In total retrospect, it’s a damn good thing that Les Claypool was rejected from Metallica and continued his band Primus. Yes, he had some experience in the world of thrash metal with his band Blind Illusion, but when it came right down to it, Claypool’s love of progressive rock and funk metal was too much for Metallica to handle. We wouldn’t have gotten their debut studio LP Frizzle Fry otherwise, and we certainly wouldn’t have gotten the post-punk gem of Sailing the Seas of Cheese. After over 20 years, Primus decided to update the album with a deluxe edition with bonus material and a cleaned-up mix. Though the extra tracks aren’t too impressive, the improved sound quality is, improving further on what remains one of the best and most original rock albums of the 1990’s.
Frizzle Fry might have been Primus’ debut album, but it wasn’t until their sophomore album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese that Claypool’s warped virtuosity on the bass guitar came alive for more than the privileged few. Despite his obvious reverence for Rush, Claypool’s playing style is miles beyond anything Geddy Lee has offered. “Tommy the Cat” is the best example of Claypool’s brilliantly unorthodox musicianship, where he busts out power chords and slap sessions with speed and honed funkiness. He literally makes the bass a melodic instrument and a rhythm instrument simultaneously. The infectious bassline of “Is It Luck?” is unlike anything you’ll ever hear. The experimental element in the songwriting is clear, but this is still a heavy album with a lot of unique and unexpected turns throughout.
But Claypool isn’t the only one in Primus doing the leg work. Larry “Ler” LaLonde’s guitar solos demonstrate a razor-sharp intensity, but a looseness that gives them a sense of natural flow. It’s a garage-y metal sound; rough, but complex and obviously influenced by prog. Tim Alexander lays down the drumbeats with gusto, focusing on smooth, jazzy rhythms, especially in tracks like “American Life” and “Fish On (Fisherman Chronicles, Chapter II).”
This steady brew of musical ideas is fleshed out on the band’s sophomore album, with the band successfully demonstrating their musicianship, but in more concise and immediate bursts. Sailing the Seas of Cheese signified Primus during the MTV age (their videos for “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” got plenty of airtime in the 90’s). This radio-friendly vibe was made clearer by shortening the song lengths to airtime perfection, leaving out the extensive jam sessions seen on later albums. Despite this condensed state, there’s still so much musical skill here. The songwriting keeps that quirky Primus humor in the lyrics, with Claypool’s nasally vocals giving the album a considerable amount of circus-like, devil-may-care style.
The 2013 mixes of Sailing the Seas of Cheese are healthy improvements over the original 1991 recordings. The sound quality is much more dynamic and the music sounds amazing through headphones. The surround sound recordings on the DVD or Blu-ray are amazing ways to try out your best audio equipment and if you have a quality subwoofer, prepare for some of the best use of bass you’ll ever hear. As far as further bonus material, the live tracks of “Those Damned Blue-Collared Tweekers” and “American Life” from their 2012 3D Tour are extensive jams that tend to overstay their welcome a bit too long (the live version of “American Life” clocks in at over 11 minutes). The final track is a remix of “Here Come the Bastards” by dubstep artist Bassnectar, which starts off subtly, but is interrupted about a third of the way through with intrusive bass drops and bizarre sound effects. Despite Bassnectar’s good intentions, the song sounds more like a messy mash-up than a full-on remix.
Sailing the Seas of Cheese, even for a Primus album, is musically ambitious and rockin’ to the bone. Even with alternative rock moving into the mainstream during the 90’s, Primus kept their soul of progressive rock and jazz and made something purely one-of-a-kind. The catchy radio hooks of “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” mask a musicianship that takes both the heaviness of thrash and the creativity of prog. While the bonus material isn’t worth a re-buy from those who already own the 1991 release, the refined mixes on the deluxe edition are well worth paying the price of admission again. The songs sound clearer and more dynamic than ever. Despite having some amazing albums over the last 20 years in Pork Soda, Tales From the Punchbowl and even their 2011 Green Naugahyde, Sailing the Seas of Cheese is still Primus at their best. Originality isn’t an easy find in music today, but Primus secrete it from every pore and Sailing the Seas of Cheese is a real ocean of originality.