Onto part nine 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 is the final part of the round-up, and to my mind, at least, shows that 1996 ended on an extraordinarily strong note. There are a number of songs – and albums – that in time were seen as modern classics, and were extraordinarily influential in one way or another. There is one artist who became no stranger to controversy (and indeed thrived on it). And there are some artists who should have made so much more of a splash.
But that’s always the way. There are those that break through, those that don’t, and sometimes bands get the respect and success they should have had in the first place years afterward.
This 1996 series has been enormous fun to do. It has allowed me some perspective on a time that was vitally important to my musical tastes, my future direction, and being a pre-social media age, was a rather hazy memory. Remarkably a number of these songs that I picked for the series rekindled memories I’d long though forgotten, allowing a new perspective on both the songs and the time I lived through.
It has also reiterated to me just how different things are now. The internet was still in it’s infancy back then, music was barely available at all online then (the bandwidth simply wasn’t there for the most part), and so there really was more work required to either discover new music, or to obtain it. But it wasn’t all good. Today’s distribution methods at least mean if you do want to get hold of something, you simply need to search for it, and you have choice of where to get it from (for the most part).
That said, I hold no truck with the idea that the past was the best. The current musical scene is still pretty damned awesome, and much of our music is still as invisible to the mainstream as before. And under the guise of amodelofcontrol.com, I’ll continue to do my bit to bring great new music to you, the reader.
Like Gods of the Sun
As I recall, this album was my gateway drug into the world of doom metal. I’d been aware of it prior to this, but nothing had really caught my attention properly, but then one hearing of this swooning, epic slice of romantic doom metal had me hooked from the off.
Like all of the other major doom metal bands – the “big four”, I’d suggest, are My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Anathema and Katatonia – and remarkably all four continue after twenty-five years, My Dying Bride have adapted their sound over time. Like Gods of The Sun saw a subtle change to a perhaps more accessible sound, less growling vocals and more melody, and some of their best songs. I’ve long thought it a toss-of-a-coin to decide which is my favourite MDB album, though – predecessor The Angel and the Dark River or this, and I’m not sure I’ll ever decide for certain.
But this album – all killer, no filler – is certainly still a lynchpin of the entire genre, twenty years on.
Dried Up, Tied Up and Dead To The World
Before this album, Marilyn Manson and his band were a bunch of Florida spooky kids who had released an interesting but unspectacular debut (Portrait of An American Family), followed by a dirty, sleazy take on Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) that was part of a remix album called Smells Like Children – a release that also contained two absolutely exceptional remixes (a staggering, industrial monster of a take on Dope Hat, and a buzzing, snarling rework of Lunchbox), among various other weird offcuts and covers.
That latter release turned out to be an important pointer. Antichrist Superstar – and the legendary tour that followed it – catapulted Marilyn Manson into the big leagues almost instantly, and was a snarling mix of metal, industrial and hate. The Christian Right in the US absolutely hated it, which of course just made Marilyn Manson even more popular, and much of the right wing press were then rather surprised to find MM an erudite, intelligent interviewee who gave as good as he got – not least with his thoughtful response to the Columbine mass killing later.
Yeah, so MM rarely hit these heights again – and has seemingly been in a ever-quickening downward spiral since the fabulous The Golden Age of Grotesque (his last great album) – but if you ever wanted to know why Marilyn Manson was a big thing? Antichrist Superstar is what you need, and isn’t even overlong at seventy-seven minutes and sixteen songs – especially when eight of those are the best tracks MM ever wrote.
The soundtrack to many a late night walking through Central London as I adjusted to my (turbulent) first year as a student – that coincided with the release – I have long associated this album with acute loneliness.
Yes, there are the shit-kicking, Run DMC-sampling tracks Herd Killing/We Have Explosive, but other than that, this is expansive, deep electronics that provokes thought rather than dancing, and at points is a work of exquisite beauty. The single My Kingdom, that expanded into a five-part, twenty-five minute symphony on the EP release, is a shorter beast here, incorporating the iconic vocals from Rachael’s Song (by Vangelis) from Blade Runner to spectacular, elegant effect, but just as affecting was the bleak Everyone In The World is Doing Something Without Me, little more than electronic effects and a distant vocal refrain.
FSOL rather lost me after this – or maybe I lost them, wrapped up in my own world – but this remains my go-to album to remind me that I’m not alone in this world after all.
Her Mouth Is Filled With Honey
Soundtracks for the Blind
Their, er, swansong, if you will, from their first active period was a sprawling, curious beast. Twenty-six tracks, one-hundred-and-forty-one minutes and two CDs, there was a lot to get through. In addition, this was hardly similar to what had come before.
Prior to this, Swans had been through two distinct phases. The first was the bludgeoning, scorched earth power of their earlier material, where they made their statements in simple, direct terms – direct to the gut. They began to mellow around the time of Children of God, where elements of blues and country began to permeate their music, and Jarboe’s voice became important.
So by the time of this album, they could do what they liked. And that they did – it had been announced as their last album, so they did everything. There were tracks that sounded like they came from both previous phases, there was samples, voices, found sounds, curious experiments, and the album was seemingly deliberately set-up with a tracklisting that mixed the whole lot up, so you never knew what you were going to get next.
In retrospect, though, this album made so much more sense once Michael Gira reactivated Swans in 2010, as this wild, bold experimentation – lengthy albums, sprawling, epic songs developed while on the road, extreme volume – became the norm, and incredibly, their popularity increased yet further. In a way, in contrast to the rest of the world, rather than dumbing down, Swans became far more cerebral, and gained more fans than ever before as a result. As they begin to wind down their current phase following the release of the brilliant The Glowing Man, we’re going to miss this band. A lot.
