We’re edging toward the halfway point of 2017, and this week I’m taking a fifth look back at 1997.
295: Tracks of the Month (May 1997)
This part of 1997, frankly, wasn’t especially great. My disastrous first year at Uni was all but over as I made a total mess of my exams, and leaving it behind for a while, taking a break and sorting my head out was paramount, so in June I headed back home to the north, leaving London behind (aside from a few visits in the meantime) for a year or so – I returned for re-sits the following Spring, which I passed.
Musically, though, it was quite a time. A number of exceptionally important albums were released, new movements were being forged, and there was the sense of the closing of one era, and the beginning of the next. This was also the case in the wider world, as during May 1997 Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister in the UK, ending eighteen years of Tory rule and ushering in a period of optimism. Yeah, that didn’t last too long, but there was a distinct feeling at the time that just about anything was possible.
Anyway, on with the music.
There is something extraordinary, in retrospect, that within one month in 1997, two of the most important and brilliant albums of the entire decade were released.
Both were albums concerned with the future, of sorts, and both were looking forward with dread – but there they divulged, one looking at no less than the future of the world, while the other could barely look beyond their own bubble.
Those two albums were from bands that were very different in form. Radiohead were very much a band, while Spiritualized, while a band in the broad sense, were very clearly led by Jason Pierce alone (and indeed he all-but dispensed with the band of the time after touring for Ladies and Gentlemen… were done, replacing it with a new lineup for the next album).
1997 was a strange year. The Britpop movement had already started splintering, falling victim to having flooded the market with second-rate bands and the bigger bands having, frankly, got distracted with being famous and releasing albums that were not a patch on what had come before.
These two bands perhaps benefitted by having never really been part of the movement. Radiohead were more of a “rock” band anyway, The Bends being a slow-burning success that suggested that something special was brewing, while Spritiualized originally formed from the ashes of the druggy-drone-rock-shoegaze-weirdness – and absurdly acrimonious split – of Spacemen 3, taking their sound to near unimaginable extremes. Both, too, had a long gestation period for these two albums, with the first taste from Radiohead being the swooning, hard-edged ballad Lucky, indisputably the greatest song on the brilliant HELP album, recorded in September 1995 – and it was pretty much left “as was” for when it featured on OK Computer, clearly even the band realised you don’t fuck with a perfect take. Jason Pierce, on the other hand, recorded the album (with the assistance of fifty-eight musicians, including band, string section, brass section, a gospel choir…oh, and Dr John) in 1995 and then spent eighteen months or month trying to perfect the mix in various locations, with awed whispers occasionally making it into the music press of the glories to come.
21 May 97
Ok Computer, then, was released in May 1997, and was universally agreed upon release to be a work of total, utter brilliance, but with twenty years of hindsight, the overriding feeling on the album is clearer to discern. This was an album full of fear, of disquiet of where the world was going. In 1997 there was the beginning of rumblings about the y2k bug, and how the upcoming millenium might affect our lives. After all, this was the time where computer technology and the internet was just edging into the mainstream, and this album was among the first to question that reliance and ask: where exactly is this leading?
The album sounded suitably high-tech, too, with all kinds of electronics, synths, samples and glitches integrated into the music, almost like a low-level static chattering away behind the songs, with Thom Yorke switching between vulnerabilty and beauty, spite and fury, often in the same song. Such as it was with the extraordinary first single Paranoid Android, a six-and-a-half-minute space-rock-opera with choral interlude and an astonishing, tech-metal freakout to close, that made the Top Three in the singles chart, despite the band flatly refusing to offer a radio edit.
Elsewhere on the album, there was indescribably beautiful odes to wanting to be abducted by aliens and see other worlds (Subterranean Homesick Alien), furious political takedowns (Electioneering – I couldn’t imagine Yorke or the rest of the band shaking hands with Blair at Downing Street!), desperate, stark ballads inspired by Shakespeare (Exit Music (For A Film) – the singles most of my readers will well know.
That said, the stark, edgy terror of Climbing Up The Walls (apparently inspired by Care in the Community, serial killers and musical tributes to Hiroshima) is heart-stopping. Squalls of noise randomly phase across the speakers mid-vocal, cymbals crash like lightning strikes, and everything in the mix feels like it has been digitally treated to make it sound off-kilter and so, so unsettling – most of all Yorke’s voice, and his later howls in the song are spine-chilling.
In light of the horrors inflicted on the world since this album was released – and the rise of the internet as a point of information, the democratisation of which has paradoxically resulted in the stifling of debate in many circles, and taken mainstream politics to virulent extremes not seen in decades before – Yorke’s terror at what was to come was evidently well-placed, and no-one else has ever managed to articulate it in such eloquent, beautiful terms.
For an album so full of fear, it’s a gorgeous, endlessly listenable one.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Jason Pierce, on the other hand, had a much smaller world on his mind. Although he denied it at the time, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was concerned almost entirely with two things – heartbreak and heroin, and it seemed rarely to be looking anywhere beyond Jason himself at any point.
