A new section where I look back at albums in my past. They may be great albums, they may be albums that haven't stood the test of time. But these are albums I bought and loved at one point, and maybe haven't listened to much in the meantime. More importantly, this is a way of giving some airtime to bands or albums that maybe I've not covered much in recent times, and also, there is some element of the personal to this, too – many of these albums have been cherished by me at one point or another, having memories and experiences attached to them, and I'd like to celebrate that link too. So more than anything, perhaps expect more in-depth writeups in this section than I might otherwise do.
I'm going to start this new series with a look at a much-cherished album of mine, that we only recently realised that a friend (originally from the US) had never actually heard, despite being a fan of this kind of industrial-metal hybrid generally. So what better time than now to revisit it?
Also, Pitchshifter are one of my favourite bands, period. Between 1996 and 2008, I saw them fifteen times live (more than any other band), and thirteen of those times were by 2002 – indeed the last time was at Damnation Festival in 2008, and aside from one or two gigs since, they have been all-but-inactive, suggesting that despite intentions to release more new material, this may not now happen after all.
I listened to all of their material a lot over the years, but after a while really concentrated on three albums (Desensitized, Infotainment? and the album in question here), as in my opinion the earliest stuff is a bit rough'n'ready, while the later stuff lost most of the industrial fury that they had harnessed for so long. But that middle period, while initially drawing very much on the sounds of others (Godflesh in particular), swiftly morphed into a sound that was entirely their own, and quickly gained them the approval of the music press on both sides of the Atlantic and legions of new fans.
And that peak is what I'm looking at here. I had a good idea of what was coming some time before the buzz about the album really began in earnest, as I'd seen the band roadtest a few of the new songs for the first time back in summer 1997 – at the much-missed Tuesday night club night Feet First at the then-Camden Palace (now KOKO), an alternative/metal club night that had a band play each week, and somehow they managed some pretty big names, for a pittance of a door fee. Pitchshifter were that band one Tuesday around May 1997, as my disastrous (academic-wise, anyway) first year at University came to a close. They opened with a ripping Microwaved, and closed with Please Sir – the only two new songs I remember them playing at the time, and those of us that attended were pretty much blown away by the leaner, meaner live sound that the band had harnessed.
The album, when it arrived the following spring, was met with rapturous reviews in the press, and also saw the band gain something of an audience in the US, and eventually sold quite a lot, comparatively – apparently well over 60,000 in the US alone, numbers nowadays that small(er) metal bands like Pitchshifter were at the time would absolutely kill for.
So why was it so popular? Perhaps it was simply a case of right album, right time. The context of the music around at the time helps: after bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails had hit the big time earlier in the nineties, every record label wanted their hands on "industrial rock" bands, and many unlikely bands made it to major labels, and a great many more clogged the rosters of independent labels too. A few became stars, a few had their fifteen minutes, and probably many more sank without trace. By 1997, the first wave had petered out, and we were edging into the nu-metal era, which co-opted from both industrial and hip-hop in different ways to before, and indeed few bands around that time were overtly industrial (Orgy were pop-industrial metal, while Videodrone were deeply, deeply strange, for example), so Pitchshifter filled something of a niche. The previous album – well, I say album, but with just eight proper songs and a running time of less than half-an-hour it was stretching the term album a bit – Infotainment? suddenly saw the band's grinding, ultra-heavy industrial metal snap into focus, and on tracks like Underachiever (the thundering opening track) they even dabbled in drum'n'bass, while songs like Virus were anthemic as all hell (and remained, on-and-off, in their live set until their most recent shows).
The almighty punch of www.pitchshifter.com was not exactly a surprise, then, and I remember in the spring of 1998 the metal press getting really quite excited about the release, too, especially when lead single Genius dropped. A thundering, dancefloor monster driven relentlessly forward by it's 130BPM rhythm (even if it feels faster) and a simplistic but, er, genius bassline…not to mention a sparse set of lyrics that were immediately anthemic. Not surprisingly, it caught on in metal clubs quickly.
When the album arrived in full – remember, in those days before MP3s really caught on (and we didn't really have the bandwidth on our internet connections, either), if songs weren't on covermounted CDs in music magazines, or played on the radio, we were going into albums almost totally blind – it was clear that the buzz in the press was absolutely correct. The band had changed, moving perhaps towards a more accessible sound, while evolving and not losing the politically furious edge that they had already developed on previous albums.
