Between the heyday of shoegaze gods like Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine, and the era of groups like A Place to Bury Strangers, there was Happy The Clown.
HTC was an active fixture in the Boston experimental rock scene from the late ’80s until 2000. Even though they have since remained a live act, with occasional appearances over the last ten years or so, the group has been largely (and unfairly) overlooked by the media outside of their hometown. Pick through any of their many tracks and you’ll likely find something that is just as strong, demanding and timeless as any Slowdive, Medicine or Mercury Rev tune. This band is indeed the missing link in shoegaze music.
With this in mind, the arrival of HTC’s rare and long out of print discography to Bandcamp is a total revelation. (It must be mentioned that we have Kris Thompson of The Prefab Messiahs to thank for bringing these acidic gems to the service).
The band, which consisted of Al “Alfa” Nahabedian on guitar, Stephen Muccini on bass, and keyboardist Spike, rose from the ashes of Muccini and Nahabedian’s former group, Jetset, in 1988. HTC dabbled within the noisier end of the shoegaze spectrum, often pummeling the listener with waves of harsh fuzz mixed with distorted samples, disorienting synths and industrial drum machines.
To hear where the band started, check out their debut record, 1993’s Inner Sanctions. On tracks like “Way Out” and “Yesterday,” the band whips up clouds of static into sprawling, hypnotic anthems. The songs here have such a thick, lo-fi hiss to them, it sounds as though their amps (or perhaps even their recording equipment) are overheating to the point of near explosion. If you like the acid goth miasma vibe of this record, then proceed straight to 1996’s Afterlife album.
While Afterlife certainly growls with similarly dense dirges, the album is peppered with occasionally lighter, even potentially radio-friendly moments. Take for instance the neo-psych-pop of the very Jesus and Mary Chain-like “Uplift” and the punchy and mesmerizing “Happiness.” Both songs are centered around reverb-splattered vocals and minimalist bites of repetitive melodies that Pete Kember would be proud of. If this aspect their sound is more your speed, then try out their Cicada record.
Cicada is a bit more polished in terms of production quality, with a more dynamic and deeply layered sound. The album is less aggressive than most of their catalogue, and synths and looped samples have taken a larger role in the recordings. “Dizzy” feels like both something that could have been on one of the early Brian Jonestown Massacre LPs and a song that could have been conceived from a bad acid trip at an ’80s New Wave club.
Yet if you prefer Happy The Clown’s darker side, then you’ll want to head down a path that starts with Larvae, which has a solid, muddy sound that feels like it largely comes from a place of shadows and gloom. This record features what might be one of my favorite songs from their entire discography, “Barbara.” This soaring epic sounds like what could have been if Drop Nineteens or The Vacant Lots were the original composers of “Baba O’Riley.”
Then, from Larvae, you should follow the path downwards, into pitch darkness and dig into the roaring Lincoln. This album is a murky sludgefest with monsoons of bass-heavy distortion that completely overwhelm and consume you. Imagine Tad or the Melvins on cough syrup.
However, if you’re a fan of variety, then perhaps stick with 1998’s Sicka da Bullshit. SDB shows the most diversity in terms of sound. There are acoustic backed loops of vocal samples, synth and drum machine explorations, and groaning post-rock meditations alongside sharp multi-layered dronescapes, psych-goth pop and even hints of avant-garde free-jazz.
In that vein, if you want something even more shaken-up, then the Trim The Tree split with Crash Course could be up your alley. The HTC side of the tape bears a close resemblance to what’s on their debut, but the flip side by Crash Course is full of weirdo DIY techno experiments that could have only come from the mid-90s. These two clashing styles certainly make for a memorable release.
Finally, if you’re intrigued by what you’ve read here, but you are overwhelmed with choices, then you could take a quick um…crash course…by giving a listen to their Collections compilation from 2002 (which is also available on Spotify).
While it may look lazy to make several comparisons to well known shoegaze and neopsychedelic bands like Spacemen 3, The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, it is quite necessary to do so as a great deal of Happy The Clown’s material sounds extremely related to their work, and it’s honestly and simply just as good. Why history hasn’t remembered this group as well as these others, I cannot say. Yet with their discography now finally available on a platform as easily accessible as Bandcamp, hopefully we can rectify that.
Give all of their releases a try here today.