A second month of digging back into my memory bank to look at releases from 1997.
As I noted last month, this series (1996 and now 1997) has allowed a deeper look into my musical past than my normal writing allows, and has unearthed all kinds of memories, both musically and also of friends I’ve long since lost contact with (with a tiny handful of exceptions, I lost contact with most of my friends in my London days in the nineties).
In addition, this ten turned out to be releases which inspired me to write quite a bit. It’s amazing what baggage you can find attached to a four minute piece of music.
By 1997, The Orb had become a bit of a standing joke for the alleged pointlessness of ambient music, with the general view that there wasn’t much to it – despite upon closer listening, The Orb were often fascinating soundscape artists, exploring the reaches of space as well as earth, even with unlikely chart hits along the way. Orblivion, though – Jean-Michel Jarre nod Toxygene aside – was a whole lot darker, and a whole lot harder, with thundering beats and even the odd incursion into drum’n’bass. Where there weren’t beats, though, the absence of them was like looking into the abyss. The album climaxes, though, with the astonishing centrepiece that is S.A.L.T., an eight-minute, (eventually) thrashing monster of a track that samples heavily from David Thewlis’s crazed rants in the Mike Leigh film Naked, and the treatment of Thewlis’s voice makes it sound like the apocalypse really is ’round the corner.
Ballad of Big Nothing
In retrospect, it was perhaps obvious that Elliott Smith’s delicate, bleak balladry would never survive the glare of the mainstream. It was also clear that by this album, if not long before, that Smith was not in a good place. While the songs themselves are musically sparse, and elegant in a damaged, proud kinda way – the lyrics detail all kinds of mental issues, relationship trials, and endless self-doubt, and it’s remarkable to think that almost exactly a year after this was released, he was receiving an Academy Award nomination – and performing at the Awards ceremony – for his song Miss Misery on the acclaimed film Good Will Hunting. The signs of what he could do, though, were shown most clearly with the glorious moment of the clouds clearing on this album – at least musically – in the form of Ballad of Big Nothing. This is another album associated with my uni years, too, with my closest friend of the time being obsessed with his songs. It took me a little longer to truly appreciate his brilliance, and sadly I didn’t have much time to appreciate it while he was alive – Smith died as a result of two stab wounds (it was never fully ascertained as to whether they were self-inflicted or not) in 2004. See also – this wonderful short video recently released by Pitchfork to explain the wonder of this album in five minutes.
Into My Arms
The Boatman’s Call
I could be here all day about how elegant and how dignified this album is in the face of loss – something Nick Cave has of course returned to in recent years, but in a different way. The Boatman’s Call is an album about lost love, in the main, and that sadness seeps through every single pore.
An extraordinary about-turn after the over-the-top lunacy and “fun” (no, really – it’s a hoot) of Murder Ballads, the whole of The Boatman’s Call is a sombre affair, mainly with Nick Cave accompanied by the piano and not a lot else. Even despite the shock that it was at the time, it’s a glorious album, full of intelligent lyrics, thoughtful songs and for the most part is a work of unutterable beauty. Needless to say, I could pick any number of songs to feature (and have recently had the stirring chorus of Brompton Oratory in my head after setting foot in the titular building, one that always leaves a lump in my throat: “And I wish that I was made of stone / So that I would not have to see / A beauty impossible to define / A beauty impossible to believe“), but I’ve plumped for the glorious single, which is a simple tale of love, something that ten years before it would be almost inconceivable that Cave would ever write.
Electro Glide In Blue
Apollo 440 were an act that never really fitted in – flitting between styles was their style. By this album – which contained their biggest hit Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub, which fused Van Halen riffage to acid techno – they were exploring whatever they wanted. The first single from this album, though – which has been forgotten in history a bit – was a staggering electronic tribute to the jazz drumming maestro, which sampled Krupa’s amazing drumming and added other beats and synth hooks all ’round it, and sounds like it has the limitless energy that characterised the old master’s drumming.
Actually released twice on two labels – this is the US release date on Metropolis, as the European release was actually in December of 1996 on Off-Beat – this brilliant album was kinda a supergroup release, with Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber joined by input from Marc Verhaeghen of The Klinik – himself an original member of Noise Unit – and Haujobb, then rising stars of Industrial. This was also the last release under the Noise Unit name for nearly a decade, but stands tall for me as a staggering work of industrial electronics. Shorn of vocals, the album is to a point of a kin with Front Line Assembly’s Hard Wired that came the year before, with choppy guitars adding jagged textures to ambient passages and tech-industrial dance workouts alike. Dominator is one of the latter – partly a throwback to early nineties FLA, partly a look to where Leeb was going with the parent project, but really, it still slays even now – and with plans afoot (again, I know) to potentially bring back Rivet later in the year, this really should be in my DJ sets again.
Symphony of Treble
Fake Can Be Just as Good
Remarkably now a band that have been active for well beyond twenty years – few noisier alternative bands of the time survived past the millenium, never mind further than that – this band were always oddballs, and I have to confess that I rather lost touch with their work over the years.