Frankly, the album was stuffed with future live/club anthems, and even to the apparent end of the band's live appearances, no less than five songs from the album were live staples (Genius being one of them). So let's look at those first. Microwaved opens the album, a hailstorm of breakbeats and distorted guitars, that takes until the first chorus absolutely explodes before really getting going – needless to say the track remained a set opener for some time (although interestingly, after "D" Walters left the band, they removed a lot of the electronic beats and the track slid down the set a bit, mainly as it didn't have half the "oomph" it did before). The other three are the centrepiece of the album, and like the whole album, flow right into each other, barely pausing for breath.
So we start with track five, Subject to Status, which starts with another of Mark Clayden's distorted basslines, before gradually winding into action, adding element by element, before it rips into life with a punky feel that punctuates this mid-section of the album. This then flows straight into possibly the most popular Pitchshifter song of all, a long-time live favourite – W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G.. Another breathless build – with more drum'n'bass influences than any other song yet by the band, and according to the liner notes is a paltry 90BPM. Don't let this fool you – it's a storming sub-four minute track that really should have made Pitchshifter (alt-)MTV stars in the US and on this side of the pond, too. And that breakdown later on? I still know the count-in for the blistering finale that follows it to the second even now.
For me – and I know my girlfriend amongst others will probably disagree – Please Sir is the weakest of these five tracks. Taking the punk/drum'n'bass direction even further, this anti-racism, pro-education blast was the live-set closers for aeons, but for some reason (and I've never quite put my finger on why), I've never loved this track as much as the others.
The drum'n'bass influence shows much more in later tracks, and once again it is important to note the context here. Drum'n'bass only really hit it big in the mid-to-late 90s, having been a big underground thing (spawning partly from jungle) for a few years before, especially in London. Pitchshifter were one of the first metal bands to explore the possibilities (only Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie, that I can recall, were the other alternative-leaning, never mind metal, artists that were doing similarly at the time), and the second half of this album was really where it came to the fore (they had dabbled on Infotainment?, particularly on the instrumental Hangar 84, of course).
Disposable – the first PSI track to include acoustic guitars (!) – finished with a furious D'n'B section, while A Better Lie and What's In It For Me? were both full of skittering breakbeats and D'n'B rhythms – the latter including entire sections without guitars at all, and then there was the filler track that linked the two, Innit, which was full-on D'n'B instrumental. Normal service, of sorts, was resumed with the grinding, industrial-metal attack of I Don't Like It, which also contained another anthemic vocal from JS Clayden, apparently raging against an overly commercial society that always wants the next new version, the next shiny thing (something we are probably even more guilty of, fifteen years on).
A couple of the other tracks, while pretty much filler to me, still do the job. Second Hand – being between Microwaved and Genius – is a strong, electro-metal assault, but kinda pales by virtue of it's position in the album, while Civilised (another breather between faster and better songs) still kinda passes me by too. And then there is the final track – ZX81, which takes the metal elements of the band's sound, tosses them out of the window and goes full-on D'n'B, for a seven-minute epic.
In retrospect, it's remarkable that an album this forward-looking, for the time, made it on a major label. Certainly nothing like this would ever make it nowadays, although this album was the only one Pitchshifter made for Geffen. Like so many other bands of the time, they fell victim to label consolidation as the new world of music and the internet began to bite, and while the follow-up was on Universal/MCA, the less industrial, more punk elements of the album didn't exactly set the world on fire (although it certainly had it's moments). And PSI, released independently by the band – and their last album, to date – was middling at best, sadly, a shadow of the former band.
The thing is, live the band were always a formidable force, and JS Clayden was always forthright about moving his band forward, not simple staying put and rehashing the same material on each release. Which was admirable, and was also a cut-above many of their peers, who flatly refused to move on. Although as I've noted earlier, this album has been one I've listened to relatively regularly for all of the fifteen years since release, and probably remains one of my favourite albums.
Not perfect, by any stretch, but a glimpse of a music future that did eventually catch on. Alternative/metal jumped in with drum'n'bass, and indeed many other forms of dance music, to a much greater degree in the years that followed, and we can thank/curse (delete as applicable) Pitchshifter for their part in making that happen. This album, more than any other in their career, blazed a trail that turned out to be white-hot for others, and those others reaped most of the benefits, needless to say.