Primus turns Willy Wonka into Freddy Kreuger

There’s an old saying that when you assume, you make a donkey out of you and me. However, there is one assumption that is probably very safe to make, and that is that every child, and thus every adult, loves the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. While there are a number of reasons the film has a special place in all of our hearts — from the colorful candy room, to Gene Wilder’s iconic performance — the music is certainly a key ingredient. Who hasn’t skipped across the Cut after a successful exam, gleefully humming “I’ve got a golden ticket! I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye!”? The songs are all happy and bright, and are inexorably linked to a period of innocence and comfort in our lives. They’re so beloved, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine any of those tunes eliciting an emotion other than happiness in a listener. Well, guess what? Thanks to American experimental rock group Primus, some of them may now give you nightmares.

Last Tuesday, Primus — known for being extremely weird — made one of the weirdest moves of their incredibly weird career, and released an album that covered the entire soundtrack to the 1971 family classic. The project, which is an extension of a specialty New Years Eve concert the group performed last year, reimagines the songs in Primus’s unique style, with varying degrees of success. Basically, they make every song sound as creepy as the part in the movie where they’re all in the boat in the dark tunnel, which is an incredibly intriguing, but repulsive concept.

Primus, for lack of a better description, sounds like a rickshaw gypsy band. Their sound is almost indescribable. It’s so unique, and the fact that they have taken on such a project is so undoubtedly them. Only Primus would think to cover the Willy Wonka soundtrack, and they’re probably the only artists weird enough to conceivably pull it off. The album takes multiple listens to sink in, because, at first, it’s so jarring. Creative force Les Claypool, who plays the upright bass and sings vocals in the band and is also well known for penning the South Park theme song, takes each song and makes them sound as if they’re being howled from a dark cavern.

“Candy Man” takes on a sinister snarl, placing the jolly tune in more of a “Goosebumps” vibe than the family-friendly classic initially conjures. The pounding drums in the chorus will match your heartbeat, and when the singer lets “He makes the world taste pretty dang good” slip through his lips, your skin will undoubtedly crawl. Braying guitars laid over thumping drums and other discordant instruments heighten the feeling of dread that permeates the song.
“Golden Ticket” starts off quiet and menacing, before exploding into a triumphant and pounding chorus. Les dances around on the bassline as Larry makes interesting sounds with his guitar. The whole group sounds like they’re having a lot of fun on this one. This song in particular sounds as if it may have been the genesis for the entire project; Primus’s unique sound fits so well with the song’s sing-song rhythm and overall gleeful and child-like atmosphere.

The group’s sound dynamic shines no brighter than on the “Oompa Loompa” tracks. These are songs that perfectly fit Primus; sound, attitude, and all. The bouncing bass lines of the dancing Oompa Loompas give the group a great platform from which to experiment.

The album’s absolute highlight and climax comes in Veruca Salt’s ode to greed, “I Want It Now.” The song’s register works well for the vocals, and it is probably the closest the group comes to a complete and successful rework of the song.

The group never expands beyond the bass, guitar, drums, marimba, and cello. It’s rather amazing the diversity of sounds they are able to produce and how rich the album sounds given the limited resources. These are clearly incredibly talented musicians who have found their niche and are digging as deep as possible into it.

The songs both repel and attract at the same time. They don’t necessarily sound good, but there’s something about them — some charm — that hooks you in and doesn’t let you go. Perhaps it’s because these are songs you’ve grown up with, known and loved your entire life, and to hear them performed in such a bizarre and interesting way is so shocking that you simply can’t get enough. It’s so hard to imagine “Pure Imagination” sounding like this, that when you do hear it, you’re instantly intrigued.

If “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride” scared you as a kid, give this version a listen. I dare you.