Tuesday Ten: 310
Tracks of the Month (August/September 1997)
1997 in Review
The latter part of 1997 was a pretty strange time. After failing my first year of Uni at King’s, I had to effectively sit out nearly a year before I could retake (which I managed to pass second time around). So, it was back home to the north, and working in retail in Leeds. On the upside, it meant I could do gigs again, get hold of new music, and not miss out. And, it turned out, late 1997 was pretty good.
There was confirmations to myself of bands I later grew to love, second waves of styles I’d long loved, styles I’d never even known about before, and bands who weren’t as great as I thought they were at the time.
Hindsight and reappraisal is a wonderful thing, right?
There is just one more month of my look back at 1997, and I won’t be continuing into 1998. I’ve done enough looking back at this level, and will instead be concentrating energies on looking forward, as there is still a lot to cover.
I remember being played R+ at the beginning of that year. A bookish German engineering student who’d moved into our halls had given me a tape of German and European industrial (opening with Wollt Ihr Das Bett In Flamen Sehen, and also including Dorsetshire and Birmingham 6 among a great many others). I’d picked up Herzeleid in short order, so I knew what was coming when Du Hast hit like an atom bomb on metal dancefloors that summer.
While they weren’t the first, R+ became the best-known Neue Deutsche Härte band by far, and despite their almost universal use of German lyrics, became a massively popular band worldwide. Part of that, of course, was down to their spectacular, eye-popping and fiery live shows, which most of us first discovered thanks to Live Aus Berlin (a common press shot at the time was of Till Lindemann in his metal coat, in flames during the band’s eponymous signature song).
Even if you aren’t especially impressed by the band’s muscular, industrial-metal sound, their live show is pure theatre, and they were the first band that I went abroad to see (in Prague, 2004). I’ve seen them six times over the years, and could never, ever get tired of them in that format. Appropriately enough, too, for such a visual band, they now have an ultra-slick YouTube channel which contains various official live clips, videos and other odds and ends.
The International Language of Screaming
One of a great many bands that were lumped into the wider “Britpop” movement despite not really having anything to do with it aside from being active at the same time, SFA were also part of a group of Welsh bands that very much felt that their origins were important (and indeed their early releases, along with a few later on, were sung in Welsh).
The other odd thing is that SFA were hardly reductivist, retro-obsessed bores like many of the Britpop frontrunners. They had roots in techno, and their interest in that area – not to mention drugs and psychedelia – meant that they didn’t really sound like anyone else, but somehow, just somehow, their woozy, laid-back sound struck a chord. The second single from their second album was the gloriously odd The International Language of Screaming, a buzzing, anthemic and weird two minutes that had lots of “AARGH”s to close it out, doing exactly what it says on the tin.
One of the only “big beat” acts in the first wave to not be British, The Crystal Method came from the party-and-gambling hub of Las Vegas, and much like their peers in the UK, they came with a slamming, bass-heavy sound.
And much like The Chemical Brothers, they also liberally sampled old-school hip-hop, with early single Busy Child taking the vocal hook from the mighty Eric B & Rakim’s Juice (Know the Ledge), but otherwise, this track is a juggernaut of bass and rolling beats, with a dark heart so characteristic of their music – party starter this is not (although that said, I saw this regularly destroy dancefloors around the time of release).
Of course, their crossover potential was confirmed by the release, also around this time, of their scorching team-up with Filter (see Tuesday Ten: 302).
Don’t Die Just Yet
Let’s Get Killed
An artist so indelibly associated with the description “cinematic” that he naturally ended up scoring film soundtracks, and indeed making his own films, his earlier material is certainly open-minded. This lovely, shadowy track has pools of light dappling the darker, shuffling rhythms, street sounds and echoing guitar, with choral samples and spiralling strings never letting the mood go fully dark.
An often underrated musician, he never really got his full due, as far as I was concerned, for his excellent work in the nineties. Many others have followed his route into film over time, but Holmes is still one of the best.
They might have got rather too mellowed out with time, but back in the early days, Incubus kicked ass. Funk-metal-rock without the macho posturing of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and with more than a hint of Faith No More at times, Incubus sounded every bit the Californian surfer dudes that they were, and their music was as often as sunny as the climate that they grew up in. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. has held up surprisingly well, too, with New Skin being one of the most energetic, bouncing rock tracks on the album.
Disco Machine Gun
How To Operate With A Blown Mind
Again out on the fringes, the Lo-Fidelity Allstars emerged apparently fully formed, a chaotic collision of electro, rock, hip-hop and beat-poetry – and with a barrelload of hype. Their first singles were Kool Roc Bass earlier in 1997, which was good, but this was another level entirely.
