Mercury Radio Theatre’s set was one of Cornerstone 2002’s more memorable concerts. Reminiscent of Farquar Muckenfuss (whose insane late night show was one of Cornerstone 2000’s best), Mercury Radio Theatre’s music is of a similar bent; campy (yet slightly psychotic), horror-themed surf rock that owes as much to 60s’ drive-in fare like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies as it does to Dick Dale and the Surfaris.
As per their name, the band’s concert was in the guise of an old ’40s radio drama à la War of the Worlds, complete with commercial breaks. For their latest album, the band delivers another concept, this time in the form of a Tim Burton-esque story about a young, misunderstood vampire named Victor.
The band tears through their songs at a breakneck pace, with lighting fast riffs, pogoing basslines, and machine gun-like drumming. While I appreciate the music’s inherent energy and verve, I have to admit that much of the album tends to sound the same after awhile (a complaint I have with surf-related music in general). To be fair, though, the band does throw out an unexpected twist here and there that livens things up and piques the listener’s interest.
Curious melodic turns appear in the aptly-titled “Dejected and Depressed in Spirits, Disheartened” and there’s an emo-flavored anxiety that haunts “The Invisible Who Casts No Reflection Among Us.” And other songs, such as the Havalina-esque “The Hypno-Eye,” have such a goofy quality to them that it’s hard not to bounce along.
In-between each track, the narrator tells us a little more about the hardships of our tragic hero Victor with such Shel Silverstein-esque poetry as “Scaling the walls and storming the premises/His classmates pronounce themselves Victor’s arch nemeses.” However, the narration often feels tacked on, like an attempt to make the album more conceptual than it is. That’s partly because the songs, which feel somewhat interchangeable (Was that “No Me Gusta” I just listened to, or “Evil Con Carne”?), don’t do much to enhance the individual “chapters” of the story.
Only towards the end, when we hear of Victor’s unrequited love for his classmate Lydia, does the music really complement the mood of the story. Compared to the more raucous material preceding it, “You Are My Density” is surprisingly moving; with its starkly reverbed guitars and pensive bassline, it could almost pass for a Bedhead song. And “Every Pansy Has Its Thorn” is the most intricate song on the album, with cascades of chiming notes weaving their way through the tight drumming.
Overall, I’d have to say that Mercury Radio Theatre’s music lends itself much better to a live setting. Their talent and the enjoyment they have for their music is obvious throughout The Death and Life of the Undead Boy. However, it’s just not quite as arresting on disc as it is under a big yellow tent in the middle of an Illinois campground, with the band leaping and running around on stage wearing doctors’ smocks covered in fake blood.