What happened in the nineties – a feeding frenzy involving major labels the world over, trying to find the next big thing from a seething mass of disparate Alternative bands – from industrial rock, to metal, to thrash, to grunge, to nu-metal, to EBM (etc, etc) is something that we will never witness again. Of course, from the various bands that did very well out of this frenzy, rocketing to unlikely stardom, there were those who did very badly out of it, and if ever there was a better example of an artist fucked over by the music industry to the point of disappearing from it, Rico is it.
Rico is one of those artists where I can remember exactly when I first heard him, too. It was one of Rock Sound’s first cover CDs (Music With Attitude #5, in the summer of 1999 – also the first place where I heard Manuskript, too!), and State‘s intriguing, downtempo self-hatred was really quite different to everything else on the CD. Later that summer, I witnessed a furious, storming half-hour set at Reading (also notable for being the only time I ever saw the also much-missed Liberty 37, whose debut album will be covered in this series at some point), which then had me totally and utterly hooked and the first album Sanctuary Medicines was already treasured.
His label for that first album, Chrysalis, was one of those labels who made quite an effort with alternative artists (Feline were on the label around the same time, as I recall), and after the turn of the Millenium, the label seemed to become less and less important to owners EMI, and it was sadly no surprise to see bands like Rico and Feline dropped. Nothing more was heard of from Rico for a few years, until around 2003/04, when the first rumblings of a follow-up appeared. And when it did finally appear, it was one under a cloud of fury.
The album itself takes a few steps away from the “British Trent Reznor” moniker that was bestowed after Sanctuary Medicines, and was also pointedly released on his own label (Manufractured Records), and Rico takes aim at his previous labels in a number of songs, a torrent of bile and hatred that barely disguises who it is aimed at whatsoever.
Despite this, it has always mystified me how this album never gained wider success. There is the assistance of famous names (Tricky pops up on the smoky, sultry Recommended Dose), then there is the grinding, monstrous Crazier featuring Gary Numan, and also the striking, primary colours of the Talking Heads cover Psycho Killer – which works a whole lot better than you might think.
But the brilliance of this album doesn’t come from those star turns that help out – it is what else is here that makes it. In addition, it is hugely unusual in being utterly back-loaded, it gets better and better track-by-track, until the climactic conclusion that I’ll mention in a moment. That’s not to say that opener Dawn Raid isn’t good, but I recall when I first picked up the album thinking that it was an “ok” opener, maybe an all-too-obvious poke in the ribs of the music industry with a big chorus, anti-industry lyrics – but one with a thundering, unstoppable rhythm.
Get past those singles and guest appearances that follow it, though, and the real treats arrive. Kickback and She’s My Punk Rock are less serious, more carefree, cartwheeling through less than five minutes between them in a blur of what might later have been called industrial-punk. After all the bleakness that precedes it, they are perhaps a necessary burst of light.
They are followed by five songs that I would suggest are Rico’s five greatest. Big Black Sea is a slow-burner, the cryptic lyrics wrapped in metaphor. Suggesting perhaps a self-analysis of a relationship that disintegrated horribly, leaving the protagonist burnt out mentally…and yet he fights through, and fights back. The fight back perhaps symbolised best by the track suddenly turning away from the introspection, and morphing into a pounding, raging track that never once lets up. Garden Man also starts slowly, and thematically seems to follow from what came before, a song burning in defiance both lyrically and musically.
Manufractured takes things back down a darker, more introspective path – and indeed, very much sounds like it could fit on the first album – and is perhaps the most overt rumination on what had happened to him over the past five years (Key lyric: “I am the Jack that didn’t fit in the Box“), particularly that record label carnage that clearly left some pretty deep mental scars . Despite the dark, weighty subject matter, it remains a surprisingly listenable song.
It is followed by two unbelievable songs, too. Freefall is a buzzing, bristling track, where all of the pent-up energy from the rest of the album is apparently unleashed in the first chorus, a moment of shoulda-been-a-contender pop perfection that fizzes, sparks and only gets better from there, before the song stops dead when you’re hoping for one more chorus.
“These are the things you always wanted to do“, goes the mantra in the epic closer Forward Motion, a song that resonated all too closely with my mindset at the time. This was a time when I was moving on, pushing myself forward, trying to find somewhere to fit in through my mid-twenties. Ten years later, near enough, and I did so. I’ve been to places I never thought I’d do, seen things I always wanted to see and have a career and position where I’m respected for my opinion and for what I do. Ten years ago I might have thought this impossible, thanks to the low ebb I’d reached. It wasn’t all down to one song, but having these kind of lines in my head served as one hell of a motivational tool.
On the flip side, I always wondered what happened to Rico. I can’t help but think after the relative failure of this brilliant album, he retreated away from the music industry, continuing life doing something else – I know at least for a while he ran a music studio in Glasgow, but he hasn’t appeared online in some time in any way. What a damned shame, in retrospect. His live shows were extraordinary bursts of catharsis, his songs contained a burning sense of hope, and he was doing his own thing, apparently uninterested in “scene” politics and fashions of the time.
But then, maybe if he’d been more prolific, the music he did make wouldn’t be so treasured. It never ceases to amaze me how many other Rico fans there still are, I come across them on Facebook, other websites, even on a thread on the Guardian a few weeks back. A cult figure whose musical and emotional intensity struck a chord that still resonates many years on – something many bands only wish they could achieve.