's Colombian and it's about a pescador, it's going to be good." Seriously, it's the perfect introduction for the band that can't be introduced. Cue rain forest, enter foreign-language singing (always a treat at parties!), bring up the instruments stage right, and straight on until morning.
How about the semi-title track, "Enchanted Reptile Palace?" It's a swing tune about Cowboy John, his dream, and a tacky roadside attraction out in the Badlands, a place we just had to call the "one true Enchanted Reptile Palace." The RPO completely changes styles to handle this one.
Up next is "Sombre Reptiles," which resembles the previous song in the same way that rain resembles a hail of frogs. No singing this time, but plenty of haunting, luring music.
"Gankino Horo" is described as a classic Bulgarian kopanica. I have no idea what that means, but it seems to be an invitation to dance wildly, most likely flailing about with a partner. Lord knows, it feels like a dance tune! Well, for the first few minutes. Then it suddenly takes a left turn into a more discordant, unharmonious, downright hostile field, becoming a cacophony of music that is nevertheless compelling, and even frightening in its intensity. And wait, there's more. I have to admit that the latter half of this selection is one of the most disturbing, mindblowing, soul-shivering songs I've ever heard. It has to be heard to be believed, but any selection that can chill me to the bones is hard to ignore. Wow. Just ... wow. Turn the volume up, and the lights down, and experience it for yourself.
"Speak Softly Love" brings back the vocals for some fun in the sun, a bastard blend of croon, ballad, and swing that I can't quite put my finger on.
"Small Horizons" is yet another departure from what's gone before, this time with more of a lovesong feel, but without the lovesong reality.
With each subsequent track, RPO seems to reinvent itself, leaving me unable to define them as anything else besides "immensely talented and a little insane." "Lupita" is as different from "Catwoman" as the London Symphony is from Metallica, and all of those are different from any of the other songs.
And guess what? The ten tracks you hear on your CD are just the beginning. Iguana Iguana also comes with ten more bonus tracks recorded in MP3-HTML format, which you can listen to on your computer. If you have a CD-ROM device, of course. It's double your pleasure, double your fun, for everyone. It's not often you get this sort of value for your money, in terms of quantity and quality.
And yes, the ten MP3 tracks are all as diverse and fascinating as the regular ones. Drawn from assorted RPO CDs and performances, they're a nice sampler of what else you can expect from the unexpected. "Sex and Death" has an almost-jazzy feel, while "Are You Satisfied" feels almost techno-pop-something in its atmosphere.
Two thumbs up. Highly recommended. I'm serious. Any more talking on my part would be wasted. Buy this one. Buy copies for your friends. Catch them in concert. They're a Wisconsin-based group (of all places!) which means that you'll most likely run into them in Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Michigan.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some CDs to hunt down.
[Michael M. Jones]
AMG EXPERT REVIEW: From Madison, WI, Reptile Palace Orchestra casts a net over the globe and the ages, gathering together sounds from different cultures and different times. Released at a time when genre multiplicity was de rigeur, Iguana Iguana still managed to sound to the ear a fresh and exciting blend of ethnic and vintage sounds. With enough swing to be fun dance music, this album skips from track to track with an upbeat tempo. Reptile Palace Orchestra draws from a varied palette of instruments. Accordion, cello, clarinet, violin, doumbek, other percussion, and more are heard here. The enhanced CD portion exhibits material from the band's website and ten extra tracks. These tracks are live and in MP3 format, representing 38 additional minutes of music. — Tom Schulte
July 14, 1999 - Maximum Ink:
The Reptile Palace Orchestra
Infectious rhythms, catchy harmonies and tasteful solos add up to graceful grooves and endless surprises for listeners of the Reptile Palace Orchestra's new disc, Iguana iguana . RPO has not only put a fresh spin on global roots music, but have bettered their own wacky take on Balkan swing with astute professionalism and studio saavy. Who would have thought that the idea would have lasted three discs or that it would take three discs to reach the pinnacle of sarcastic nostalgia and devout musicology? Yet Iguana iguana proves to be the one RPO disc everyone must own. Zany in a thorough, studied sense, their spit and polish production shines through the entire disc, as does the quality of the songwriting. Fun dances with scholarship, the strange and exotic become our friends. The line between reverence and gonzo subversion blurs beautifully in the outer space effects of "Gankino Horo" and the ritzy razzle dazzle of "Enchanted Reptile Palace," but stands firm in the wonderful Colombian piece "Lupita," and the twist and turn of the traditional "Bucimis." Add to the deal that Iguana is also an enhanced disc with 10 additional tracks in the MP3 format, and the only thing left to do is check out their live show on June 19 at Madison's Harmony Bar. - John Noyd
>Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 12:03:34 +0200
>From: "Moschopoulos, Stavros (AFIS)"
>Subject: Re: ***Reptile Palace Orch - CD's Requested for Review and Presen
>Here is the presentation for the RPO for next month's issue:
>Reptile Palace Orchestra --Iguana, Iguana. RPO is a group from Wisconsin
>that has somehow managed to weave a seamless tapestry of tunes and sounds
>from South America to Bulgaria and beyond... This is not random ethnic
>madness but a wonderful universal conglomeration of exciting songs and
>exhilarating music full of beat and tempo that keep you gyrating faster than
>the solar system in an adventurous mood full of souvlaki smells and souk
>bargain spirit. Ethnic-jazz, folk-rock, smoky vocals and great fun all in
>one disc... Hard to beat. Iguana, Iguana is this summer's COOLEST record
>and RPO is one of the coolest groups ever !!! There is nothing like them !!!
