Sunday, 27 November 2011

11 years on: Primal Scream's XTRMNTR

These days, it’s hard to tell where Bobby Gillespie sits in the spectrum of politicised popstars. Played through a media lens, the last decade has seen Primal Scream's foreman swing his cause between socialism and socialising. His barracking of political paradigms and societal unjust is often undercut by supermodel hob-nobbery and a tendency to scattergun red-army style rants with little rhyme or reason(although it is difficult to sympathise with the vile Theresa May). At almost 50, Gillespie may continue talk the talk, but his walk is certainly not what it once was.

Yet, venture back just 11 years and Gillespie's was a voice you wouldn’t dare to fuck with. Amidst the final parps of post-Britpop balderdash, Gillespie was busy taking global capitalism to task, penning odes to black revolutionaries and, as ever, ripping into the core of Tory idealism with pitbull brute. He was, in every sense, the archetypal angry Scot, propping up his granite argumentative streak with a cold, deadened stare.

At a time when Christina and Britney were duelling for pop’s top spot, Gillespie felt like a fully-fledged iconoclast; a ferociously read spawn of a left-wing activist who'd pontificate over politics as readily as he could get his rocks off. This wasn’t the pill-packing hedonist of Screamadelica, or the gak guzzling reprobate of Give Out But Don’t Give Up. This was Bobby Gillespie in his prime; a self-declared cultural warrior in the days before Lower Manhattan was turned to a rubble of bricks, mortar and blood.

It started with Vanishing Point, the 1997 return to form that washed away Give Out’s overbloated blues-rock. Imbued between the notes of its psychedelic whirls and speed freak fuckery was a caustic unwillingness to surrender. It was nasal, grating, alive, unrepentant. The Primals had found their scream and Gillespie, Duffy, Mounfield, et al weren’t in the mood for keeping it down. In fact, aided by a swell of narcotics and the vitriolic posturing of a world adjoined by globalisation but split by idealism, they had no choice. It was them or no-one.

And then XTRMNTR came crashing in. A vowel-less crank of post punk (not post-punk) rancour riding on a beat up trashcan of nihilistic disco, this was the masterpiece Primal Scream had been promising. All Gillepsie’s pre-album posturing had frothed with disdain towards a world disfigured by fat-catisim and western foreign policy. XTRMNTR was the Scream fighting back; the pin being pulled from one almighty hand grenade. As Gillespie put it in an interview in 2000, “It's like an attack... It's not fucking background music. It makes you stand up and take notice.”

He was right. Take notice was all you could do.

Charging out with the Chemical Brothers-tampered single 'Swastika Eyes' - a ferocious, rocket hurtling, two-fingered salutation to oppressive governments and blood-sucking conglomerations - this was the sound of a mainstream band shunting itself to the periphery in the crudest, most innocuous fashion. Realistically, XTRMNTR shouldn’t have shifted units. The record’s rapacious lyrical content, stoic, eastern-bloc production and cranked out butane jazz were light years away from the anodyne climate of chart topping boybands and pop princesses. But XTRMNTR stuck, reaching the top three in the UK album charts(when those things still actually meant something)and spinning headlong into every record of the year list going.

Listening back it’s not hard to understand why. The record rushes through the body’s orifices with psychotic purpose, ambushing you any way it can. 'Accelerator' is a thrash ‘n’ grab fuzz fuck of barbiturate guitar. Album opener ‘Kill All Hippies’’ bleeds hip hop swagger and discombobulating, cyborg synthesiser; while the serrated ‘Insect Royalty’ is a throttling spiderweb of percussion and blaring horns that finds Gillespie howling out diseased, acid-swathed entrails of the English vernacular. It's a relentlesss throng; every crevice is enveloped in white noise - even ‘Keep Your Dreams’’ narcoleptic fug has a certain sadistic terror plunged beneath the xylophone chimes and Gillespie’s cathartic crow.

Played out today, XTRMNTR's still a jagged, awkward squall. Butchered cuts like the free jazz scarred ‘MBV Arkestra’ (Kevin Shields’ unidentifiable remix of Vanishing Point’s funk-smuggling If They Move Kill ‘Em) and exhaust pipe throttling swansong ‘Shoot Speed/Kill Light’ are as oppressive and inhospitable as the ideologies Gillespie despised. And even when the lyrics sag insufferably, as they do on ‘Exterminator’ (“Everyone’s a prostitute/All jails are concentration camps/ all judges are bought”) and ‘Pills’ (Gillespie’s preposterous rap is a Scream nadir), the pounding ballast of junkyard distortion and thumping drums pulls them through like shards of shrapnel plunging into the temples.

Eleven years on and the shock and awe of XTRMNTR’s message has worn off somewhat. This is an era exhausted by war, terrorism, famine and global debt. The anger stage has, to an extent, passed. Optimists would even say we’re at the root of the problem, even if the solution keeps getting further and further away. Yet, it’s unnerving to consider just how precise XTRMNTR was. It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it could have soundtracked any of the game changing events of the last decade: the UK riots, the Arab spring, the London bombings or even 9/11.

Just how far XTRMNTR’s anti-American sentiment would have stretched had it been released a year and a half later is a question we'll never find an answer to. Would Gillespie have dared to attack American foreign policy so vehemently? Would Creation have been brave (or stupid) enough to release such a critique? Who knows. But XTRMNTR does have an unshakably forboding feel to it. The message was simple: This can’t continue, something’s going to crack. Little did anyone know just how wide and deep that crack would run.