But what was absolutely remarkable was what this pain and heartbreak inspired. Basically, this is druggy, choral acid-space-rock, with a side-order of the Stooges and religion, with Pierce somehow inspired from his torpor to create an awe-inspiring, towering achievement that has served as a benchmark to everything he has done since, and the fact that he is unlikely to ever escape the shadow of it is no bad thing.
Who would want to escape from the clutches of something so perfect?
The opening song sets the tone. The title track caused a lot of comment at the time, as Elvis Presley’s estate refused the use of part of Can’t Help Falling In Love, resulting in a hasty rework of the song, but that version released was good enough – until I finally heard the “proper” version live in 2009, which left an entire hall’s jaws on the floor (it was, happily, finally restored fully on the re-issue of the album, too). It sounds like a choir of angels are assisting Pierce as he wallows in his post-break-up misery, hoping for anything to numb the pain (it is perhaps telling, by the way, that the first voice you hear on the album is his ex-girlfriend Kate Radley).
Following that crazy peak (seriously, how do you go on from there?) is the chaotic garage-rock-gospel of Come Together, before the two-part, eight-minute epic of I Think I’m In Love, where Pierce does a call-and-response coda with himself (effectively an internal monologue as he punctures his own hopes and dreams, one by one), not to mention detailing parts of his drug habit in uncomfortable detail.
The fuzzy freakout of Electricity – mid-album – was stretched to deafening lengths live (that show in 2009, fact fans, was the last gig where I forgot my earplugs. I had tinnitus for a couple of days after that, and I’ve been fastidious about ensuring I have them since), and the feedback from it kinda stretches about two songs beyond – much of the album is continuous, much as the previous album Pure Phase was, with elements of one song feeding into the next and in some cases making it impossible to work out where the break really is.
One of the most remarkable songs on this remarkable album, though, is Broken Heart. A desperate, synth-and-string-backed song, it is Pierce baring his soul without filter, his voice clearly cracking at points at the intensity of his feelings, and on an album of stark emotions, this is by a long chalk the most moving song on it. In fact, I’m not sure anyone has ever nailed the feeling of heartbreak quite like this. Interestingly, too, the lyrics are structured as if it was a prayer to a God that Pierce clearly has lost faith in, but in his desperate state is offering a prayer as nothing else has worked.
That nod to religion is something that permeates through quite a bit of the album, but perhaps not in a straightforward way. Pierce clearly doesn’t believe, but he appreciates the crutch that religion can provide, even if at multiple points (such as in Broken Heart) he is even doubting that, and this theme continues into the church-bells-led elegance of No God Only Religion. I might not believe either, but the architecture is something to behold.
The album closes with a sixteen minute, multi-layered track that is less than a song, more of a series of movements. Dr John assists on piano as Pierce leads the rest of his band into a colossal explosion of noise, that takes seven minutes to build up to, and the closing few minutes feel like those moments after a crashing summer thunderstorm has moved away, the air clearer, sweeter and everything feels oddly calm.
Even the packaging of this album has passed into legend, too. It was fashioned as a prescription, complete with foil-sealed pill (CD) packet, and the liner notes folded like a leaflet in a box of tablets (“What is Spiritualized used for?” “Spiritualized should be taken to treat the mind and soul”) – even the last track had fifty seconds or so of silence tacked onto the end, to ensure the CD was the 70 minutes (almost exactly, depending on the CD player) that the front of the packaging said! I broke the seal of my original copy, of course, and when the re-issue came (in black packaging rather than the original white), I might have bought both the jewel case version and the pill box (the latter’s seal has never been touched).
This album – a work of art in visual and audible terms.
In fact, both of these albums stand together as extraordinary monuments to the period where bands were given the time, space and money to allow their ideas to come to full fruition, just before the digital music revolution swept much of this away – and I’m absolutely certain that we’ll never see their likes again.
Fluke were not your average electronic band – their heavy use of vocals at the time set them apart, among other things – but this album was really the one that saw them gain a much wider audience. First single from it was the mighty Atom Bomb (best known from it featuring on legendary game Wipeout 2097), but for me the better single was album opener Absurd (a track used in various films since, particularly Sin City). This track has a rolling rhythm with earthquake-shocks of bass, representative of their style at the time of using a pummellingly heavy techno-based sound, with the snarled, low-register vocals. What was weird about Fluke, though, was how reclusive they were compared to their electronic peers of the time. While The Prodigy, Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, Death In Vegas (among others) were all content to have to play the marketing game where needed, Fluke seemed to release music like undercover strikes, with little press and even less comment, preferring the old cliche of letting the music doing the talking. To be fair, the songs here were loud enough to drown out any talking anyway…
The only album the band released with their original singer, of course (Lynn Strait died in a car accident – along with his beloved boxer dog – not long after release), this was a bratty, punk-metal blast that took a few years to catch on, certainly in the UK – and as a result I had to drop a fair amount of cash (comparatively!) to get hold of an import copy at Metalheads in Camden, having first heard this song at a Looney Tunes club night at The Dome.
