Spiny Normen didn’t know what they were doing; just one listen to the band’s self-titled album will confound and stupefy anyone trying to make sense of it all. This irrefutable fact is why this album was never released when it was recorded in 1978 yet, paradoxically, why it merits attention now that it’s finally come out four decades later. The timing is perfect.
Steve Brudniak and Gerry Diaz are past 50 now, but as teenagers in Houston in the mid-70s, they lived the Dazed & Confused lifestyle, skipping class to listen to Alice Cooper and smoke dope. They dreamed of getting a band together. Garry played guitar, Steve picked up a used keyboard from local legends Fever Tree (who released four psychedelic albums between 1968 and 1970 and hit the Billboard Hot 100 with “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” off their debut), and they recruited a rhythm section.
Spiny Normen—an inside joke of a name that was inspired by a drummer named Norman being absent from a recording session and a love for Monty Python—proceeded to blow the doors off of various Texas garages for several years. In 1978, the band recorded an album’s worth of material, but not long afterwards, with not a whiff of commercial prospects, the band unceremoniously split.
Flash forward many years later. Independent label Riding Easy Records has started releasing Brown Acid compilations, unofficial companions to the Nuggets garage-rock excursions filled with unheralded sides from long-forgotten fuzzed-out, heavy psyche, proto-metal, acid-drenched bands from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Somehow Spiny Normen’s “The Bell Park Loon” appeared on the second edition that came out in 2016. (Album number six comes out in April—that’s a lot of acid!)
The record doesn’t really sound American, as you can tell the band was looking to Europe for inspiration. Dirgy, dirty riffs and bright, maniacal flute playing makes it obvious that Jethro Tull was on Spiny spindles, but the sound is drenched in reverb. Imagine Black Sabbath on Quaaludes (which would make a great That ‘70s Show storyline). Presumably not many of the Brown Acid casualties have entire albums gathering dust so it made sense that Riding Easy would release the whole thing.
That one song only hinted at the madness within. “The Bell Park Loon” is comparatively a straight-forward bluesy hard rock song, especially compared to the rest of the disc. It is notable for the lack of keyboards (at least I don’t think there are any on the track). This is at odds with the rest of the album, which is saturated with spastic organ bleats, sometimes to bewildering effect. “Arrowhead” disregards time-keeping, and the keys and the staccato guitar seem to be playing two different songs at once. “To Meet the Mad Hatter” embodies American psychedelia at its most dark, while “In The Darkness of Night” is Deep Purple tripping balls.
You can’t say it was an influence because nobody ever heard it, but Spiny Normen could be the natural progression from Billy Joel’s Attila project. In some circles, Attila’s self-titled album is deemed one of the worst rock records of all time—Joel himself calls is “psychedelic bullshit”—but the vinyl, whose cover has Joel and drummer Jon Small looking like dueling Dios surrounded by slabs of raw meat, goes for no less than $50 on Discogs and is spirited psychedelic hard rock definitely worth hearing.
Similarly, you can’t say it influenced anyone, because nobody ever heard it, but there’s a natural progression from this to Apes, a Washington, D.C. indie rock troupe who released several albums in the early aughts. (Pitchfork gave 2003’s OddEyeSee, probably their best album, an 8.4). But the spazzy keys make them kindred brothas from way older muthas.
Unlike their unintentional spiritual forefathers and unintended offspring, Spiny Normen formed while punk was taking off. I have no allusions that the band heard punk, but this album embodies more than just the burgeoning DIY spirit. Early punk was a revelation because anyone could pick up an instrument and play. Most of those doing so were rebelling against the pretentious prog dinosaurs who roamed AM radio. But Spiny Normen loved progressive rock, including the obscure stuff; personal favorite track “Carry Your Water” could be a Van der Graaf Generator single, but they weren’t accomplished enough musicians to really pull it off. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t play like ELP, they tried anyway.
Amongst all the things Spiny Normen didn’t know they were doing, the most remarkable was flying the punk flag in the very punk year of 1978. They did this without even knowing what punk rock was, which is pretty damn punk if you think about it.