A charging, disco-funk-rock monster, Disco Machine Gun swiftly ran into trouble after the use of The Breeders’ Cannonball was declined, and it ended up being reworked and renamed (as Blisters on My Brain) as a result. It didn’t lose much – it was still a hell of a track – and only served to heighten anticipation for their debut album, which came in 1998, even more. Important members, including their vocalist, left not long after and to be honest, the band were never the same after that.
Buena Vista Social Club
An album I got into later on, really, following watching the Wim Wenders film of the same title a couple of years later, that documented the process of getting it together. The project was a fascinating one – Ry Cooder painstakingly worked to get together an entire generation of Cuban musicians, pretty much returning them from obscurity, and getting them a level of recognition they’d never had thanks to the sanctions on their country by the US across the period of the Cold War.
The film is a warm-hearted, sweet nod to the joy of music and the good it can do to people’s lives, and the album is a similarly warm listen.
Dots and Loops
Stereolab were a band that I never quite understood at the time. Analog-electronics met with Neu!-influenced rock, and Laetitia Sadier’s voice that always sounded (to me, anyway), like she was just about bringing to bear enough enthusiasm to sing.
But returning to it after many years, it has a sparkle that I perhaps never noticed in the first place, and much of Dots and Loops is a whole lot more “of the time” than I thought then. Parsec, in particular, the skittering beats and multiple-layers owing a lot to the density of drum’n’bass, but taking it in an entirely different orbit.
It is remarkable to think that thirty years ago, Björk had come to attention in the UK thanks to the Sugarcubes’ debut single Birthday, a song that sounded like no-one else, and still doesn’t now. Just ten years later, she was onto her third solo album, and pushing boundaries that she continues to shatter in the present. Homogenic was her first album working with Mark Bell, and the electronics-and-strings sound was a significant move forward from the experimentation and restlessness that had characterised Debut and Post.
The extraordinary, Chris Cunningham video for All is Full of Love is often the one remembered from this album, but my favourite song from the album is the ominous, near-military tattoo beats of Hunter, and the suitably predatory delivery of the vocals.
There were a number of controntational, ugly metal bands from the UK in the nineties, but none had the outright brutality of Iron Monkey. They came to attention in 1996, but that first release was only really properly made available when Earache re-issued it in 1997, bringing it to the wider audience it deserved.
Yeah, so it owed quite a bit to the Sludge/Doom bands of the US like Eyehategod in particular, but Iron Monkey had a jagged, stabbing intensity quite unlike anyone else. This was true, metallic violence in musical form, and needless to say wasn’t ever going to appeal to everyone. Sadly vocalist Johnny Morrow died of a heart attack just five years after this, and while it seemed unlikely the band have apparently reformed with a new singer just this year.
Debate continues to rage on KMFDM nowadays, and recent events have been no exception. The new album HELL YEAH is great (But Listen: 154), but live this month they were their same patchy selves (Into the Pit: 199) as they have been for a good many years now.
Back in the mid-90s, though, KMFDM’s sound was near-revolutionary. Few had managed to combine industrial beats and guitars in quite such an accessible, danceable way, and they were still riding the crest of a creative wave by the time of Symbols in 1997. The lead single from this album was the mighty, electronic pulse of Megalomaniac, their most overtly dancefloor-friendly track ever, and probably one of their best of all.
One of the greatest industrial albums of the 90s, in retrospect, from a band who never really got their due, particularly outside of North America. Their cessation before music really became a thing in the internet – at least to any great degree – really didn’t help with that.
I discussed this album in relative detail with I Die: You Die on We Have A Technical 160, so I’ll just recap a little here. This is an electro-industrial of screaming intensity (and volume), and in my view is the link from that style into what became known as industrial noise. Stalker sits somewhere in between the two styles. Swarms of static blur the quasi-breakbeat base, Don Gordon roars his vocals when they do arrive, and the chorus is like a punch to the gut – but there is melody and delicacy there, it is just having to use sharp elbows to be recognised and heard, much like the band had to do in the morass of industrial bands in the nineties.
Travis appeared as almost a breath of fresh air with their early releases, a sense of humour and self-awareness dominated their tracks and elevated what would otherwise be just run-of-the-mill guitar rock to something more enjoyable. Happy summed up this nicely, really, a song that didn’t really say too much, but provided an upbeat, jumpstart of a song with a chorus that was an almighty earworm.
Of course, they slowed down, got a bit more downbeat, and then released Why Does It Always Rain on Me?, which became a mega-hit and ushered in a time of many, many, balladeering indie-bands. That said, the band themselves were friendly people – I remember working as part of the events team at King’s when we hosted The Man Who album launch in 1999, and it was obvious then that the band had a big hit on their hands.
After the surprise success of Dummy, the pressure must have been intolerable on Portishead to repeat the trick. But, as they have proved time and again since, confounding expectations and doing things on their own terms have been their best way of dealing with everything. Which has included simply not releasing anything or doing things at their own pace – there has been just one further album since 1997 (Third, ten years later), as well as an exceptional live release and then one cover more recently.