The album was actually surprisingly varied – with some ska/reggae influences, and even a couple of ballads and instrumentals – but in the main the band were best at full throttle. Among them, Mr Brett saw them snarling at the head of Epitaph Records (Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion) with a few playground insults thrown in, My Balls was an even brattier kiss off, but the opening eponymous title track was something else. Opening with a gloriously snotty sample (“Say Something for the record, tell the people what you feel” “FUCK THE RECORD, AND FUCK THE PEOPLE“), it achieves exit velocity about five seconds after that, and seeing it live in London a couple of years back (of course, with a new vocalist) after nearly two decades of waiting was a hell of a rush.
Enthrone Darkness Triumphant
1997 was the year where Dimmu Borgir became a Big Deal. Enthrone Darkness Triumphant was the album where they made the step up to a much bigger label (Nuclear Blast), and also where they made the switch to broadly singing in English, rather than Norwegian. That better backing also allowed the band the production that their bombastic, symphonic black metal needed, and suddenly, on opener Mourning Palace, they sounded like a band transformed.
While the sound is still recognisably Black Metal, Shagrath’s vocals are audible and clear in the mix, and the rest of the band sound snappy as hell, with nothing descending into a soup as some poorly-produced BM can do. In my opinion, Dimmu got even better on subsequent albums (at least until Death Cult Armageddon, and I try and forget the albums after that), but this was the point where their obvious potential started to be realised.
Place of Torment
Author of Pain
unknown/unrecorded release date
No songs from the album are online
A band that I kinda felt like I was the only one to have heard of them in the UK back then, it was more than a bit of a surprise to be able to interview Jesse McClear a few years back for this site, although I don’t believe any new HWF material actually arrived in the end.
McClear’s project was a strange one, in some respects. Lumped in with the electro-industrial of the time, it was far more rooted in the bleak corners of dark-ambient and experimental electronics than would be expected, particularly in the litany of remixes that followed. There were heavier, more industrial tracks, though, too, all shrouded in darkness and malevolence, and for the time managed to sound like no-one else.
Touch, Peel and Stand
Days of the New
I only realised now, listening to this again for the first time in well beyond a decade, is how much the guitar in this song owes to Soundgarden. Seriously, there are riffs from at least three songs there (particularly Spoonman).
To be fair (like their peers Silverchair), they were a young band. When they hit it big in 1997 with this song, vocalist Travis Meeks was just eighteen (and had reportedly had a pretty tough upbringing, too). Their acoustic-based grunge sound was certainly a little unusual, and they had the right level of pathos angst, but there was certainly something of a bit of hero worship going on.
Their age – and Meeks’ history – helped to have the music press go nuts about them, but they were never able to follow up the success, and I’m not convinced it was ever much of a band, more of Meeks and others. Still, obvious nods aside, this still isn’t too bad…
Ok, so it ain’t 36 Chambers – nor, indeed, is it as good as Liquid Swords or Ironman. But it sold by the millions, as the world finally caught up with the world of the Wu. Broadly, though, it followed the same template as other Wu-based material – extraordinarily dense music and dense, wordy rapping that takes in every possible space afforded, with the atmosphere changing dependent on who is rapping at any given time (this song features ten seperate vocal contributions) – and the rapping dominates it all, as RZA’s musical backdrop is very much put into the background, not to mention there being no chorus, nothing other than countless verses from start to finish. I certainly haven’t enjoyed everything the collective have released over the years, but their take on the genre is so different to any one else – and in production and stylistic terms in particular, they did so much to take things forward – that they remain a very, very important part of the story.
Ashes to Ashes
Album of The Year
The final FNM album before they split (and then reunited in the past decade), this was a rather underrated album by many. Broadly, it didn’t really change what they had been doing before – there were the thrashy, short tracks (Collision, Naked In Front of the Computer), the unexpectedly brilliant ballads (Stripsearch, Pristina – it is often forgotten how great a balladeer Patton can be), the one jump into Mr Bungle lunacy (Mouth to Mouth is like the carny band from hell taking over their instruments), and that feeling of extreme tension that permeates all of the band’s best moments.
Part of that was because it always seemed that the band were rarely more than a step away from tearing each other’s throats out, and it was perhaps a wonder that they remained together as long as they did – the later reunion saw a more relaxed band, one that could actually stand each other on-stage again.
The highlight of the album – for me, anyway – though, was first single Ashes to Ashes. A howling roar of a guitar riff, thundering drums, Roddy Bottum’s ominous synth chords, and then Patton’s soaring vocals. One of the band’s greatest songs, period.
I’ve long loved the booze-soaked, downbeat melancholy of Tindersticks, one of those bands I’m sure you either get…or you don’t. Their style might have been fashioned originally from Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen in particular, but over the years their music has twisted and re-configured itself (particularly the extraordinary, seventies-soul stylings of Simple Pleasure) to make them a quite unique band, certainly in the UK. Back in 1997, they were onto their third album, and their lush orchestral sound was one that was by now instantly “them”. This single takes on a theme they’d used before and since – that of the filth (literally and metaphorically) of the unnamed city, and turned it into a glorious song of wanting to wash away the past and move forward with someone they adore, without the baggage of the past. I’m fairly certain that away from Prince, there aren’t too many songs that feature taking a bath so prominently…