Part four of my monthly rundown this year of tracks from 1996 that broadly, I still love now.
From this point on in 1996, alternative releases accelerated. There were countless important albums that summer and into autumn, and this was only the beginning of an impressive release schedule. As I’m sure has already been ascertained, my music tastes were (and remain) fairly eclectic, and 1996 was one of those years where your attention had to be seemingly everywhere just to keep up.
By 1996, Cubanate were quite a force in the British Industrial scene. Oxyacetalene (from previous album Cyberia) had already become a fixture on industrial club dancefloors, but their major success in soundtracking video games was to come a year or so later (Gran Tourismo came later in 1997, as I recall). So, the big question for any band is, how do you follow your biggest song? Cubanate just simply made things harder, heavier and nastier. Barbarossa, as the name suggests, sounded like the industrial scene, led by Cubanate, had unleashed sonic war on everyone. It sounded huge, threatening and just a little scary. The title track had the hook “Lets Go To War!“. The first single – which I still remember picking up on CD from Badlands in Huddersfield, and I still have it – was a little different, at least at first listen. Joy opens with a cascading drum pattern, before Marc Heal bursts through the door and roars his vocals, while the bassline drops through the floor and the track builds and builds until absolutely exploding into the chorus. That the song stops dead at the end seems rather apt. Sadly only the extended version was available online for the playlist, which rather fucks with the dramatic opening and pacing of the track. The original, shorter single version has far more punch and sounds amazing really, really loud (as most Cubanate does). Really rather hoping this gets included in the set when Cubanate return at Cold Waves V in September…
After the left-field success of Maxinquaye – an album that is still unique in feel twenty-one years on – Tricky rather clearly had a disdain for the trappings of fame and was not keen in following in the same mould. So this album followed quickly in spring 1996, didn’t get half the attention of its predecessor and rather deserved better. A darker, mellower album than Maxinquaye, a number of tracks are collaborations with high-profile names (BjÃ¶rk, Terry Hall, Alison Moyet) and invariably the songs are great. Pick of the album, though, is the austere, slow-motion elegance of Poems, where the beats and samples are barely there, simply providing a foggy shroud for Tricky and Terry Hall’s gorgeous, soulful vocals.
This is one that I was really, really surprised to discover that it is twenty years old. I mean, I know it has been around forever, but twenty? Fuck. I’m fairly certain I was a little later to Apop, sometime before Welcome To Earth cemented their position at the top of the-then Futurepop tree, but I’ve known 7 so well since that it is being included here.
7, of course, was not as straight-up pop as what followed. This was a little murkier, rather more goth (remember, Love Never Dies (Parts 1 & 2) are credited in the liner notes as being Stefan Groth’s “alternative themes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), but none the less irresistable. The belting industrial-goth single Non-Stop Violence (with near-endless refrain that takes it to nearly seven minutes including two fade-outs) was not the only dancefloor hit, either – Love Never Dies (Part 1) (one of many songs to fall foul of the Carl Orff estate in attempting to use elements of his O Fortuna – ironic seeing that Orff was simply adapting an ancient poem to music) and Deep Red at least were also massive hits.
Groth has long since moved his Apop project in other directions, of course, most notoriously into pop-rock, but this remains one of his most beloved anthems (and albums, too), and as I’ve noted before, he seems to have something of a troubled relationship with his older material.
I was still in sixth form when the debut album from Ash, 1977, dropped in spring 1996 (and was immediately a big hit). Indeed, when their first EP (Trailer) came out, they were still in school. Right from their debut single Jack Names The Planets, it was obvious that they were a skilled band, well-versed in rock/punk history and a hell of a line in pop hooks. So once singles Kung Fu, Girl From Mars and Angel Interceptor – the wonderful 60s-pop-meets-punk-rock of the latter featured here – all charted, what seemed like the rest of the world caught on too.
But for those of us of a similar age to the band, and in a similar scene in other parts of the country, their early rise was something of seismic importance. Other people of our age making a success in music. Writing awesome songs. Writing awesome songs that we could directly relate to (the lost love of Girl From Mars, love of shlocky films in Kung Fu, teenage summer love in Goldfinger, etc). Alright, so I wasn’t one of those that went and formed bands as a result of this kind of thing (many of my friends did, some of them are still in bands now), but it was bands like Ash that convinced me to pick up the pen and start writing. Twenty years on, I’m still doing it.
