Back, then, with part six of my 1996 roundup. As a reminder, I’m marking twenty years of writing about music (my writing long pre-dates this website going live) across this year with a monthly look at ten releases from 1996, where possible in chronological order.
This has meant delving deep into my musical memory, revisiting albums I’ve not heard in many, many years, and in other cases returning to albums I still listen to regularly, but this time with a critical ear. It really has been a fascinating endeavour thus far, too, as 1996 was very much a time of change. Not only did I go to University, but my musical tastes were evolving and widening rapidly, and 1996 being something of a vintage year for alternative music meant it was a perfect time to start writing.
Anyway: there are three more posts from this series to come, and they will be at the end of August, September and October.
Sleep To Dream
Of many of the releases I’ve featured on this 1996 retrospective over this year, this is one of those that I still can’t quite believe is as old as it is. Never the most prolific of artists – fourth and latest album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is now four years old already – I’ve been hooked on much of Apple’s work since this striking debut. I’ve never really been able to classify it, either, with her habit of dipping into all kinds of genres and influences to create work that doesn’t sound a lot like anyone else in many respects. Most obviously, though, is her very direct way of dealing with issues in song, and she is wrestling with a whole load of demons across it, but never allows them to sink the beauty of the songs. The opening track, though, is still the best of them all – Apple fighting against dreamers and instead fighting on to better herself, rather than simply thinking about it.
A couple of things surprised me when listening again to this album. Firstly, it was released in the US a good few months before it came out in the UK (it wasn’t released until October here), and secondly, I remembered none of the songs aside from the two singles (the inescapable Ready to Go, set to be a go-to TV soundtrack choice until the end of time, and the rather better Drop Dead Gorgeous). Yes, this album hasn’t aged well, but is a capsule of the time – where grown-up ravers took on rock and pop, merged all three (just check those rave synths), and had an impressive burst of success along the way.
Got Me Wrong
The end of the first incarnation of Alice In Chains was, sadly, a long and drawn out one. Layne Staley’s chronic substance abuse issues meant that they barely, if ever, played live after about 1994, and indeed this Unplugged set was their first live appearance in over two years – and of course this ended up being the last recorded work by the band with Layne Staley before his death. So, like a few other Unplugged albums (Nirvana in particular), it has ended up with perhaps a little bit more reverence with the benefit of hingsight. Saying that, though, this had some stellar moments – the best of which come from the songs that were recorded as acoustic tracks in the first place (from Jar of Flies/Sap), Brother and Got Me Wrong being undisputed highlights. Would?, where Staley of course is singing about his defiance amid his own issues, only feels even more raw and exposed in this setting. But overall, this isn’t as good as I remember it being at the time.
The Dreams That Rot In Your Heart
16Volt have now had three incarnations – the first one that ended around the time of SuperCoolNothing, the second that roared back with FullBlackHabit, and now the third that has returned to the live arena this summer (and hopefully with new material to follow). That first incarnation was one of the leading lights of the Cold Wave splinter of industrial rock in the nineties, and I’m still certain that there is barely a bad moment on any of 16Volt’s first few albums – and particularly on LetDownCrush. It is full of bass-heavy industrial-rock stompers (The Dreams That Rot In Your Heart, The Cut Collector, Two Wires Thin, to name just three), but on the flipside Eric Powell was actually capable of writing slower, ballad-like songs that were not just throwaways to pad out an album (although, saying that, the bizarre Carla’s Tarantulas that closes the album is very much a throwaway). Incalculably influential to an awful lot of US industrial that followed in their wake, 16Volt perhaps don’t always get the tip of the hat for their trailblazing work.
First Band On The Moon
Ah yes, the sweet-voiced Swedish indie-rock band, that as their covers of Paranoid and Iron Man remind us, secretly were metalheads – and major-league Sabbath fans – at heart. Not that you’d know from their monstrous hit Lovefool, that was on the airwaves constantly for the rest of the decade (assisted by prominent use in both Romeo + Juliet and Cruel Intentions). They were always a strange band to pin down. Much of their material was smooth-edged, radio-friendly indie – as Lovefool proved so well – but just on occasions they’d stamp their feet and release riffage that metal bands would have been proud of. Listening to the other single from the album, though – Been It straddles the divide between the two, with a harder edge, but still with the sweet melodies, and suggests a bitter edge to the lyrics, too.
