Tuesday Ten: 256: Tracks of the Month (April 1996)

Already, we’re onto the third month of this run-down of 1996, and the avalanche of great new music that appeared that year.

As I’ve noted in passing, 1996 was an interesting transitional year, where new movements began to supplant what had come before, and a number of bands made moves from being “niche” bands to become worldwide phenomenons (the first of those features this time around). Anyway. Enough talking, time to start listening.

The Prodigy
Firestarter EP
18-March 1996

Over a year prior to The Fat of The Land – the album that, to put no finer point on it, kickstarted the “electronica” boom in the US and is probably guilty of eventually resulting in the “EDM” scene years later too – The Prodigy unleashed this. A heck of a change from the …Jilted Generation sound, Firestarter was a snarling beast of an electro-punk song. The booming bass of the previous album was still there, but everything else sounded different in some what. It was faster, it was heavier, and Keith Flint was doing his best Sex Pistols impression, and the result was a massive hit.

The Afghan Whigs
My Enemy
Black Love
12-March 1996

The ‘Whigs were never really a band that fitted in. By no means the only band to bring together hard rock and soul/R’n’B influences, but their way of doing things in the 90s was absolutely unique, and produced a run of brilliant albums. This album, too, was probably the closest the band got to their ideal of being “cinematic”, as it unfolded from what sounded like opening credits through to the climactic conclusion of Faded. Not only that, but it was also stuffed with brilliant songs (many of which remain live staples), so what to pick to feature here? I’ve gone for the three minutes of bitter vengeance of My Enemy, where Greg Dulli puts everything he has and pulls the band in with him, into one of the darkest songs in their catalogue, which is saying something.

Pearl’s Girl
Second Toughest In The Infants
19-March 1996

dubnobasswithmyheadman is rightly lauded as an epoch-making electronic album – there was certainly nothing like it before – but the follow-up is very nearly as good, as perhaps didn’t quite get the same love upon release. It has certainly had it since (especially with the sprawling box-set/remaster from last year), and time generally has given many of us time to understand exactly where Underworld were going with this. Much of the album was more downbeat – softer beats, blues guitar (!), drifting ambience, which must have come as a hell of a shock to those drawn in by the world-conquering one-off that was Born Slippy .NUXX. But it wasn’t all like that – the seventeen-minute, three-part opener was kicked off with the enthralling breakbeats of Juanita, while Rowla looked back at the howling vortex at the heart of Rez and Cowgirl. But the centrepiece of the album was the breakbeat-meets-techno slam of Pearl’s Girl, named after a greyhound at the Romford track and the BPM seems to race like the titular dog. There was always more to Underworld than that one big hit, and album after album (and even more so when live) the band have shown no interest in repeating themselves, instead exploring new sonic worlds.

3RA1N1AC [Brainiac]
26-March 1996

I’ve rhapsodised about this band so much over the years, so there was no way I was missing out on mentioning them in this ’96 rundown. Especially as the band released what was their best album Hissing Prigs In Static Couture that March – at around the same time that I saw them live supporting their labelmates Girls Against Boys. Brainiac nearly blew GVSB off the stage that night (and GVSB were a formidable live band in their own right) with their energy, Tim Taylor’s oddly charismatic, unpredictable persona, and a whole fucking bag of amazing tunes. I could have picked basically anything off this album, it’s so good – the snarling closer I AM A CRACKED MACHINE was covered a long time ago as the best track of the 1990s on amodelofcontrol.com – but here I’ve gone for what was the lead single, a short new wave blast that frankly I have no idea what Taylor is on about. But he was way ahead of us anyway, as the brilliance of his band confirmed time and again, and the cryptic weirdness was one of the reasons I still love Brainiac so much.

The chaotic, forceful power of the band live can be found online in various guises – this entire filmed show, opening with one of their greatest songs (! – the moog-led madness of Sexual Frustration) is one of the few full shows I’ve found.

Stone Temple Pilots
Tumble In The Rough
Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
26-March 1996

Grunge, like any musical movement/genre that arrives out of nowhere, was actually formed of a number of bands who had loose connections with each other at best – and the bands that arrived a little later had even less of a thematic link in many cases. STP were one of those bands. While their striking debut album was very much a grunge album in many ways, the follow-ups to it quickly went off in other directions, and by the time of this third album, there was a softer, trippier touch to their sound, even a psychedelic ideal or two. Vocalist Scott Weiland’s seemingly never-ending substance abuse problems (he’d had a run-in with the law in 1995 over possession of crack cocaine) weren’t helping, either, by this point, so it was kinda miraculous that their third album was actually pretty good. Pick of the album, though, was the choppy guitars, catchy chorus and squalling effects of Tumble in the Rough, one of a few songs where Weiland appears rather unapologetic for his lifestyle choices.