Under Canvas, Under Wraps
I appreciated The Delgados more later down the line (the album Peloton remains their peak, to me), but their debut album – and particularly their pulsating single Under Canvas, Under Wraps – was certainly worth the time. The Delgados were also unusual in starting their own record label – Chemikal Underground, which ended up signing Mogwai and Arab Strap, among others – and perhaps making more of a success of that than their own band ever had.
Which was a shame, really – their angular, taut take on indie-rock music, with dual female-male vocals was apparently built on tension. That is, implied tension between the vocalists in their delivery, melodies stretched to breaking point, and on some later releases, barely disguised ire and hatred throughout every element of songs.
But back here, in 1996, they were still something of a work in progress, but pointers for what was to come were definitely there. The pretty, delicate ballads, and the feedback-filled, punkier songs. The buzzing, snarling Under Canvas, Under Wraps definitely falls under the latter category, and remains one of the band’s best songs.
Romeo + Juliet OST
By 1996, Gavin Friday, the ex-frontman of post-punk/goth band The Virgin Prunes, had long moved into interesting, underground territory. He’d exhibited as an artist in his native Dublin (alongside childhood friend Bono), and released a couple of solo albums, but for me he came into his own with the exceptional Shag Tobacco in 1995. A dirty, sleazy crawl through sordid bedtime antics and interesting sounding nightlife, at points he came across as an even dirtier-minded Jarvis Cocker (just listen to the title track itself), while in others, particularly on Angel, he sounded, well, otherworldly.
Which perhaps explains how this by-then-obscure singer ended up on the brighter lights, bigger stage of one of the blockbuster films of 1996, with one of those songs that fit the film so perfectly it sounded like it was written for it (which I don’t believe it was). A song that is clearly a paean to someone, but obscured in metaphor – and, to be honest, few words, where Gavin Friday’s extraordinary vocal range instead sets the tone, as an instrument in itself. It’s a gorgeous, elegant song that deserved it’s place in the sun. It has to be said, too, that the rest of the soundtrack – one that was open-minded in style, happy to feature punk and industrial rock just as much as it featured torch songs and camp disco numbers – was also great, one of those where the music was so intrinsically linked to the feel of the film.
Flowers In December
Among My Swan
Mazzy Star stripped their sound back even further for their third album Among My Swan, the album having notably sparser arrangements (and a whole lot less reverb, too), not that many of the songs before this had much to them anyway, mind. But at the core, there was little changed – this was another collection of sweetly downbeat, bluesy songs dominated by Hope Sandoval’s gorgeous, rich voice.
Unlike the somewhat surprising success of Fade Into You from So Tonight That I Might See – a song, and album, that – let’s be honest here – probably soundtracked a whole lot of student make-out sessions in the mid-nineties – there was nothing here that apparently held the same appeal. The single Flowers in December was a pretty, delicate song, and was by far the most radio-friendly song here, as must of the rest of the album slipped into deep introversion – and indeed so did the band following this, as they vanished into a long hiatus only broken about sixteen years later with their fourth album (although Hope Sandoval did resurface in 2009 with a solo album).
A band, maybe unfairly, forgotten by many – and memorably featured in 192: Unsung by my friend Matt – there were high hopes in the metal press at the time of the release of this – following in the footsteps of their friends in Type O Negative in particular meant that people had an easy reference point.
The thing was, that other than similar use of multi-part vocal melodies and buzzing, droning guitars, there wasn’t a lot in common. Vocalist Henry Font had a very different vocal range to Pete Steele, and used that higher range with howling histrionics and blustering choruses that maybe, just maybe, in an alternate universe were huge hits. That most people passed them by is one of the greater musical tragedies of the late nineties, that’s for sure.
Midnight In A Perfect World
The one man who finally made hip-hop (and more particularly sampling) into a work of art. Yeah, so others had done amazing things with sampling before, but no-one had quite gone to these lengths. An album almost entirely made of samples of other material, DJ Shadow dug into obscure songs, films, riffs, pretty anything he could find to create a whole new sound that, while rooted broadly in the ideals of hip-hop, took diversions into many other realms along the way and the result was an extraordinary album that twenty years on still sounds as a unique album of almost indescribable beauty.
There are many phenomenal moments here – the ghostly Building Steam With A Grain of Salt, the epic Stem/Long Stem to start with, but the album reaches it’s pinnacle with the basically flawless Midnight In A Perfect World. A shuffling beat and smoky piano melody underpin the song, with a vocal sample that remains just on the side of indistinct, and the result is a song shrouded in shadowy beauty. DJ Shadow never topped this, indeed the many that followed in his wake never did either – the only act to even remotely to try and follow a similar template, The Avalanches, took sixteen years to follow up their debut album. Which perhaps suggests just how much of an achievement this album was.
The first indication of what exactly was coming our way. Big Beat was the Thing, this was the next. French house music became such a thing in the couple of years following. But what’s remarkable is that it very nearly didn’t at all – Soma released this titanic track in 1995, and it nearly disappeared, before The Chemical Brothers started playing it in their sets, and the rest is history.
What’s also interesting, of course, is how this song actually doesn’t bear a relation to the rest of what was to come, really. This was slower – 111bpm – and, as it’s title suggests, had The Funk. But it also had a sinuous synth riff that is the real hook of the song, and must have sounded absolutely amazing to have heard it first in a club (I either heard it on the radio or on MTV first). There is also a great deconstruction and analysis of the track here, too.
Mention has to be made of the iconic video by Spike Jonze, with a dog-headed human (‘Charles’) in one of his first nights out in the Big City, that did so much to getting the song to a vastly wider audience.
Things got even crazier for Daft Punk over the following years, of course, as they became style icons, but sometimes I’m not convinced that they were ever better than this song.