The second, self-titled album was dark. The black cover should perhaps have warned us, but it was even bleaker and full of foreboding than Dummy was, lacking in singles and being almost wilfully difficult to get into. But dig into those deeper cuts, and the results were simply wonderful. Late album track Elysium bears all the hallmarks of the band – Beth Gibbons’ unique, tremulous delivery, the scratchy, vinyl-sounding beats, spooky electronics, and then the whole track just disintegrates into a lengthy piano-led mid-section. But more than any of their other songs, this is dripping with malice and desire for revenge, not just a wronged chanteuse.
Catching the Butterfly
29 Sep 97
The Verve’s career was one of squandered chances and messy intra-band relationships, two separate reformations, and one period of gigantic success. Urban Hymns – their third album, after their first reformation – sold ten million copies and was one of the few Britpop-era albums to properly break the US, and while it was a great album, it lost a lot of the “out there”-ness of the earlier, space-rock material.
I remember first hearing Bittersweet Symphony. As I recall it was played at Trash first, the legendary indie club of the time in London, which I was at that night if I recall it correctly, and it was like a bolt from the blue, and the success of this band that had been so unfortunate in the past made me want to punch the air.
On the album, though, away from the singles there were some amazing moments that did hark back to where they had been. One was the beautiful, shimmering colours of Catching the Butterfly, where Nick McCabe’s guitar effects are given free reign on a track that seems like it has been beamed in from the stars.
Come To Daddy (Pappy Mix)
Come To Daddy
Richard D. James had already been all over the place with his style by 1997, with notable ambient and unusual techno, among other styles, but nothing quite prepared us for this. A brutal, intense take on drum’n’bass that took both parts of that to extremes, which would have been striking enough. But this was one of the few tracks where the video was as terrifying as the music. Chris Cunningham, of course, unleashed the darkest corners of his imagination in the bleak dystopia of the video, and Richard D. James’ face could not be more terrifying after watching this just once.
Death to the Pixies
A stellar compilation as interest in the Pixies rekindled in the late-nineties, that basically has no bad songs on it whatsoever (the later Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies expanded the collection by six songs, but I don’t see why as this one was so perfect). Seventeen songs, all essential – and vital to understanding how Nirvana and their peers became worldwide stars. But look beyond the anthemic Debaser, Monkey Gone To Heaven and Where Is My Mind? (among others), the weirder, more unpredictable side of the band wasn’t omitted either.
A Million Lies
Not Like Them
Recently re-activated (see also Talk Show Host: 021 and Tuesday Ten: 296), Misery Loves Co. have in some respects picked up where they left off, continuing their route into a darker, more measured territory rather than the pulsating industrial metal rage of their early years. Their second album Not Like Them was something of a transitional album, containing elements of both, and the lead single was a perfect example of the position they found themselves in. Patrik’s almost-croon-like vocals of the verses gave way to a primal roar on the chorus, and the music shifted with him from swirling electronics and hulking basslines to a stomping metallic attack. I’m still looking forward, though, to see where the resumed journey of Misery Loves Co. takes them next.
If you are a listener that thinks that Oasis did the best B-sides, you are wrong, and you need to listen to Suede more. By far and away the one band who made as much effort with their B-sides as they did with their singles and album material, it speaks volumes that Sci-Fi Lullabies is easily the equal of their first three albums, and in some cases, even better.
A sprawling double-CD covering almost every B-side the band had released up to that point (there were one or two missing, and Stay Together was omitted too), even with the tracks in chronological order it flowed beautifully, but there was the distinct feeling that the band really screwed up relegating some songs to B-sides. Killing of A Flashboy is the obvious one, of course, that still mystifies me even now that it didn’t make it onto Dog Man Star. It was accompanied on the We Are The Pigs single by another glorious song: the enigmatic Whipsnade, which has oddly treated drums and flashes of guitar like violent brushstrokes, and most importantly a swoon of a chorus – and it was a rare treat indeed to hear it at the now-legendary Royal Albert Hall show a few years ago (one of only a handful of times the song has ever been played live).
Jurassic 5 EP
Finally, even by the late-nineties, there was something of a desire to hark back to the recent past already. None more so was this the case than in hip-hop, where a few bands sprung up – again, as it happened at the turn of the nineties too – wanted to duck out of the gangsta rap that had been so prevalent, and provide a more measured, less violent and more positive spin on the music they loved. So step forward Jurassic 5, who hit paydirt with a wonderfully sunny piece of nostalgia, one that sampled a few old songs, referenced a few more, and had an easy-going nature that made it radio-playlisted almost immediately – although it took the UK a bit longer to catch on – and it is still much-loved by many two-decades on, too.