Screamadelica, XTRMNTR, More Light: Excess, Distress, Protest
May 31, 2013 | by Faber Social
The past twelve months have seen the return in live and studio form of three bands who, two decades ago, wrote the last chapter in the story of innovation in rock at the fag-end of acid house. The Third Coming of The Stone Roses proved much more lucrative, if less chaotically entertaining, than The Second Coming of 1994. Original line-up restored, with the redoubtable Mani back in the bass seat, the Roses now seem to occupy a place in the collective pop consciousness akin to the Beatles: find fault with their gorgeous oeuvre of perhaps two dozen classic tracks if you dare, but you’re either a scouser or a cynic if you deny their regal place at the top table of British rock. They’re bullet-proof. They’re National Treasures.
For years – twenty-two of them in fact – there had been rumours about the studio return of the Roses avant-psychedelic cousins, My Bloody Valentine. A series of gigs at The Roundhouse three years ago gave little clue as to present creativity or future new direction but we were reminded (48 hours tinitus after the show helped) why they were once classified the chemical weaponry of live rock n roll. And then, as if out of nowhere, the brilliantly, banally titled, MBV arrived earlier this year. It was immediately – with no hesitation, and little dissent – proclaimed a masterpiece just about everywhere. As Kitty Empire in the Guardian said, ‘it picks up more or less where Loveless left off‘, and it seems (and why not?) this was enough for most of us. Only with the closing track, Wonder 2, did My Bloody Valentine suggest what direction future recordings might take. Ironically, Wonder 2 dates back to the mid-90s and Kevin Shields’ love affair with drum n bass; so is about as contemporary as Roll With It. Time present and time past point To Here Knows When …
The final act in this slight return of indie rock aristocracy (Oh how I bet they all love that phrase) is of course, Primal Scream, who this month release their magnificent tenth studio album, More Light. Perhaps the least critically revered of this triumvirate of Baggy Revolutionaries, they are the creative fulcrum and hinge between the Roses and MBV in so many ways. Sonically this is true of a band who, like the Roses, look to underground psych (Gillespie’s legendary record collection) and overground ‘60s rock for inspiration. Equally, like the Valentines, they’re often inclined to sabotage their Paisley-tinged instincts with frantic noise, distortion, reverb and the glorious glide guitar of Kevin Shields.
It seems odd now to think after the dissolution of the Roses and the stasis of the Valentines, Primal Scream were the last men standing of that 1991 vintage during the fallow (let’s be generous) Britpop years. It’s even weirder to think Primal Scream – one of the rock n roll names that like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith had become synonymous with a Bacchanal and Lock Up Your Daughters tabloid hysteria – provided a safe house of sorts for Shields and Mani, in what now looks retrospectively like a supergroup, with the fatty tissue associated with the term, burned away. For half-a-dozen years commencing just before the release of XTRMNTR (one of their two acknowledged masterpieces) they were the most imperious, demented, unpredictable and exciting rock n roll band on the planet. These two performances roughly bookend the period I mean:
With Innes and Shields leading the guitar assault and Mani and Gillespie, in their own distinctive ways, anchoring the performance and sharing the spotlight, Primal Scream were epic, aggressive, chaotic and loud.
So why is their critical capital often held to be lower than their two immediate peers, with whom they share so much DNA? And is Bobby Gillespie, do we think ‘bothered’? If a recent, telling interview on Sabotage Times is to be believed you’d think not. Referring to the title of the new album he says, ‘I guess the world’s a dark place and we could do with more light in. It sounds a bit clichéd, but I don’t know what else to say. I mean I could sit here and pretend to tell you why I thought it was a good title, but everybody seems to like it, so, if anybody doesn’t like it, then fuck ‘em, you know? They can go and eat my shite.’ You can take the boy out of Scotland …
This is the attitude that has always endeared me to Gillespie, and to much of the band’s catalogue over the years. His honesty and his intelligence married to his encyclopedic knowledge and fearlessness, have taken him to places both familiar and experimental on the frontiers of rock, pop, soul, psych, dub, RnB, gospel, house and techno. And when Primal Scream get the blend right, as they do so often on More Light over the course of a coherent and measured 60 minutes, their sound is still uniquely powerful; uniquely them.
