It’s hard to think of a children’s film more deliciously sinister than Mel Stuart’s 1971 fantasy musical Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, a minor box-office hit that was disowned by author Roald Dahl but which later amassed a huge following among stoners and cult movie buffs.
And could there be any band better suited to ramming the film’s sunny, singalong soundtrack through a shredding machine of psychedelic prog metal than Primus? On the last leg of their European tour to promote their bracingly abrasive album-length deconstruction of the score, the reunited classic line-up of Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Tim Alexander appear to have found an ideal vehicle for their blend of splatterpunk jazzcore and gleefully childish humour.
For the first hour of this show, Primus are effectively their own support band, playing a separate set of non-Wonka material. Claypool is lanky and laconic but his basslines are knotty and fierce, as visceral as weapons-grade thrash, as precise as avant-garde jazz. He treats his instrument like a mini-orchestra, strumming and slapping, bowing and sliding, teasing out solos with both hands. Even on fairly straight blues-rock slammers like Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver, he blazes with Hendrix-level virtuosity. As the super-percussive funk-metal blast of Jerry Was A Race Car Driver turns the moshpit into a centrifugal maelstrom, the mid-evening intermission looms, and with it the very real danger that Primus may just have blown themselves off stage.
For the main event, the Apollo stage transforms into a surreal steampunk chocolate factory complete with giant toadstools and dancing Oompa Loompas, like an acid-fried remake of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge. Claypool is now dressed as Willy Wonka in hat and wig, but looks more like a deranged Batman villain. Augmented by percussionist Mike Dillon and cellist Sam Bass, Primus perform beneath a video screen that replays scenes from the film in warped, looped, lysergic fragments. We’re definitely not in Kansas any more.
Part twisted homage, part demolition job, the Primus treatment leaves little of the original movie soundtrack intact. An extended epic of stop-start convulsions and malevolently mumbled vocals, The Candy Man amplifies the creepy subtext of eccentric strangers offering sweets to children. Pure Imagination is all clonk and grind, tightly wound but building to explosive release. Even the rollicking Oompa Loompa numbers have a genuinely nightmarish quality, like a deserted fairground ghost train.
With his silly voices and circus ringmaster aura, Claypool sometimes come across as an aloof prankster in the Frank Zappa vein, but the sheer intensity and craft of this grand audio-visual spectacle suggest a deep commitment to progressive heavy music lurks behind the zany mask. Flippant and ferocious in equal measure, Primus are an exhilarating collision of opposing forces, like Weird Al Yankovic fronting prime-time Slayer.