Rising Sun
Solutions for a Small Planet

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Haujobb have been an important artist in the industrial realm for over twenty years now, and this album was one of the reasons they caught many-an-ear in the first place. While Daniel and Dejan’s work has moved across different styles – from minimalist electronics to drum’n’bass, to straight-up industrial and neo-soul at points – the core has always been a steely precision, a commitment to extraordinarily exact production and many exceptional songs. This album had all of this (and a remaster has just been announced by Artoffact), and endures to this day. The highlight for me from this album? The percussive charge of Rising Sun, where the disparate elements coalesce like the forming of a tornado and the tempo gets imperceptibly faster.

(One of a small number of albums in this year-long rundown I don’t have an actual release date for, by the way)

Peace Repackaged
Instinct for Detection
06-April 1996

One of many, many projects DJ Justin Robertson has been involved in, this one was active for a while in the mid-to-late 90s during the “big beat” boom, and like his peers was happy to mine all kinds of sounds for influences. One thing that was interesting about it was that while the dancefloor remixes often went back to the four-on-the-floor template, the album versions of tracks went down very different rabbit holes – and Packet of Peace was one such song. The belting long-form version was aimed for dancing until dawn, complete with a pounding rhythmic base, while the Peace Repackaged version kept the rap, and the melody, but everything else was rebuilt with a more measured pace, and was more suitable for listening at home. And, like everyone else in the scene, there was of course a scorching Chemical Brothers remix of it, too.

On and On
The Sun Is Often Out
18-April 1996

One of the many bands lumped under the “Britpop” banner that really had little to do with it, but nevertheless gained in sales and exposure from it. Another band from Sheffield, they had surprising links with Cabaret Voltaire (the Cabs’ old drummer joined Longpigs), and less surprising links with Pulp (guitarist Richard Hawley joined Pulp later on, before embarking on a successful solo career) – and also had astonishingly bad luck along the way. Labels closing down, car crashes, other health problems, intra-band tensions, failing to crack the US…it is rather a wonder they managed two albums at all. The first album, though, was mostly glorious. A darker, more caustic edge than many of their Britpop peers, but the pick of the singles was this bruising ballad, where Hunt unleashes all of his fears about love in five wracked minutes.

Rage Against The Machine
People of the Sun
Evil Empire
19-April 1996

Four long years passed before RATM released a follow-up to their incendiary self-titled debut, and at least to begin with I recall us being a teeny bit disappointed with the second album. But in retrospect it was never bad, just different. It was rawer, with maybe not quite the best-in-class production of the debut, but it still had the fury in the songs. Prime example was the opening track, where Zack de la Rocha turned his attentions to the past and present problems in his ancestral homeland of Mexico, something the video made even clearer. Like so many Rage songs, it benefits from Zack’s undimmed fury in the lyrics and subject matter and absolutely slayed live.

Locust Star
Through Silver In Blood
26-April 1996

It is still hard to comprehend the massive change in style and outlook that resulted in the Neurosis that many of us know and love nowadays. Originally – loosely – a hardcore punk album, by the time of this album, their first for Relapse, they had retooled their sound to be slower, heavier, more expansive, stretching the nine songs here over a staggering seventy-one minutes (and two of those songs are barely one minute interludes). The voice-guitar-bass-drums set-up is expanded by use of samples and electronics as part of the texture, and the result was a crushingly heavy, dense and most of all relentless assault on the senses.

Two songs still resonate in particular from this album, not least because they are the two regularly played live to this day. The mighty title track, with the complex tribal-esque drum patterns, is like watching a storm approach the shore, and then hearing it break over you with astonishing force, and only then does it unleash the still-astounding closing coda, as the whole band pick up sticks and absolutely batter out the drum rhythm one more time.

But even that is bettered by Locust Star. Extremely short by Neurosis standards – less than six minutes – it wastes little time in building towards an extraordinary release of power, with each element coming in one by one before anguished howls signal the release, a hurricane-force blast. Live this track is exhilarating, and it’s not far behind on record.

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