By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
In This Life, the Thinking Plague album that came out on ReR in 1989, featured a remix of Moonsongs' title cut, a remastered version of the previously issued "Possessed," and seven new songs from the roster of Johnson, Drake, Lewis, Shane Hotle, Mark Harris and bassist Maria Moran, who's currently making music in the Bay Area under the pseudonym Zipper Spy. The last batch of compositions are a bracing lot. "Lycanthrope," the opener, sports serpentine synth lines, foreboding beats and Lewis's ethereal vocalizing; "Run Amok" sounds like a race between Kurt Weill and Frank Zappa; "Organism (Version II)" opens with a collision of classical pianistics and scratchy guitar courtesy of guest Fred Frith; and "The Guardian" is a beguiling voyage to the East, with words like "The worms that filled faith's abandoned bread/From hills and seas oozed crimson red." Pretentious? That's an affirmative. But the musicians justify such pomposity the old-fashioned way: They earn it.
The well-deserved acclaim that greeted In This Life, including a three-page spread in Option, wasn't enough to keep the late-Eighties edition of the Plague intact: "The nucleus of the band just went kerflooey," Johnson says. Specifically, Lewis moved to New York, where she recorded as a soloist and performed with the band Kissyfur, and Drake became an engineer at Echosound Studio in L.A. "He just walked into the job," Johnson says. "All of a sudden he was working with Quincy Jones and recording Lily Tomlin and Shirley MacLaine, and he engineered some of the music in Boyz N the Hood with Ice Cube." In addition, Drake became part of 5uu's, a band in the Thinking Plague mode that included David Kerman.
Thinking Plague was technically in existence during this period, but while Johnson and Drake were able to largely complete "This Weird Wind" and "Les Etudes D'Organism," two pieces that wound up on In Extremis, via long-distance collaboration, neither much liked the process. "The best way to make this kind of music is to get together and physically learn it, because it isn't stuff you can pick up really fast. Plus, Bob doesn't read a note of music. He learns it by ear, and that takes time, because you have to be able to visualize--to imagine what it's supposed to sound like."
When Drake moved to the south of France in 1995 to help construct a studio in a farmhouse owned by ReR's Cutler, the even-greater number of miles between him and Johnson delayed the fourth Thinking Plague disc once more. But the following year, Kerman's decision to come to Denver inspired Johnson to put the band together again. In the end, he and Kerman were joined by singer Perry, who'd unsuccessfully tried out for the group in 1989; Willey, the leader of Hamster Theatre (an act that also claims Johnson as a member); and Plague vets Hotle and Harris. The sextet supplemented the two Johnson-Drake epics from several years earlier with five more songs that were then mixed by Drake, who's still living in France. "It was like taking your dearest children and sending them off to their old aunt on another continent and asking her to raise them to adulthood," Johnson says. "But I'm not at all unhappy with what he did. He came up with some amazing things in post-production and mixing. He put the final essence on it."
In Extremis was worth all of the effort poured into it over the years. "Dead Silence" is distinguished by almost Frippertronic guitar work by Johnson, herky-jerky rhythms and overlapping vocal lines by Perry that go several steps further than similar experiments by Kate Bush; "Maelstrom" somehow manages to fuse together several Yes-like sequences without sucking; and "Kingdom Come" goes through countless changes over the course of nearly fourteen minutes. "That's my thing," Johnson says. "The music is a journey where you start at point A and let it take you to places where you didn't think it would go."
Reviewers with a weakness for musical intricacies have been wowed by In Extremis: A writer in Guitar World called it "a hands-down classic," adding, "The feverish surfeit of spellbinding ideas investigated here is almost without precedent." Johnson's also been swamped by worshipful e-mail from consumers who've obtained the disc at their local record stores (Cuneiform has a strong distribution network) or on the World Wide Web. "That's why the Internet's so good," he says. "If people want it, they can get it, and the immediacy of the feedback that you get is like nothing I've experienced before."
This spring, Johnson hopes to rerelease the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD, and he's also ready to try touring again: The band has accepted an invitation to perform at Prog Day, a Labor Day festival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is also considering separate East and West Coast swings. He's hardly anticipating that celebrity and riches will be his for the asking, though. "I'm not making very much money doing this, and I'd like to make more, but I don't think it's very realistic," he says. "The main things I want to do are play, tour and do other stuff so that it will give more people an opportunity to hear the record. And when they do, they'll hear melodies and chord progressions I worked my butt off to make meaningful and to give emotional power.