An album that I, like many others, rather forgot about over the years, only to rediscover it at the beginning of this decade, and then wonder exactly why I’d forgotten it at all. A sprawling, lengthy album of elegantly produced space-rock, the crucial difference to many other bands who get lost in space was that Failure actually remembered to write songs. Amid the many linking Segues, there are loads of them here, loaded with hooks and glorious melodies, and wrapped in an expansive, technically brilliant production that makes the album sound like it was beamed in from the future. That latter point is one of the reasons, too, why the follow-up (nineteen years later!) sounded like a natural evolution rather than a different band, as reformations often do. Fantastic Planet was the sound of a band throwing all of their talent at an album without any real label support, a band with nothing to lose. That it sounded so brilliant, but sank the band at the time, is one of the great travesties of the nineties – and their redemption last year when they returned was absolutely glorious to see.
Novocaine for the Soul
An artist that rather came out of nowhere in 1996, six months later (early in ’97) had a surprise hit with Novocaine for the Soul, and has had a turbulent and well-respected career since. Eels is effectively Mark Everett, and I’ve always had a rather difficult time trying to explain Eels. Confessional alternative rock doesn’t even half explain what is going on in most of his songs, and at times the level of detail he delves into to explain the horrors of his life or those around them border on the deeply uncomfortable. On others, though, the detail is exquisite – particularly here on Susan’s House, with the narrator passing through grimmer parts of LA. But, as perhaps became even more notable on subsequent releases, despite the gloom Everett’s real skill is creating gloriously catchy pop songs from such bleak subject matter – quite a bait and switch.
Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy) (Sexational After Dark mix)
Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds
The last album released while White Zombie were still an active band, this wasn’t an album of new material but instead a very slick remix collection that, in hindsight, provides an insight into the remix standards of the time. There were the Charlie Clouser remixes, with his familiar motifs and rhythmic reworkings appearing, the trip-hop-esque takes on heavier songs, and of course the obligatory drum’n’bass remix (a storming take on Supercharger Heaven by John Fryer). Indeed, a number of tracks from this, particularly the Electric Head and More Human Than Human rebuilds by Clouser, were familiar metal (and industrial) dancefloor hits for many years onwards – reminding again of the crossover appeal that this band had in the nineties.
Spin Spin Sugar
An album that still has a surprising amount of love expressed for it from time-to-time – OK, everytime it is mentioned online – it possibly has eclipsed everything it’s creators have done since. Vocalist Kelli was perhaps the secret weapon this album – she left the band after it, leaving Chris and Liam to continue (and Chris to eventually move onto being IAMX), her sweet tones a useful counterpoint to the occasionally downbeat electronic-rock rhythms created behind her. Lumped in with the nascent “trip hop” boom of the time, possibly only the massive hit 6 Underground really fitted in there, the rest of the album adding layers of guitars, quasi-breakbeats and a distinctive, echoey production: a point lost by their label when it got re-issued just months after first release, with a new “mix” that added unnecessary strings and other changes to Post-Modern Sleaze, an overcooked mix of Spin Spin Sugar, and Nellie Hooper making 6 Underground even more “trip-hop”, with other changes besides. The original version was deleted, and is well worth hunting out (I still have mine). The album also was one whose sound leant itself well to being remixed – there was so much space in the mix that all kinds of dance artists took turns in melding songs into their own images. An album very much of it’s time, yes, frankly, but it does still hold up well.
Funeral in Carpathia
Dusk and Her Embrace
Not a band that perhaps get the critical respect they deserve – at least in terms of being one of the few Black Metal bands to come to prominence in the UK – and perhaps thanks to their high-profile and popularity have become the butt of many jokes in metaldom. But really, it’s rather unfair. Particularly for Cradle’s earlier material, which was very good symphonic Black Metal then, and as this album turns twenty years old, still is very good symphonic Black Metal now. The band took a different route to that of the “classic” Black Metal from the previous few years in Norway, of course, with a semblance of production values and a sweeping, complex sound that came as a relief – it was Black Metal that didn’t sound like it was recorded in a garage, on a dusty four-track. Instead, songs had prominent synths (and synthesised strings), Dani Filth’s high-pitched howls from the depths, and neck-snapping tempo changes that took songs from romantic, swooning interludes to hyperspeed thrashing in a heartbeat.