When Limp Bizkit is the second-silliest band you’re in, that’s really something.
But that's the situation Wes Borland – Bizkit’s extraordinarily talented guitarist, fancy-dress enthusiast and incredible weirdo – created in 1998 when he formed Big Dumb Face. Borland teamed up with his younger brother Scott and their childhood friends Kyle Weeks and Greg Isabel and, with their 2001 album Duke Lion Fights The Terror!!, made something both extraordinarily daft and genuinely amazing.
Nu-metal fans buying it in the hope it would sound like more Limp Bizkit must have been livid. It was in the Billboard top 200 for a week, which translates to quite a lot of dudes in red caps sitting in their rooms going, “What the hell is this?” Whether consciously or not, Borland – who was increasingly uncomfortable in Limp Bizkit and left six months after this album came out – gave a bit of a middle finger to a bunch of their fans with this. It’s a pretty incredible thing.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult album to classify. The vocals range from death-metal growling to falsetto to pitch-shifted Russian cartoon voices. Genre-wise it’s… no idea. Playground death metal, maybe? Nursery rhyme grindcore?
It’s the sound of a gang of 13-year-old nerds implausibly being given a recording deal by a major label and told they can do whatever they want, which is not far from what happened. According to Borland, it partly stemmed from realising how absurdly huge Limp Bizkit were, and that he could get any project he wanted to greenlit, and wanting to play with that. He told MTV2: “I guess part of me wanted to see how much I could get away with, as far as ‘Okay, I’m in this big rock band, let me put out a record of complete garbage to see what people do.’”
He and Scott – who played keyboards on several Limp Bizkit songs – had been making ridiculous music for fun their whole lives, and were totally ready to make a big-budget version. “My brother and I were really into Ween, Mr Bungle and massive amounts of death metal,” Borland told Front. “We had this thing called Goatslayer, and did 18 albums that were fucking stupid, and Big Dumb Face was the commercial version, if you can believe that.”
If you watch the Duke Lion video and bear that in mind – that this was the “commercial version” of what Borland wanted to do, and this song in turn was deemed to be the most commercial from the album, you get a good sense of the lunacy on offer. Borland is an underpants-clad madman, everyone’s dressed ridiculously, there are accents flung around seemingly at random and it’s all deeply silly. The magnificently childlike line 'He’s never late, he’s super great' is accompanied by a shot of a sundial worn on the wrist, a fantastically crap gag that someone in the production department had to build.
Elsewhere, there’s a track called Mighty Penis Laser ('You can never see it / I keep it in a jar / You can not escape it / Not even in your car') in which the word ‘penis’ is pronounced to rhyme with ‘tennis’ for no discernible reason. Fun!
There’s a three-song run in the middle of the record that shows just how all over the place this thing is. Blood Red Head On Fire is about as metal as anything that has ever been recorded, and is immediately followed by Space Adventure, a song that sounds like it should rhyme but doesn’t, based around a boingy-boingy one-hand keyboard riff and genuinely sounding like a really talented eight-year-old wrote it. Then it’s Fightin’ Stance, which sounds like a monstrous Southern oilman rapping about how strong he is and features an implausible amount of clapping.
Nothing about it makes any fucking sense. It’s brilliant.
Borland was keen that people didn’t read more into the record than they needed to, insisting it wasn’t intended as a distillation of his personality or anything. “It was more like when you have an idea while under the influence of drink or drugs, but instead of sobering up and realising it was a bad idea, deciding to see it through. It was really easy to make, and it’s not hard to play. It’s just idiocy.”
The album came out on Flawless Records, Fred Durst’s imprint at Geffen, where it sticks out like a sore thumb among Durst’s other signings – none of Puddle Of Mudd, She Wants Revenge or The Revolution Smile were writing songs about robots and fire and lasers. And they were all wearing trousers.
The album didn’t do particularly well, and got fairly poor reviews (“There's hardly anything, lyrically or conceptually, in Duke Lion that could be pegged as anything beyond an elaborately produced inside joke” – AllMusic), and probably didn’t thrill Fred Durst, but something about it stuck with people.
“Big Dumb Face definitely got all the comedy out of my system,” Borland insisted in 2002 as he launched his next band, Eat The Day, featuring the same lineup of musicians. More projects followed – The Damning Well, Black Light Burns, solo material and an on-off relationship with Limp Bizkit – but in 2017 he revived Big Dumb Face for a second album. Borland describes Where Is Duke Lion? He’s Dead… as “the most metal album I’ve ever made”, a reaction to making a non-heavy solo record the year before. It’s really heavy, really silly and you listened to it while running, you’d run into a swamp.
Twenty years after its release, Duke Lion Fights The Terror!! is a glorious thing, a brilliantly daft, wilfully obnoxious, utterly unique project from one of the most consistently interesting men in rock, and while there are a bunch of ways it could be seen as a failure, it isn’t. Wes Borland made exactly the record he set out to make – it just so happened that the record he set out to make was really, really fucking silly.