“A rock and roll car crash.”
That was the description for an album called The Fermi Paradox by a band called Tub Ring. I had opened the Pigface album Easy Listening that was gifted to me for Xmas and out fell a two sided promotion for albums from other artists associated with the Underground Inc label. I don’t know if it was that statement or the odd name that stood out to me most, but I knew I had to seek out this music.
High school was an odd moment in my life, musically. I was beginning to outgrow the posturing of nu-metal by my sophomore year and whatever you could call alternative rock in the time of 2002 to 2003 was less than stellar. Internet piracy was starting to boom as torrenting sites were popping like Starbucks, if we’re to comment topically. My family had the internet for maybe about a couple of years by this point, using the Juno dial-up service. I won’t claim to have known too much about the internet then, but I picked up enough from friends and TV to know what to do.
Downloading music from other artists helped to expand my taste and connect me to scenes I missed out on because I was just a kid in the suburbs and couldn’t rely on cooler older siblings to turn me onto better music than what dominated the radio. I also couldn’t really rely on my friends at the time because they were all a bunch of asshole Juggalos. So I relied on info I could scour from the net about other genres that would interest me. Long story short, my fondness for industrial led me to Pigface which led me to Tub Ring, who are totally not an industrial band. In fact, the easiest classification would be experimental rock. A more accurate description would be music for scientists and philosophers who have embraced the chaos of the universe and wish to let the madness devour this earth.
Tub Ring formed at some point in the early 90s, the brainchild of two high school friends from the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. This made me feel some sense of pride as I lived in the neighboring suburb of Streamwood. The main culprits have always been Kevin Gibson (vocals) and Rob Kleiner (keys, synths, samples, backing vocals, additional instruments) and whatever other musicians were willing to stick around. I can’t imagine how the conversations went down within the band regarding their sound, but I imagine it probably involved the words “insane,” “science,” and “Mr. Bungle.” Probably just repeated mutterings of “Mr. Bungle.”
For those not in the know, Mr. Bungle was Mike Patton’s band before he joined Faith No More and… well, they’re wacky and scary and guess what, Tub Ring is essentially the Midwestern Mr. Bungle and that’s not at all a bad thing.
They’ve toured with “bigger” bands such as Dog Fashion Disco, Electric Six, and Mindless Self Indulgence. Rob Kleiner has served as a producer for various artists (as well as contributing a track to a soundtrack for one of the Twilight films). I have no idea how these guys don’t have a larger standing in the music scene. They were even featured on some MTV2 contest!
Tub Ring’s music is provocative and exciting. When I listen to it, I feel something stirring within my brain as it fires up long dormant neurons and spits hot signals through my body. It’s kinetic, frantic, frenzied, delirious, dizzying, and defiant.
So, before I get into the albums, a bit of housekeeping.
1. I’ll provide embeds for the essential songs, the ones that really stand out from each album.
2. Each album title (minus the last one) is a SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) reference. I will provide a link to each theory.
Drake Equation (2001)
Their debut album was produced by Trey Spruance, guitarist for Mr. Bungle, which is essentially a ringing endorsement. The influence of Mr. Bungle can be heard throughout, be it on doo-wop inspired “Numbers,” or the funkified “She’s the Pro.” The album is all over the place, musically, but is still very much a rock album. Experimentation is minimal, aside from “Bernard’s Three Awakenings,” which contains banjo and moves from sparse instrumentation for the verses to jazzed-up electronic punk for the chorus.
You know what rocks? Science.
You know who rocks about science? Tub Ring.
Did you know there is a rock song about the speed of light?
You do now.
Well, the song is deeper than being about the speed of light. What is it really about? Damned if I know – something about traffic being the enemy and that if only we could travel faster, move faster, we could possibly fit more into our lives, have more time.
You know what’s even more whacked-out than a song about the speed of light? A song about cold fusion.
Okay, “Bite the Wax Tadpole” (referencing an urban legend regarding incorrect translations for a Coke slogan) isn’t essentially about cold fusion, just like “Faster” isn’t about the speed of light. It’s a song from the perspective of a scientist who has allowed his work to consume him and he has lost grip on reality.
Fermi Paradox (2002)
This is the “rock and roll car crash” in question. Tub Ring made the leap to Underground Inc, the label run by legendary drummer Martin Atkins. Actually, they were on Invisible Records before, also owned by Atkins. I couldn’t tell you if this meant a bigger budget by any means, but what I can tell you is that Tub Ring got a chance to improve upon their last album and tighten up their sound. Also, this album features a tweaked line-up.
Fermi Paradox is definitely stronger and still has that Mr. Bungle touch (even though not produced by anyone associated with that band) but finds Tub Ring honing in on a signature sound. This album is more rock-oriented with backing instruments such as horns and keyboards to create a fuller sound. There’s elements of jazz, ska, and funk but they don’t get the chance to soar as high as they should. If anything, they’re grounded, but it’s not bad. This is more of a Tub Ring album than the first one.
“Living with Rene’s Head” (which took me forever to realize was a reference to the famed philosopher) probably best fits my description.
There’s a handful of genre transitions within this song, signaled by the use of metal riffs when moving from verse to bridge to chorus and back.
Then there’s the song “Invalid.”
I don’t know what to say about this song other than it offers a gentle meditation on what it means to an individual in the grand scheme of things, especially considering how the universe is constantly changing and everything is beyond our control, however the same things tend to happen again and again, as evidence by this refrain, which I have tattooed on my arm:
“It seems my life is only just pretend, and dreams are only what you make of them, and themes are reoccurring so often if I were wise I’d see a trend.”
