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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Sluggish Surfers Go Through the Motions

July 02, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can't blame the Butthole Surfers for wanting a piece of the alternative-rock action they helped foment for years from the deep underground, where they churned out maniacally crazed panoramas of grotesqueries from America's underbelly.

It's not easy--financially or psychologically--to sustain a pitch of head-splitting dementia, and if the Austin, Texas, band wants to accommodate its sensibility to the marketplace after 13 years of cultdom, as it does in its current album, "Electric Larryland," well, give the group a break. It doesn't necessarily mean the members have lost their edge.

Or does it? That spirit of tolerance was severely tested by the band's performance at the Universal Amphitheatre on Sunday--a show that made die-hard fans' fears of sellout seem reasonably founded. It's one thing to become generic, but it's another to just go through the motions while you're doing it.

At the Amphitheatre, where the band headlined a bill featuring the Toadies, Reverend Horton Heat and the Supersuckers, the astonishing energy level was replaced by a sluggish pace, the in-your-face assault by a detached professionalism. No naked dancers, no bullhorn, films you could watch without losing your lunch.

Of course, there was more to this band in its prime than just shock value, and there must be some way that their twisted substance can survive in more accessible forms. They've found one possibility with the new radio hit "Pepper." The anthemic chorus might suggest Peter Gabriel more than Butthole Surfers, but Gibby Haynes' deadpan recitation about his friends' self-destructive antics is a solid link to the band's legacy.

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