The It Girl
Perhaps one of less remembered Britpop bands – and one who haven’t exactly had a positive critical appraisal as time has passed, either – one thing Sleeper can have the credit for is resulting in the phrase “sleeperbloke“, referring to the anonymous male members of a band behind a female singer, as was very much the case with Louise Wener and Sleeper. Anyway – they had broken through with the big hit Inbetweener from their debut Smart, and The It Girl was the follow-up, which also saw a number of relatively high-charting singles (all four hit the top twenty, in fact), but that was their peak. The last of these four singles was Statuesque, a taut and snappy indie-pop song that was, as far as I could tell, purely about trying to get her partner “in the mood”, so to speak.
I’m not sure that there has ever been an odder hip-hop album than this. Ever.
As his wiki puts it, “Dr. Octagon is an extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet Jupiter”, and Kool Keith (ex-Ultramagnetic MCs) delves deep into this alter-ego with complex, mind-bending rhymes and imagery that is plain weird. This was hip-hop as sci-fi horror, avoiding the usual cliches of guns, women and money in hip-hop at the time for a surreal, imagined world where nothing is as it seems (and presumably hallucinogens must have been involved somewhere). Despite the curious subject matter, it was a quite wonderful album, and the laconic, woozy nature of Blue Flowers is the perfect introduction to the rest of the mayhem.
The point where Pitchshifter began their move towards the metal mainstream, after a few years of mining a very-Godflesh like seam. Desensitized had produced one minor breakthrough in the anti-fascist grind of Triad (a regular in their live set until they finally disbanded a few years back), but Infotainment? was a drastic change. While the songs were still (mainly) heavy as hell, there was a clarity in the mix that simply wasn’t there before, and as well as that, there was dabbling in drum’n’bass rhythms (indeed a full immersion in them on the instrumental Hangar 84) shown most clearly in the debut single Underachiever – skittering beats, savage guitars and JS Clayden’s roared vocal. This album, too, was a (short – ten tracks, barely thirty minutes) stepping stone towards greater things, with www.pitchshifter.com blowing them into another league entirely two years hence. Around this time, too, was the first time I saw Pitchshifter live – a band I saw fourteen times over the following fourteen years or so, and they never failed to deliver.
Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky
Everything Must Go
The Manics of early 1996 were in a strange place. After their searing album The Holy Bible in 1994, principal lyricist Richey Edwards had simply vanished (only declared legally dead years later), raising questions over whether the band would continue. Urged by his family to do so, they did, and returned in spring 1996 with the glorious, rousing A Design For Life, a string-laden paean to the inhabitants of their home area of the Welsh Valleys that doubled as a life-affirming anthem for many others. Indeed, like that single, the album was very different to what had come before, but it did use some of Richey’s left-over lyrics, and the difference between those songs and those written later were at points very stark. None more so than on the delicate Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky, where James Dean Bradfield delivers a Richey-penned lyric reflecting on the experiences of caged animals as a metaphor for adult life, and the result is a devastating three minutes.
Seeing this album in full on Saturday in Swansea – along with twenty thousand others all bellowing the words to many of the songs – was quite something, too. This was always an album that sounded like it was meant to fill stadiums, really, and at (many) points it bristled with emotion too. But this track had tears filling my eyes, I’ll admit . There is something about it that always has, but seeing James deliver it solo onstage showed just how raw some of the memories of that time still are for him, and just made the song even more affecting.
The main support to the Manics on Saturday, the Super Furry Animals, co-incidentally released their debut album on the same day as Everything Must Go (which may have something to do with why they were picked for the show). SFA chose not to just play that album, but instead played an intriguing set that covered most of their career (included their crackers new single Bing Bong), and of course culminated in an extended The Man Don’t Give A Fuck, complete with yeti suits and techno-noise interlude. But songs from that marvellously odd debut were played, and it was remarkable how many of the crowd were singing along and going absolutely mad. Now I think about it, it is really remarkable how this band got as popular as they did.
Less Britpop and more Psychedelic pop, they were often difficult to decipher, had wildly disparate influences and sometimes that general feeling that they simply went with ideas as they had them, rather than planning where they were going. But out of that, they came out with some quite wonderful songs, had one of the sweariest singles ever released, and have persevered for two decades on their own terms. This song, sadly not played on Saturday, is one of their more straightforward songs, a swooning, sixties-esque ballad that was one of the very first songs I heard by them.
While Cleansing easily remains Prong’s high water mark, Rude Awakening is better than many suggest. Particularly the roaring opener Controller, where the hints of industrial production on the previous album becomes the main event – the bruising, stomping programmed drum rhythm dominates from the off, the impressive riffage taking second billing to Tommy Victor’s bellowed vocals – and this sets the stage for the whole album, where the electronic side very much makes more of a showing.