Psyence Fiction



January 16th, 2005 | 62 replies

Release Date: 1998 | Tracklist

UNKLE - Psyence Fiction
Released 1998.
A & M Records.

DJ Shadow's place in musical history was assured he minute he dropped Endtroducing on an unsuspecting world in 1996. After a slow train of hype - indeed, he was once named 'Unsigned Hype' by The Source - he eventually got round to releasing this masterpiece. Expectations may have been fairly high, but NO-ONE was expecting that. It did what Slayer's 'Reign In Blood' had done - it defined its genre, and also did irrepairable damage to it, simply because nothing following it seemed to compare. Massive Attack's Mezzanine just about managed it, but Endtroducing was in a league of its own.

So, when The Private Press was released in 2002, there was a wave of expectation. The popularly held view was that trip-hop had been dormant since Endtroducing (and, to be fair, Mezzanine) because nobody knew how to follow it up. Here, they said, was the master returning to show everyone how it's done. The media responded to the album by calling it a 'triumphant second record'. They were lying. The Private Press WAS triumphant, but it was his third record.

Having James Lavelle's name on this record is- I'll be blunt - a shambles. The liners reveal that he only player a part in one track, and that's a useless interlude called Breather that isn't even dignified with its own track on the album - shoved, as it is, at the end of Nursery Rhyme. Everything else production-wise, and almost everything musically, is Shadow. Forget the name - Psyence Fiction is DJ Shadow's second album.

Still, it's not hard to see why Shadow agreed to work with Lavelle on the UNKLE project. Expectations on a follow-up to Endtroducing, so soon after the original release, would have been huge. If Psyence Fiction under the name DJ Shadow, rather than UNKLE, it would, in all likelihood, have been savaged, simply for not being Endtroducing.

Lavelle could offer this aversion of public gaze. Just as importantly, he could offer his address book. Lavelle was, at the time, the owner of the world's most chic record label, MoWax. As such, he had links with the world's most chic singers, and could call upon them for help. That, basically, is the concept of Psyence Fiction. Take DJ Shadow, and add vocalists.

This makes it something of a curio in Shadow's catalogue. Ignoring Mashin' On The Motorway (from The Private Press), Shadow has never had vocalists on his albums. But here, he has Kool G Rap, Richard Ashcroft, Badly Drawn Boy, and Thom Yorke, to name but a few. Two guests even provide musical contributions - Jason Newstead (then of Metallica) plays bass on The Knock, and Atlantique play on Chaos.

The vocalists aside, some of the music here doesn't deviate too far from the template set by Endtroducing. UNKLE (Main Title Theme), in particular, could slip onto Endtroducing without missing a beat, were the guitars replaced with pianos. Indeed, guitars are prominent on Psyence Fiction, in a way they aren't on The Private Press or Endtroducing. Mainly, they're drenched in effects (reverb, delay, and such things) in a manner that suggests post-rock, though Nursery Rhyme has a hella tasty distorted riff. As befits the project, Shadow plays around with bringing more styles of music into the mix, but everything is still hip-hop based, and DJ Shadow's magic touch is still instantly identifiable.

The vocalists, for the main, perform at the height of their abilities. Thom Yorke elevates Rabbit In Your Headlights to the point where it stands up to OK Computer's material (though OK Computer was heavily indebted to Endtroducing, so perhaps that was expected). Alice Temple is great on Bloodstain. Mike D of the Beastie Boys does exactly what you'd expect on The Knock, which is either good or bad depending on your view of him, and Badly Drawn Boy, though you wouldn't think it at first, was the perfect choice for the vocal on Nursery Rhyme. Some let the side down - Ian Brown, notably, though I've never liked him, and Richard Ashcroft, who sounds like he's trying too hard to be Liam Gallagher.

Musically, the album features all the standard DJ Shadow touches (terror-filled vocal samples, unpredictable drumming, airy, atmospheric melodies), yet seems somewhat subdued. That's probably down to the vocalists - DJ Shadow clearly isn't used to writing with other people, and taking a back seat to somebody else. The musical highlights of the album come when Shadow works on his own (UNKLE Main Theme), or when he strips it back the furthest (Rabbit In Your Headlights). Nursery Rhyme and Bloodstain are exceptions to this, though that may well be because the vocalists on these tracks demand the least of the listener's attention. (One assumes Richard Ashcroft's huge ego led to Lonely Soul sounding the way it does.)

Psyence Fiction is a strange record, then. It's more interesting than captivating, which is not what you want from a man who made one of the most capitivating records ever just two years previous. Yet moments here are pure genius, and even when Shadow is coasting (Celestial Annihilation, for instance), it's great stuff. Perhaps Psyence Fiction is the greatest indicator of Shadow's genius for just that reason - it's still inferior to his other work, yet most can only dream of these heights.