This album, though, was different. I remember a friend at the time playing me this in a dingy student flat in a pre-gentrification Hackney, somewhere off Mare Street, in 1997. The screeching feedback and guitars-through-any-number-of-FX-pedals means that finding the songs underneath took a couple of listens, but Symphony of Treble (which does what it says on the tin) sees Kazu Makino taking the vocals and adding a softer edge to what is otherwise a song best described as “angular”.
Death In Vegas became critical darlings a couple of years later with the extraordinary hit of The Contino Sessions, but their debut is also well worth a listen, that’s for sure. One of the early acts in the rise of the “Big Beat” scene, like their contemporaries they were drawing from a varied, deep pool of influences and so it was difficult to really say that any of the acts sounded that alike. DiV were one such band, their early singles covering all kinds of bases. Dirt has a monstrous, stomping drum sound combined with doomy riffage, while Rocco and Rekkit gave acid techno downers and tore up the rules – both had squalling, heavily treated guitar samples taking the lead, while bass-heavy drums pounded on the floor, and both were lengthy, six-minute plus workouts at the heart of the album – party music this was not. Elsewhere, dub-reggae influences crop up time and again, and it was interesting that that even these more mellow songs had a menacing edge – something that was realised fully on the follow-up.
Barrel of A Gun
The Depeche Mode that re-emerged in early 1997 was one that really didn’t look in a good way. Alan Wilder had left the band in the aftermath of Songs of Faith and Devotion, and Dave Gahan had (somehow) survived a near-death overdose…needless to say, this album was bleak. What resulted was a band sounding defiant, unrepentant and ready to move on. The darker, quasi-industrial rock tone of previous albums continued, particularly on the snarling grind of the lead single and album opener Barrel of A Gun, where Dave Gahan tackles his demons and issues head on, in a song that sounds like the last vestiges of Gahan giving a fuck about what others think being dumped into a meat grinder. Depeche Mode have continued to spread out their album releases since, with four years being the norm between the albums, presumably to give them time to rest and regroup after each lengthy world tour – and in these musical times, it would be expected of course that the tours are the money-makers. In addition, this and 2005’s Playing The Angel are probably the best of the albums in the post-Wilder years, the others being patchy at best – and the forthcoming Spirit, based on the first single, doesn’t give me much hope that this pattern will have changed.
In this news this week, too, the band offered a furious response to fascists suggesting that they were “one of them”.
I put this album on again, for the first time in a few years (at least), while preparing this post, and I still found myself singing along with every song. Yes, after twenty years, I still know all the words. Feeder, back at this point (before they became unlikely pop stars with top-five single Buck Rogers in 2002) were being heralded by the rock press as “the British Smashing Pumpkins”, which kinda made sense with their processed, alt-rock sound and habit of stuffing otherwise bleak songs with sunny melodies, and their debut album Polythene was something of a sleeper hit.
Basically, with the exception of those of us in the know, the album had rather been passed over to start with, and it only really gained traction with the release of non-album single High later in the year (the success of which then saw the album repackaged, re-issued and High hastily slotted in). But really, there was so much more than just one hit. Few songs stuck around for too long, but stuffed in glorious hooks and hard-edged sounds in every minute, and looking back, High doesn’t half stand out as an oddity. My favourite track, though, is Tangerine, a three minute, buzzing charge with one of those anthemic choruses that the band have always done so well.
This is one of those albums with a vivid memory attached to it, too. That of semi-regular visits down to an old school friend in Southampton (who had gone to Uni there), and his friends there (some of whom will be reading this), and their love of Feeder came from a recent show at the Uni, as I recall. I made some great friends there, and it was something of a happy escape from the tough times I had in London.
The last album of Helmet’s first incarnation, this remains an underrated album to my ears. The last album to feature the brilliant drum work of John Stanier, too (who went on to be part of Battles in the following decade), this album followed the more experimental Betty, an album that I found difficult to love – and judging on the relative failure of Aftertaste, I must have been very much in the minority on my view that this was a return to the Helmet that I loved.
It is full of snarling, ultra-taut rhythms, bone-dry riffs and Page Hamilton’s questioning vocals, that are often criticising others for bringing themselves and others down, and dealing with relational rifts that are frequently never solved. I could be here for a while with songs I love on the album – Exactly What You Wanted punches through the wall from it’s first note, and is three minutes of the best post-hardcore to be released in the late 90s; while It’s Easy To Get Bored is a slower grind that very much belies the title; are just two that I love.
But the final song makes the album worth it alone. Guitar phasing across the channels is the trick to start Crisis King, but it quickly accelerates into a furious four minutes absolutely tearing into that one person you know that always has it worse than you, that always seems to be lurching from one disaster to the next, without ever acknowledging that it could well be them that is at fault. Everything about this song is brilliant, and after the band disbanded then (for the first time, of course), it seemed to be a suitable closing note.