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The latest album from this Duluth band can be best approached using Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief.
Stage 1: Denial. Oh no they didn’t!
Okay, I expected it would be dark. They’re called “The Dark Underbelly.” But I didn’t know it’d be this dark.
Over the past five years they’ve produced what may be described (emphasis on may) as black-n-blues old-school metal prog rock. We’ve compared them in these pages to Primus, Bauhaus, Dead Kennedys, GWAR, Zappa and Captain Beefheart.
Now it seems obvious their closest kin is early Black Sabbath, that is, if Ozzy were replaced by Svengoolie. The musicians play pounding sub-basement rock while frontman and lyricist Robert Petoletti hollers like a street lunatic, sometimes in tune, usually not. They created ghoulish songs like “Happy Blues for Jeffrey Dahmer”, “Judy Garland is Dead” and “Master of Skulls.” But it’s been an old-horror-movie kind of dark, both fun and cathartic. (By the way, the band has broken up. Drummer and music composer Nick Petoletti, Robert’s son, said, “It ran its course. It was time to wrap it up.” But they still have a backlog of material to release.)
This album pushes the envelope. Most of the songs are about death, some about suicide. (Lyrics: “Some people think suicide’s bad and I don’t know why.”) Metal bands sing about suicide all the time, so that alone is not too shocking.
Then there’s “Kill the President,” the title of which seems intended to get the band investigated by the Secret Service. The lyrics clarify that the target could be any president, like the president of a college. Well, that’s not so bad, is it? But it’s about a guy with a burning itch to put on his wife’s wedding dress, go out and kill someone. Then, “I'll put a bullet through my head and I'll make it gory. Before the final trigger springs, I want to say, I'm sorry!” This is followed by Robert’s evil laugh, which he's honed to perfection over five years.
It gets worse. This is a concept album. The band provided me with a plot outline, though it's unavailable with the CD, so we provide it below. It’s hard to follow the story just by listening, but you get the gist.
Basically it’s about a mother and her two screwed-up sons. She also gets involved with a racketeer named Rupert Ross who ends up killing himself. One son drinks himself to death and the other, the would-be assassin, jumps off a building and goes splat. Bert (short for Bertha) spends her final miserable days in a nursing home before sailing away on “the black ship of time.” The end.
Bert is the actual name of Robert’s late mother. The cover photo is of Robert and his brother (who’s not involved with the band) when they were kids. There’s an unflattering picture of her on the CD. Her voice can be heard twice in between songs: “You’re worse than your brother ever was” and “What are you going to do, take me out and shoot me?” These were recorded on her deathbed.
Stage 2: Anger. The f--k did they think they were doing?
Is the album a posthumous act of payback? Couldn’t they keep that in the family? Why are they showing us their dirty laundry? Who the hell makes a horrible depressing bummer rock opera starring their mother/grandmother?
Stage 4: Depression. This is the most appalling, upsetting, disturbing album I’ve heard since David Bowie’s deathbed opus Blackstar.
Stage 5: Acceptance. Got to admit, any album that gets this kind of reaction must be good. Ultimately, I don’t think the Petolettis are so cavalier in the way they deal with pain, loss and grief. They seem to be confronting it head-on. Which is painful, but after listening to it I feel more prepared to face the day, the future and whatever happens when I sail that ship.
In a text message Robert told me, “Sons of Bert is dedicated to my mother, but it is in no way factual. I was glad to incorporate my mother while she lived with us in some meaningful (albeit bizarre) artistic endeavor. She was used to my shenanigans, and I only wish she could have lived long enough to see the end result.”
The concept behind the concept album Sons of Bert
Act One: Back to the Roots
Bert, a fiercely independent woman with a fiery spirit, joined the carnival, upon age of majority, as a means of escape from the farm where she grew up. She naïvely yearned for the city. Once there, she met a merchant marine who swept her of her feet, and Bert produced two sons in rapid succession. The sailor soon lost interest in domestic life and sailed off never to return. Despondently, Bert was left to raise two sons with no father figure. Son #1 grew to be a belligerent alcoholic. Son #2 grew passive aggressive and turned to drink as well. Son #1 drank himself to a gruesome death at a rather early age. Son #2 became manic depressive and ran away, abandoning Bert. She had to reconstruct her life.
Act Two: The Suicide Suite
Bert became involved with a rich entrepreneur and gambler named Rupert Ross who traveled the county on various “business” affairs. He fancied himself a very generous and charitable man. Bert quickly saw through his scam. He set her up in a house where his central office was stationed, and she had regular dealings with his midget henchman “Old Carl.” She discovered that Old Carl was running a sex trafficking operation for Rupert Ross. Old Carl was even pimping out his wife. One night, the wife’s best friend, “Scary Sherry,” confronted Old Carl as he came out of a back alley, and she stabbed him to death. With the sex trafficking ring exposed and prison looming over his head, Rupert Ross committed suicide.
When the dust settled on the Rupert Ross debacle, Bert’s son #2 resurfaced. He was completely insane. Apparently, he had been in a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship which ended tragically, and now he ran home to mother. He disgusted Bert. He was obsessed with killing a president—any kind of president. “You’re worse than your brother ever was,” she snidely remarked as she ran him off. Eventually, he attempted to kill a bank president and failed. When the police closed in on him, he jumped off the roof of the bank thinking that he could fly. He splattered on the pavement below—quite dead. With both of her sons dead, and her life in ruins, Bert retired to a nursing home and lived out her last years in futility knowing that one day she would be forgotten on the winds of time. Her last known spoken words were, “What are you going to do? Take me out and Shoot me?”