Review Summary: Wonderfully cacophonous, droning, somewhat socio-political techno-punk. Ideas exhaust themselves towards the end, but the record cuts off just in time.
Infectious, ecstasy-laced beats
An ode to utter decadence in the form of dance music---even if you could resist, why would you want to?
Such were some snippets of praise my friends had for Screamadelica, Primal Scream's first big album. It sounded great on paper, but ended up being a terrible letdown upon actually hearing it. My own perspective, as a seventeen year-old whose only familiarity with dance music extended to the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy could more or less have been summed up like this:
What is this?
Everything is so slooww.
Oh, gospel, how I despise thee. Who dances to this?
'Higher than the Sun (A Dub Symphony in two parts)'? Yes, good idea---ruin one of the few semi-listenable songs on this embarrassing, flowery, barefoot hippie party by adding a terrible, pretentious *extended* remix.
I would sometimes forget that my friends liked to pretend that it was 1990, and anything above 45bpm counted as dance music. I dismissed the record almost immediately, and forgot about it for years, it seemed. When stacked up against the Happy Mondays though (the other big dance band at the time, apart from the Stone Roses), the songs held up quite well. But really, I'm grasping at straws here; the HM's heinous Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches is really nothing other than a reminder that making fun of the name *Madchester* is not entirely without merit.
It was with some apprehension then, that I approached XTRMNTR. I was aware that the group had previously wasted the momentum built with Screamadelica by releasing a critically-panned Rolling Stones-influenced follow up (read: tribute album), and released an odd, rock/dub record after that. XTRMNTR, however, was said to have influenced Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (who I was becoming increasingly fond of at the time). Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) had apparently performed on the record as well, piquing my interest further.
The charmingly titled Kill all Hippies starts us off with the chime of a cell phone. A girl's voice rings out over a CB radio, muttering random words----a cinematic introduction Ã* la Burning Wheel off 1997's Vanishing Point. Bobby Gillespie's strained, falsetto-like vocals whisper You've got the money/I've got the soul/Can't be bought/Can't be owned over a thumping, dance-rock bassline (thankfully, in a non-circa Madchester way) and swirling, processed guitars courtesy of Kevin Shields. It was an impressive start; I was feeling a bit more positive about the record.
And then I heard Accelerator.
I don't think I've ever jumped from guarded optimism to all-out salivation as fast as I did just then. If you're hearing the song for the first time, Accelerator will tear your face off. Its blistering, visceral impact can be attributed to Shields, who, nine years after Loveless clearly feels comfortable with experimenting with a new sound. The MBV sound has been reworked---nay, has mutated into a screaming firestorm of guitar noise, matching perfectly with Gillespie's simplistic, but perfectly effective adrenaline-fueled vocals. It is clearly one of the highlights of the album, and showcases an apocalyptic new zenith for Shields' skills.
Exterminator is another pleasant surprise, masterfully switching from the howl of Accelerator to a thumping, trip-hop-spiked electronica track. Its pulsing industrial beats and equally vitriolic political lyrics make this another fine track. It leads up to the record's one-two-three punch that closes with Swastika Eyes, one of the best known tracks on the album. Clocking in a just over seven minutes, this club-y, bass-fueled, screeching-synth masterpiece is the longest track on the album. Easily the most overtly political song on the album, it has the rare distinction of being capable of wreaking havoc on dancefloors, while pulling double duty as an eminently sing-able rejection of neo-authoritarianism:
See your autosuggestion psychology
Illusion of democracy
Including this on any of the terrible Ibiza compilations your friends openly listen to might easily have brought another ten million to the anti-war protests in 2003, methinks.
Of course, no Scream record would be complete without Bobby Gillespie's comically unintentional attempts at self-sabotage. Pills is a bad, bad rap song, and the head-bobbing techno beats of Insect Royalty are spoiled by Gillespie's vocals, as well as his songwriting shortcomings, which are glaringly obvious here. The record picks up however, with the instrumental Blood Money; its dense bass lines, electronic arpeggios and vintage spy-movie sound make for a wholly original sound, albeit one that is difficult to define. Electro-jazz was the best I could come up with. But it sounds ridiculously corny, so we'll just stick with "free jazz", since it seems like everyone can be lumped into that category at some point; the Velvet Underground with Sister Ray, Spiritualized with Cop Shoot Cop, etc.
Keep your Dreams is the first song that tries to reprise the chilled-out mood of Screamadelica, and comes as a bit of a surprise given the otherwise uncompromisingly confrontational nature of the record. As it stands, though, the song is a pleasant segue to the rest of the record. The lyrics themselves, an earnest ode to never selling out, are a bit corny, but its warm digital synths and a quietly plinking keyboard rhythm make this a catchy downtempo track.
MBV Arkestra is a remix of If they move, Kill 'em on Vanishing Point. Generally, I'd frown on remixed tracks that have originally featured on prior records, but this version has Kevin Shields on guitar and behind the mixing boards. His guitar work is splendid once more, if a tad understated this time around. He adds a distinctive edge to the swirling psychedelia of the original, but the difference is small. I'll let it go because it's still a good track; Five years ahead of my Time, on the other hand, clearly is not. I suppose its worst feature is that it is the first point at which the record begins to sound a bit tired and depleted of ideas. It is not helped by the fact that the next track is a criminally average Cbemical Brothers remix of Swastika Eyes.
Shoot Speed/Kill Light finishes off the record in fine fashion, though. The talents of Kevin Shields and Joy Division/New Order alum Bernard Sumner combine for one final techno-punk assault. Though it could be argued that the Live in Japan record offers a rawer, more visceral version of this, the sonic impact of the recorded version is equally urgent and gloriously vocodered to death. It iss one of the best indications that Gillespie, Shields and Sumner have a clear understanding of what dance music is and is not, despite being in their late thirties/early forties. They weren't afraid to draw up their own interpretation of the style, and as XTRMNTR shows, they have pulled it off remarkably well.
(N.B - Any instance of excessive kudos towards Bernard Sumner is regretted. Though his guitar work on the last track is appreciated, he has otherwise failed to redeem his group's now decades-long catalog of unbearably cheesy synth-pop. Note that this does not apply to New Order's kicking 2001 single Crystal, and universal guilty pleasures like Bizarre Love Triangle and Regret.)