>cello.zoology.wisc.edu/reptile.html or Omnium Records www.omnium.com
> FAO CASA GAZETTE
> Rome, Italy
>>Dear Drew and Omnium,
>>I wanted to tell you your distributors through what ever channels got Iguana
>>Iguana on the racks in Borders Books in Anchorage, Alaska May 29th. Its
>>always great when I buy local and not have to wait for mail delivery. The
>>Album is stunning. Adding Siggi's Drums and professional tweaks to some of
>>the earlier tunes was awesome and the Eno cover is great. The live stuff
>>was well produced and played great on the computer. Now I have a reason to
>>upgrade my computer speakers.
>>With all the trouble going on in the World today and two terrible weeks in
>>our personal lives the new Reptile Palace album was welcome bright spot in
>>all the gloom. It's wonderful when music really can chase your troubles out
>>the door. Keep cankin' out tunes.
>>Vance & Marsha
>>Eagle River, Alaska.
Reptile Palace Orchestra: the ineffable modality of the incredible!
This local miracle has global appeal, speaking on one channel or another to
anyone who hears them. As a folkdance band, RPO pours new life & energy
into already-robust classics, stretching themselves, the dancers, and the
musical forms without breaking any one of them. With this outfit, dancing
is a great adventure of revalation, recreation, reaffirmation, regularly
offering opportunity for peak experiences, making the exotic intimately
familiar and the familiar refreshingly exotic. Buy & treasure their latest
CD: "Hwy X". -Michael Kuharski, Narodno! Folkdancers, Madison WI
...simply glorious, a grab bag of music styles that dowplays just how skilled these people are. One of those records it's impossible to dislike, and by the end you'll be grinning like a loon.
-- Chris Nickson, globalvillageidiot.net
...music that's both "of the earth" and unworldly at the same time ...a smorgasbord of traditional European folk dances dressed in a spicy broth of psychedelia, with a generous side of cock-rock and a frothy stein of mirth.
-- Isthmus (Madison WI)
A wildly adventurous date that is sure to leave you either speechless or breathless, but in either case, in a good way. An amazing set that exists completely in it's own time zone.
-- Midwest Record Recap
These reptilians and their allies have corrupted Earth DNA with their own and this genetic infiltration lies dormant until it is activated by the vibrational fields..
-- David Icke
Reptiles from academe roam globe
By Dave Tianen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pop music critic
September 25, 1998
They sound like a musical General Assembly on acid.
The Reptile Palace Orchestra's own preferred definition seems to change from moment to moment. One is Eastern/Torch/Lounge. Another is Elvis + Armenia + Funkadelic divided by Bulgaria. Another is exotic polka music. The cover possibilities include Gypsy folk songs, Finnish waltzes, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Strauss, James Brown and Duke Ellington.
The band has a more mixed pedigree than the licensed cabbies of New York City. Drummer Siggytrygur Baldursson used to play with the Sugarcubes. Fiddler Biff Blumfumgagne has backed Willy Porter and Adrian Belew. There's Seattle folkie Seth Blair on electric cello, Doug Code of the Malo Selo Orchestra on clarinet and accordion, Bill Feeny from Appliances SFB on guitar and Milwaukee's Anna Vogel Purnell on vocals.
Much of the band has ties to academia. Blair is a tenured professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Feeny is an artist in the zoology department. Purnell teaches English at UW. A graduate of Shorewood High School, Purnell studied jazz singing under Richard Davis but had never sung professionally until Feeny and Code invited her to take part in an Eastern European folk music recording project they were embarked upon.
The group's name came from a piece written by Blair called "The Enchanted Reptile Palace."
From the get-go, not much was off-map.
"It was the music Bill and Doug liked, plus whatever we all thought was cool," Purnell says. "The folk music, that's what Bill and Doug knew, but from the beginning they did 'Caravan' and 'It's a Man's Man's World.' The really kicking component in the Orchestra definitely comes from the folk music. It's so vital and fast."
The band's repertoire forces Purnell to be something of a musical Berlitz Guide. At any given gig, she may sing a gypsy dialect, Bulgarian, Armenian, Turkish, Finnish, Spanish, Italian, Greek or even a dab of English. Usually the singer learns the material by listening to tapes.
"So far nobody has come up waving a gun and yelling, 'Damn you! You mispronounced that word!' "
The lounge component in the R.P.O. comes largely from Purnell. She readily admits to vamping it up. It appears to work. A measure of infatuation creeps into the press descriptions of her: "lush," "ripe," "smoky," "torchy."
The band is beginning work on its fourth album. Other cassettes may be ordered through Omnium Records at www.omnium.com/rpo. The Orchestra is also available for private functions.
"We're a great wedding band," Purnell claims. "Your family has to be open to something different. If you want the Chicken Dance and Heart covers, you're out of luck. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just not what we do."