Onto part eight 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.
There is another reason, other than Cold Waves, as to why I pushed back this post to Thursday. Because, twenty years ago today was the day that I first attended a gig with the intention of reviewing it, sent there by ROAR, the King’s College London student newspaper. I’d signed up that week, during Fresher’s Week, and was very surprised indeed to get a gig to write about within days, after the Music Editor collared this young fresher on campus “as I liked metal, right?”. I did, and still do.
Do We Speak A Dead Language?
So, Sunday 29-September 1996, I headed down to the LA2, to watch this most incendiary of rap-metal bands tear the venue a new one (I wrote more about this on 235: Twenty Years of Gigs). At the time they were promoting their new album, and one that really should have catapulted them into a higher league – except label issues (and jail time, as I recall) stopped them in their tracks, and it was nearly five years before another album arrived (at least one intriguing interview since is archived online). Yes, it was chugging, hard-edged metal with a rapper on top, but the crucial thing was that Ray Oropeza was the real deal. A guy from South Los Angeles who’d seen his father killed by the LAPD, had served time as a teenager himself, and was bristling with fury at the state of things in his home city, which came out in song after song. Rather than vengeance, though, his songs were about dealing with his fury, bettering himself and others, making a difference (the lead single from this album? The blistering Empower). It has maybe dated a little, but thanks to it’s place in my own history, this band and album are vitally important. Inadvertently, they were my route into writing about music, that I’ve (somehow) now done for twenty years. Thanks, Ray.
One of the perhaps forgotten bands of the mid-90s, partly because they only ever released one album and vanished pretty quickly. Heavy heroin use sank the band, sadly, and both vocalists died young (Yank in 2000, Andy Frank in 2008). That drug use very much governed the direction of their sound – dense, sludgy rock music, songs that sprawled (Floored is an album of just ten songs that stretches to beyond seventy-five minutes), and lyrics of such astonishing self-loathing and darkness that make the album (in retrospect, at least) a tough listen. That said, it still has some amazing moments. The buzzing, driving rock of Whole is still awesome, while I’ve heard few bleaker songs than the barely-there ballad So Long Low.
As acts of near-career suicide go, Luke Haines’ solo concept album about the 70s German terrorist group was a pretty spectacular one. Some distance from arty indie-rock of The Auteurs, this fuzzy, guitar-electro funk that was actually very good indeed, but nowhere near what most people at the time were willing to listen to. Which was a shame, really. Haines played the whole album a few years back at Bush Hall, and it has held up remarkably well…
Life is Peachy
After the breakout success of their self-titled debut – the album that, really, kickstarted all the cliches of Nu-Metal, and still sounds pretty good even now – I remember their second album being something of a disappointment, and listening to it again this past week has only re-inforced this. There are a couple of monster tracks, but the rest is already tired rehashing, or has since become Nu-Metal jokes (A.D.I.D.A.S., for a start).
After the gritty, grimy realism of the first two albums – and the loss of guitarist Bernard Butler, it was questionable exactly where Suede were going to go after that. Remarkably, the arrival of Richard Oakes – just eighteen when he joined! – seemed to transform the band, and Coming Up had a glossy sheen both literally and figuratively, with an album of stomping pop songs (led off by the first single Trash and then the perennial set closer of Beautiful Ones) balanced by sweeping, elegant ballads. Yeah, so some of the lyrics are a bit naff, but Suede sounded amazing on this album – and were just as electrifying live at the time, too. After the lush re-issues of their whole catalogue a few years ago, though, I’m really not sure we need yet another version of this album this autumn, mind…
You know, I remember nothing of this band aside from two songs, both from this album. One was a truly, truly terrible cover of I Will Survive (seriously, don’t. It’s worse than you remember). The other song is the once-ubiquitous The Distance, which has an amazing bassline to open it, and a guitar riff that is instantly recognisable too, not to mention the song being pretty catchy too. Very much of it’s time, though, and something about that riff gives me that nagging feeling that it was borrowed from somewhere else. But it could be just the sheer number of times I’ve heard this song over the years…
The solo project from the man behind Ultraviolence, this project was chiefly notable for one exceptional single, North Korea Goes Bang (the single was released sometime before, but it was on this release). Martial drumming combined with pounding gabber beats and the titular refrain repeated ad infinitum, and that’s about it, really – but fuck me, this sounded amazing in clubs. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot I can say about this album – my copy disappeared somewhere many years ago, and I’ve not heard anything else from it in a long, long time…
Better Living Through Chemistry
There have been more surprising career trajectories, but Norman Cook’s is still a bit odd. First seen in cardigans and knitwear as part of the Housemartins in the eighties, then had a huge hit with Beats International, a few more projects inbetween, thenhe hit the bigtime in the mid-to-late 90s as a star of the Big Beat scene under his moniker Fatboy Slim. He crossed over to repeatedly top the charts and become a huge festival draw (culminating in the insane 250,000 people that are reckoned to have attended Big Beat Boutique II on Brighton Beach in 2002).
But before 1998’s You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby cleaned up, this album was a minor hit in the Big Beat scene, and the elastic bassline of Everybody Needs a 303 was another awesome club hit.
You see, though, in that same scene, if you wanted dancefloor dynamite, Barry Ashworth was your man. His first single was this absolutely monstrous bass-driven track, that hit dancefloors like a pipe bomb and crucially was just as killer off it. I remember seeing Barry DJ at the Heavenly Jukebox (when it was at it’s peak, at Turnmills) sometime in the first half of ’97, and as the bass emerged out of the previous track, the packed dancefloor went absolutely batshit. Their debut album Point Blank actually took until 1998 to arrive, and was perhaps a whole lot more eclectic than I expected – and he rather lost me with the ska tracks (that was never my bag). But this track eternally remains once of the best dancefloor tracks I’ve ever heard.
A bitterly divisive band even now – nearly ten years since they last released a new album! – Ænima remains this most difficult and complex of metal bands most accessible album, and even that is a matter of relativity. How many bands can boast hit singles that deal with anal fisting, Jungian theory, and the wish for an earthquake to flood Los Angeles, but wrapping them up in quasi-radio friendly sounds? (Not to mention other songs that deal with L. Ron Hubbard (the still astonishing Eulogy), drug use to reach higher states, abuse, oh, and trolling listeners with a recipe for hash cakes in German). It is also one of those albums that is so, so important to listen to in one whole, as the album flows so well, with various shorter interludes bridging the gaps between wildly different songs and styles.
Yeah, so I saw Tool a couple of times around the release of Lateralus, but I’ve been kicking myself for pretty much twenty years for passing up a ticket for their show at the Astoria in early 1997 (the whole thing is on YouTube in surprisingly good quality), where Maynard appears to be painted from head to toe (and glowing under UV), while bassist Justin Chancellor was covered in black spots (and otherwise similarly luminous). Also, though, that setlist.