Definitely worth a look, but not essential.

Within The Genre - 4/5
Outside The Genre - 3/5

Recommended Downloads

Featuring Alice Temple. The guitars are wonderfully atmospheric and loping, and Temple's vocal is just what the song calls for. There's skipping and loose improvising on the drums, as you'd expect with Shadow, and there's even something of a guitar solo. It comes across as Massive Attack's 'Protection' remixed, and that's no bad thing. Halfway through, it drops to a minimalist, twinkling backing, and Temple intones 'Take me softly'. Much obliged, ma'am.

Nursery Rhyme
It's tempting to view Rabbit In Your Headlights as the album's peak, but Nursery Rhyme sneaks it. Featuring a restrained, almost bored vocal from Badly Drawn Boy, industrial drums, a popping, insistent bassline, and a riff that could quite easily have been written by Slash, or even one of the Ammot brothers. The album's peak comes when the instruments all fall back, the guitar comes back with a new palm muted riff, and the lyric comes to the surface.....'Won't you sing me a nursery rhyme, to keep me quiet, when you're on fire?' Not just UNKLE's finest track, but one of Shadow's best tracks overall, and probably the best thing Badly Drawn Boy's ever done.

Rabbit In Your Headlights

If you know an UNKLE track - indeed, if you know a DJ Shadow track - it's probably this one. That's partly down to the bleak, spectacular video, and partly down to the fact that it was released as a single while post-OK Computer hysteria was still in full flow. On this track, the music basically takes a back seat, but in doing it creates a wonderful atmosphere, evocative of a rainy night in some foreign city. The song breaks down halfway through, leaving a piano and one of Shadow's typical mortality-fearing vocal samples. Take away this break, and this could easily have been on OK Computer. Which is a compliment of the highest order.

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user ratings (316)

Comments:Add a Comment 
Per Ardua Ad Astra
November 27th 2004


Nice review, this sounds like something i would enjoy.

November 27th 2004


Hmm...I'll check this out probably, as I've known about it for a while now, but haven't really followed up on it at all. Again, good review, although I hadn't realised it was so heavily effectively just him and solo artists.

Adam Jones is GOD
November 27th 2004


I love DJ Shadows work, yet I have still heard very little of UNKLE. I've heard the 3 songs that have videos, and they are all so different in feel, but still amazing pieces of music.

Good review, some good insight there too

Dark Hero
November 27th 2004


I really want to get an U.N.K.L.E. album, is this their best album?

Dark Hero
November 28th 2004


Thanks for the info :thumb:

Dark Hero
November 28th 2004


[QUOTE=Iai]11. Rabbit In Your Headlights (feat. Thom Yorke)[/QUOTE]


November 28th 2004


I still haven't got this Which sale was it in?

Happy 30th review, by the way. Twas a good one.

November 28th 2004


Yep. The big three-oh.

Sorry, I keep coming out with pointless CDR trivia. Stupid Hall.

November 28th 2004


Nursery Rhyme = cool as motherfucking hell. I'm thinking of buying either this or Mezzanine.. good review

November 28th 2004


The biggest flaw on the album is that stupid skit right after that depressing Ashcroft featuring song. But it's a fine album nonetheless.

Distorted Vision
November 28th 2004


Good review, I still need to pick up Endtroducing though. :o

The guests on this album make it look interesting though - Newstead and Mike D on the same track, plus Thom Yorke. Sounds cool.

The Ashtray Girl
November 28th 2004


Wow, very impressive review. I shall now be looking out for this.

June 10th 2005


Album Rating: 2.0

I was a bit let down by this record, as it is no Endtroducing...but there are still some great moments on here.

November 11th 2005


Just under a year after my first post in this review, I got it the other day. It's patchy, but pretty good. Drags a bit in the middle but the first few songs, and the duet with Thom Yorke raise it to a 3.5/5 for me. DJ Shadow's really overshadowed (sorry ) by Endtroducing though. Kind of a shame as this would get far more love otherwise.

The Jungler
March 7th 2006


Album Rating: 4.0

I've only heard 3 songs off this and they are all incredible. I noticed that the movie Dark Days uses the piano line from Rabbit. It fit really well.

May 27th 2006


Album Rating: 3.0

I like this record to relax to, I still dont own Endtroducing though : S

June 17th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

This is an excellent review.

Two-Headed Boy
September 29th 2007


Album Rating: 4.0

This album is the shit

Electric City
October 3rd 2007


Rabbit in Your Headlights is absolutely oustanding. Thom's vocals and the drumming really elevate that song so much.

May 28th 2008


Album Rating: 4.0

this is a grower

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