More Light concludes a loose trilogy of Primal Scream releases that began in 1991 with Screamadelica and continued through XTRMNTR in 1999. These albums represent the yin yang of the band’s psyche, and there’s an argument to say More Light sits in the middle somewhere. Certainly it is more light than dark – the tripwire psychosis sometimes ventured on the latter album. Superficially, you could split the album between the two opposing poles of the band’s psychedelic spectrum: the lyrics (some of Gillespie’s best for years) recall the frenzied cut-up situationist style of XTRMNTR, while musically, the album settles into a varied, experimental texture that fits the template of Screamadelica. But that would be to radically simplify the thirteen tracks here. The range is the most impressive of any album since Screamadelica; and if at times this means some tracks sound like Primal Scream covering Primal Scream classics (closing track It’s Alright, It’s Ok), then that’s forgivable on an album that attempts so much from Mary Chain pop-punk in Hit Void, to the loping experimental landscape of Sideman.
But the highlights, indisputably, come in a cluster towards the end of the album with a succession of tracks: Turn Each Other Inside Out, Relativity, and Walking with the Beast. The first, Turn Each Other Out, is surely an homage to CAN, a band Gillespie is known to revere. With lyrics cut up and rearranged from the American poet, David Meltzer, it represents one of several collaborations on the album; the others being with Kevin Shields (obviously), Robert Plant (intriguingly), Mark Stewart and Davey Henderson of the Fire Engines. If Turn Each Other Out is the album’s funkiest (in a CAN, not CHIC way) track, then Relativity is its most schizophrenic, with a time and key change half way through which transforms it from a crazed Swastika Eye style diatribe into a 6/8 Smiths-style ballad. It is astonishing. The penultimate song, Walking with the Beast, concludes a golden run, which may in time, bear comparison with Damaged, I’m Comin’ Down and Higher than the Sun for a consecutive run of peerless tracks on a Primal Scream album. It’s the track destined to soundtrack heartbreak on the album; ultimately, I suppose, taking you back to that Mary Chain classic, Some Candy Talking, only this time the spectre in the song is suicide: ‘There goes another man/ His future in his hands/ Doesn’t know he’s going down/ He’s still laughing as he drowns/ His pain is his disease/ Hurts him everytime he breathes/ Hates himself and everyone/ He’s sucking on a loaded gun.’
There’s a sense that More Light exists at a tipping point in the culture. After the hedonistic abandon of Loaded, Come Together and Don’t Fight it Feel It came the barbed wire pre-millennial jitters of Kill All Hippies and the colossal MBV Arkestra on XTRMNTR. These albums bookend the ‘90s perfectly, articulating the shift from psychedelics to uppers, the disappointing inertia of club culture (at the end of that decade) and the imminent return of garage rock in the form of The Strokes and White Stripes. XTRMNTR is a nasty album but it is exhilarating in its nastiness, and purposeful, or ‘useful’, as Julian Cope would have it. More Light initially seems to pick up its narrative path, at least lyrically, from XTRMNTR, but mellows and the music follows. It has a narrative like all great albums should: highs, lows, opaque avenues and ringing moments of clarity. It is an angry album, but more disillusioned in its observations, tone and texture, than revolutionary. It is a call to arms: but not the AK47 and napalm one might associate with XTRMNTR. Gillespie’s weapon of choice on More Light is the education one might associate with an autodidact: ‘Read your Marx and Engels’, he says.
This is the most radical and enjoyable Primal Scream album for over ten years and it perhaps shows the band entering a new, more experimental stage. With psychedelia again all the rage (Tame Impala, Temples, Toy, Hookworms, Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs), More Light should soundtrack the summer ahead. There’s enough light and shade here to cater for sun and/or showers: a very British psychedelia indeed.
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