Coiling back from the record’s political overtones, XTRMNTR stretched far beyond its time as a musical artefact. Even today it’s still fascinating and futuristic; a dense, impermeable concoction of ear-shaking, amphetamine-shifting, thrill-seeking disco punk that shits all over the ecstacy-infused wash out of Screamadelica. And while 2011's Primal Scream are happy to retread the steps of their post-club 'classic', XTRMNTR proves this was a band that had something to say, something worth hearing even today: PRML SCRM MTHR FCKR.

Album review: Rob St John - Weald

The sheer heft of Rob St John’s voice is deceiving. The Burnley-born songsmith’s gravy-thick pipes exude a wisdom that should only come from the weathering of life; the kind of ripened warble that expresses the nuances and extraordinary experiences of someone who’s seen and done it all. As a vocal, it's many things - evocative, touching, tear-jerking, wise - but one thing it’s not is a sound you’d associate with a kid in his twenties.

But that’s exactly what Rob St John is; a cherubic troubadour without the worldly eminence or piety of Waits, Drake or Cave. Yet St John’s debut LP Weald suggests otherwise. There’s no snazzy production, no high-profile special guests to boost chart returns (unless you count the good and the great from Edinburgh’s alt-folk scene), and no gimmicky promotional smokescreens to be found here. Instead, this is something simple for a complex age: a record filled with both masterful arrangements and tender songwriting craft.

If press releases are to be believed then this is St John’s aural vision of a contour that runs between the Lancaster moors and Edinburgh’s winding paths. To help emphasise his imaginary axis, St John plots the record across three key habitations - Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford - capturing each town’s unique atmosphere via cracking reel-to-reel recordings, enveloping church acoustics and the nocturnal claustrophobia of basement flats. Yet, within this urbanised construction, there's a distinctly arid feel to Weald's narratives, with St John tending to bury heavy emotional metaphors beneath tales of topographies and oceans.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that within Weald’s nooks lurk song structures so brittle they often seem to be disintegrating inside your ears. Prime example is album opener ‘Your Phantom Limb’, a spellbinding, neck hair quivering wooze led by a guitar plucked so delicately it’s as if it’s tiptoeing over a shattered chandelier. Like-wise, ‘Vanishing Points’ is wrapped in a fragility generated by moribund strings and a despairing lyrical paean that finds St John mourning “in monochrome we are just vanishing points” with celestial coyness.

In the wrong hands Weald could seem borderline depressive, but St John’s deft songwriting emits an openness that keeps the valium at bay. In fact, acoustic creeper ‘Acid Test’ - a reworked lament from his early Edinburgh days - is positively glowing in possibility, epitomising the record’s feel for ever-changing apertures and space. This interspersing of frail melodies and silent space is one of the record’s central traits, creating concentrated tapestries filled with atmosphere and weighty emotion, even when there appears to be little happening at all.

That’s not to say St John’s afraid to dabble with instrumental intensity. Far from it. ‘Stainforth Force’ is a slow, meandering swell, menacingly composed of weeping strings and crashing cymbals that are pushed into a violent, suffocating climax by St John’s rising wails. Somehow, the mighty ‘Dominio’ goes one better. Led by a funeral pound of drum and cranky guitar, it’s a brutal, intense journey that replaces the record’s shroud of silence with a clap of instrumental thunder. It’s the sort of intense pit-of-the-gut bellow that could wouldn’t feel out of place on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ more acrid efforts.

Closing out with melancholic sweep ‘An Empty House’, Weald proves a consistently strong and challenging record. Each of its eight tracks blend emotional girth with an exquisite musical craft that stretches far beyond the reaches of many of today’s young singer-songwriters. Many of these contemporaries, of course, needn’t worry, they still have plenty of time to find their voice. But Rob St John is different, he’s already found his. A long time ago.

Rob St John "Your Phantom Limb" from rob st john on Vimeo.

Album review: Wise Blood - These Wings

In the 17 minutes it takes for Wise Blood’s These Wings EP to tornado into and out of the atmosphere, it’s possible to piece together Chris Laufman’s premonition of what the future may hold. And it aint a pretty picture.

Beneath the Pittsburgh’s songsmith’s synthesized, ear-grating, scuzz-soul melodies is a deep-seated sense of absolute hopelessness, his own pre-emptive sketch of an inhospitable world that holds no sense or reason. Lyrically, it’s perhaps not quite as obvious as it sounds - Laufman instinctively prefers to get down to more basal matters, honing in on his inability to hold down steady relationships.

Yet step aside from the emo-heavy subject matter of tracks like 'Darlin’ You’re Sweet', a trumpet-parping shuffler that finds Laufman sweetly cooing “I need someone who won’t fade when I go insane and I can’t stand, I know that you can”, and you’ll find a dark, clever off-piste pop collection fused with bleeps, beats and despair. He may be 21, but these songs have been penned with the air of kid who’s seen and heard way too much tragedy in his years.

From the off, huge skyscraping beats punctuate the record’s skyline, turning ‘Penthouse Suite’s ambient keyboard groove into a wonky android-ballad that recalls the burned-out sonic junkyard of Sublte. Less abrasive, but no less affecting, ‘The Lion’ is two minutes of parping brass cobbled over a gyrating rhythm that has Laufman spitting “Baby I ain’t no man, I’ve got to confess, I’d probably kill you just to try on your dress” with all the funk of Prince, only without the high-heels and inflated sex drive.

For all its virtues, what These Wings fails to do is map out just where Laufman goes next. Instead, what it serves up is a taster of its maker's class, crossing borders with more ease than a passport-less traveller going through UK immigration. But with cuts as essential as 'Loud Mouths' - a piano-looping, hip-hop-spitting, beatbox-blasting, body-popping contender for song of the year - it matters not; Laufman proves he's blessed with enough duality and brilliance to appeal to even the most toughened ear canals.

As premonitions go, Chris Laufman can rest assured: the future is very much Wise Blood’s.