Deep stuff? Maybe. This meant a lot to me when I was working out my depression a few years back. I was feeling lost and hopeless, scared of an uncertain future as much as my uncertain present and fractured past. At the time I felt like I had only myself to rely on and I wasn’t anyone I wanted to trust. Those words spark something in me. It’s a call to be critical and vigilant. To remember that I control my destiny and fate is only the result of not taking responsibility for yourself.
Zoo Hypothesis (2004)
Tub Ring graduates from their sophomore effort with their third album and become more than just a Mr. Bungle clone. They harness the sonic experimentation; the concepts grander, denser, and complex. Also, another new line-up.
Maybe I hold this one more dear because it was released on my 17th birthday, August 17, 2004.
This is an album one could really listen to front-to-back and back again. I don’t think there’s a weak track to be found, so highlighting one over another will prove to be difficult.
“Tiny, Little” proves that Tub Ring can be inventive with only piano and percussion.
“The Promise Keeper” is a delightful rock song, perhaps their tightest to this point. The lyrics concern someone who has built themselves up but are challenged with the prospect of being held to their word. Hmm… sounds familiar.
“Raindrops” is the song I like to use to perfectly illustrate how well-rounded a group Tub Ring is. This is a standard pop song littered with string arrangements that swells to a jolting 3 second breakdown before sweeping back to pop sugar.
“Habitat” is a catchy metal song about life in a controlled environment with symphonic flourishes between screams and riffs.
“Wealth of Information” hints at the electronic composition to come in the band’s future, as heard in the intro and layered througout.
The Great Filter (2007)
Up to this point, Tub Ring have done their best to build upon their past with each new release, retaining elements of their original sound and incorporating it into unexplored reaches of musical invention. The Great Filter is essentially the culmination of those efforts in a solid, if not great, record that showcases what this band is capable of when they are able to release their second album in a row with the same line-up.
Much like with Zoo, I’m going to have a difficult time choosing which songs to share, so I’ll do my best.
Actually, without context, here’s a few tracks off the album they performed live on JBTV.
“When The Crash Happened”
“Killers in Love”
“My Job Here is Done”
The difference between these tracks live and on record is minimal, aside from the obvious. There’s a raw element to them that allows them to be unburdened from slick production or studio trickery. The goal would appear to be that if you can’t do it live, don’t do it on the record.
Secret Handshakes (2010)
This album is notable for not only being the final Tub Ring album (to date), but also for not having a SETI-reference title or a robot track (more on that later).
If this is truly a swan song, I think there’s no better way to go out than with an album as combustible as this one and by no means is that an insult. It is a testimony to how much of what they built they stripped away and modified.
Between time spent as Tub Ring, Kevin Gibson and Rob Kleiner managed to work on a side project called Super 8-Bit Bros, which is what it sounds like: an electronic music duo about video games. Remember how I noted that “Wealth of Information” was almost like a bit of foreshadowing? Well, Secret Handshakes is the emergence of a more electronic-focused album. Well, not quite totally electronic. The spectre of their side-project definitely takes control and influences the make-up of the album.
“Feed The Rapture” keeps a kinetic drum beat behind whiz and whirs of computer noise and a funky synth-bass line.
“Touching the Enemy” is… just watch the video.
“Stop This (NOW!)” is the first track off the album and could easily serve as a carry-over from Filter to serve as the only bridge between these albums.
“Bird of a Different Color” is perhaps my overall favorite off the album and does what “Tiny, Little” does and that’s show how well Tub Ring can play with orchestration.
And how can I talk about this album without mentioning their perfect cover of “Flash” by Queen?
So few bands could ever touch Queen, but I feel that Tub Ring found a song that fits them well and really shows off what they are capable of.
Spare parts and other stuff
So, Secret Handshakes was released in 2010 and there’s not been much activity from Tub Ring until recently. I don’t recall there being a supporting tour for that album as everyone else bailed for other projects. Recently, however, Kevin and Rob popped back up with a Kickstarter (that already reached its goal) to release a vinyl retrospective as well as a new EP next year, so, YAY!!!!!
I’ve seen them once live, some time after they released Filter. They were playing The Beat Kitchen in Chicago and it was a revelation. The openers were Karate High School and Foxy Shazam and my notions of what rock and roll could be were shaped by that time. I was in college and living a happier life I suppose, but I felt invigorated. I also missed the opportunity to take a piss next to Kevin in the venue’s restroom by about 15 seconds.
I referenced these “robot” tracks in the section on Handshakes. Well, on their first 4 albums, each one contained one track with “robot” in the title. Best I can tell, they detail the life and death of said robot.
“Where’s the Robot?”
“I am the Robot”
“Death of the Robot”
“Requiem for a Robot”
To clue you into the electronic influence their last album would take, here’s a few tracks from Super 8-Bit Bros
“Roll It Up” (Yes, this song is about Katamari)
“Hey Kid, You’re on Your Own”
“Still Alive” (cover of the Portal song)
“Bite The Wax Tadpole” (Chiptune reworking of the Tub Ring song)
And just to show you how much they could pass for Mike Patton’s kid brother, a cover of a Faith No More song.
“Mouth to Mouth”
Before I end this spotlight, I just want you all to know this: Tub Ring held a huge influence over my musical taste. I knew of them before I knew of Mr. Bungle and bands such as them. They satisfied a need in me sonically that was absent from bands firmly planted within one genre or another. They spanned and transcended genres and conventions to create a sound that was inspiring, innovative, intelligent, and insane.
Also, they’re a bunch of goofballs.