I acknowledge it is only February right now, but I believe I can confidently state that this soundtrack will be the weirdest and most mystifying new album that I will encounter this year. The film itself was released back in 2022 and follows the trials and tribulations of an imaginary performance art group during a surreal and contentious month-long artist residency. It is an absolutely brilliant and wickedly funny film (possibly director Peter Strickland's finest work) and joins similarly deranged fare like Holy Mountain in the pantheon of cinema so audaciously batshit crazy that it is hard to fathom how it was ever financed, cast, or released. As befits such a bananas endeavor, the soundtrack features a murderers' row of compelling artists from the experimental/psych fringes, drawing participants from Broadcast, Nurse With Wound, Stereolab, Neutral Milk Hotel, Swans, and elsewhere. Obviously, that seems like a solid recipe for a unique album, but it is a unique album with a twist, as the heart of it all is Strickland's own Sonic Catering Band, a shifting collective devoted to transforming the preparation of vegetarian meals into ritualistic noise performances.
The Sonic Catering Band allegedly formed as an anonymous ensemble in 1996 after finding unexpected inspiration in a bout of food poisoning. The band's mission statement is quite simple (if comically niche): "to employ a similar approach to electronic music as to (vegetarian) food; taking the raw sounds recorded from the cooking and preparing of a meal and treating them through processing, cutting, mixing and layering. No source sounds other than those coming from the cooking of the dish are used and as a commitment to artistic integrity, every dish is consumed by all members of the Band." The project spawned a record label (Peripheral Conserve) as well, releasing work by many of the folks who appear on the soundtrack as well as some other hard-to-categorize art provocateurs like The Bohman Brothers and Faust's Jean-Hervé Péron. Unsurprisingly, the project also resulted in some truly memorable-sounding performances ("on the wall by the table hung a lifesize 5ft gingerbread man with headphones on, listening to the sound of himself being cooked.").
The band portrayed in the film is quite a bit different from the actual Sonic Catering Band, as it is centered on an uncompromising visionary played by actress Fatma Mohamed, but they otherwise mirror the SCB's quixotic commitment to artistic purity and vegetarian cuisine. Therein lies the big caveat with this album: there is a huge artistic constraint looming over everything, which unavoidably steers much of the music into noise/dark ambient terrain (sizzling, frying, blending, and chopping sounds filtered through chains of effects). There is also a hapless journalist in the milieu whose unrelenting bowel problems provide further scatalogical grist for uncompromising sound art.
In the context of the film, the food-based pieces are quite mesmerizing, but a lot of that appeal is due to the visually striking and ritualistic nature of the performances. As decontextualized sound art, however, brief pieces like "Death Borscht" and "A Pain I Can't Hold In" feel like teasing excerpts from a killer noise show rather than substantial stand-alone compositions. The album is also strewn with shapeshifting variations of a considerably more melodic Heather Trost piece that serves as the film's theme (a harpsichord-driven psych-pop confection). Similarly, Roj from Broadcast contributes his own recurring and shapeshifting piece ("Trip To The Shops") that is roughly in the vein of NWW's self-perpetuating feedback loop epic Soliloquy For Lilith. The actual NWW piece on the album ("Hindu Monastery Breakfast") is considerably more nerve-jangling, resembling a rattling tea ceremony hosted by someone plagued with uncontrollable tremors. I am not sure if that necessarily counts as a recommendation, but it certainly made me want to crawl out of my skin in discomfort.
My favorite piece is a solo work by SCB associate Daniel Hayhurst, as his "Monday Service" is an echoing spoken-word fantasia in German over a backdrop of gnarled and heaving sounds that organically form and dissolve in unsettling fashion. I also enjoyed Marta Salogni's "Cross-Contamination" quite a bit, as she deftly transforms a simple bass pulse into something that feels both seismic and cyberpunk. That said, the album also works quite nicely as a whole for those in search of a sustained fever dream mindfuck, as I listened to it on headphones while blearily wandering through my house in the middle of the night and instantly felt like I had been dropped into a supernaturally tinged nightmare. That is no small achievement for a project that modestly began with little more than a tofu recipe and a mischievous sense of humor. As far as I am concerned, Peter Strickland was already an international treasure as a director alone, but knowing that he can also turn something like a crêpe or a Christmas pudding into a harrowing noise assault makes me love him even more. Hopefully he will continue to find people willing to finance his crazily indulgent whims forever, as the world is sorely lacking in artistic visionaries blessed with such a scathing sense of humor and healthy appreciation for the absurd.