Released: 1996 (Mo' Wax)
How many albums can honestly be described as the best within a genre" After all, with music being so subjective, and open to debate, most people can't even agree on which a band's best album is, let alone which albums take a genre, tip it upside down, and redefine it. That's what this album does. Although trip-hop is still a comparatively new genre, with it generally being accepted that Massive Attack effectively invented with their release of debut album Blue Lines, this album is regularly cited as one of the top 100 albums of all time, with only Mezzanine, Massive Attack's finest hour, coming close to its overall quality within the genre.
For those of you who don't know, trip-hop combines psychedelica, jazz, funk, soul, experimental, chill-out, and hip-hop music, to create what is enerally a down-tempo, moody mish-mash of genres, that, when made well, creates an often majestic effect, which is definitely the case with this album, which consists entirely of samples, put together by DJ Shadow, into the songs, which we see here. Although some people criticise this method of making the album, this is misguided. Taking samples of other songs, and putting them together into whole new compositions, is a feat that few others, if any, could do as well as DJ Shadow does on this album, making this an essential album for the 1990s.
The album begins with Best Foot Forward, which shows DJ Shadow's skill at splicing together samples and gives a brief example of his talent. The first real song as such though is Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt, which opens with a piano riff that continues throughout the whole song, and immediately adds a dreamy air to the music. The drums, like with many songs on here are heavy, adding a really firm backing to the music, and further atmosphere is added with the arrival of a choir in the mix, which fades in and out during the song. Although I'm going to repeat this frequently during this review, it really can't be emphasised enough. The overall effect of the music on this album is similar to that of a dream. You feel as if you have heard it somewhere, somehow before, and yet you know that (in spite of the fact the album is made entirely of samples) you haven't. As you can imagine, this is a disconcerting experience, and yet it's somehow simultaneously reassuring as well. Vocal samples including lines referencing a love for music also add to this mood. Next track The Number Song is one of the heavier songs on the album as well as being one of the most chaotic, with pounding drums coming in immediately after a counted intro before scratching and unrelated vocal samples get repeated over a fuzzy bass line that has a very genuine feel of menace to it. If there's one thing that makes this song though, it's the breakdown, which comes out of nowhere with a horn section that takes a complete left turn and changes the mood completely, before a count in signals the return to the original drum and bass line, which eventually fades out, leaving only stuttering drum loops.
Changeling has a far more relaxed, less sinister feel than the previous two songs, with calm keyboard chords opening the song before funk influenced drums introduce a strange series of scratches and samples that don't last long enough for them really to have that much of an effect on the music. What definitely does have an effect is the appearance of one of the best basslines on the album, which continues shuddering under distorted keyboards and ambient noise, which, when combined with the barely distinguishable vocals, creates a calm soundscape that inevitably leaves the listener feeling as if he's just emerged from a particularly pleasant dream, although this changes slightly towards the end of the track, where a string section comes in, and leads perfectly into Transmission 1 which sounds like a sample taken from a message from outer space, rather than anything else. The next real song is What Does Your Soul Look Like which opens with a similarly strong bassline as that on Changeling, although the mood is even calmer, thanks to the presence only of light, jazzy drumming, and more distorted guitars, that puts the emphasis on a very deep baritone that seems to croak, rather than actually sing. There's no denying the effect of this on the music though, which is hugely calming, and considering it's a five minute song, passes in a flash. (untitled) is another short, more fun track, containing electronic noises over the voice of a man talking about 5 sisters all having ***, in what basically serves as an interlude. If you think the album's calming down though, you'd be sorely mistaken.
Stem/Long Stem begins with another piano riff that sounds desperately familiar, but just beyond the realm of what you can consciously remember. Electronic blips over the top of it add a more mystical feel, but all that gets blown clean away when some frenzied, deliriously pounding drumming comes in, which suddenly stops for a brief vocal sample that lasts a matter of seconds before some strings enter the mix, only to leave it equally quickly. Haunting male soul vocals come in, only to disappear for more crazed drums, which wouldn't sound out of place on an extreme metal song, and completely contradict the quietly beautiful piano. Strings that sound like they've come right out of Psycho then introduce another maddeningly familiar piano part, which gets overtaken by the sound of a man ranting about the power of a sinister government, which seems out to get him over trivial parking offences. Again showing Shadow's skill at creating a mood, this is one of the most paranoid songs on the album, and continues with otherworldly synthesizers fading in and out of the music, creating gorgeous layers of sound that roll over one another repeatedly. Finally the song ends, going into simple piano keys of Transmission 2 while effects quietly flow past in the background, before static waves similar to Transmission 1 signal the arrival of Mutual Slump, beginning with more disjointed drumming and a quiet doomy effect in the background which sounds not so much as it's coming from an instrument as deep within the earth. A female vocal sample briefly interrupts, before more scratching signals the return of the drums, and then more female vocals, while effects fly past in the background. A beautiful saxophone line seems to be leading to the end of the song, but the return of discordant loud drumming and the deep, sinister sounds are what ends the song.
Organ Donor has typical vocal samples as the intro, before a simple organ riff combined with relatively light funk based drumming leads the song into a different direction than most of the others here, with the organ even standing on its own briefly, and going off on what sounds like an improvisation, falling into intentional discord at one stage.Why Hip Hop Sucks In '96, rather than being an angry song as you might expect, is more of an interlude, with a very airy funk feel that passes all too quickly, and turns into Midnight In A Perfect World, which is another soothing song, largely down to the female vocal parts which flow brilliantly over layered keyboards that seem effortlessly to slide past each other while male vocal samples repeat variations on the word "midnight". This is another really experimental song where it's hard to tell what instrument is making a certain noise, and it ends with a repeated sample of a man shouting "Now approaching midnight!" which is only allowed to be completed after what seems like an age of Shadow scratching the sample.
Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain begins with quite an unsettling sample, with what sounds like a typical southern American talking to a little boy, before deciding to have a game of checkers, either with him, or his dog. Deep, funk-style drumming provides the focus for the opening minutes of the song, although it's joined by a groovy bassline that suddenly gives way into a soaring guitar part that goes up and down repeatedly, before fading, leaving ambient noise over a rhythm played on hi-hats, before other drums come in, including what sounds like frenzied tapping on the rim of a snare drum. The effect is unusual, but highly effective, and continues for several minutes, along with a string section that seems to be existing in slow-motion, making the song a masterpiece of mood music, with all parts of it being at very different tempos. The drums gradually disappear, leaving only the strings, before the drums once again enter the song at the very end. Another definite stand out song on the album, it moves, again seamlessly into What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 1: Blue Sky Revisit which has a similar air of melancholy, thanks to syncopated drumming, and waves of effect laden guitars and horns, that combine with trademark unintelligible vocals to give a pure blend of music that gives way slightly to what sounds like more discordant scratching before the end of the song. Transmission 3 is the final song on the album, and, in line with the other 2 Transmission songs, it basically sounds like a distorted radio broadcast, although this seems more sinister, thanks to the repetition of what sounds like a resignedly frightened middle aged man saying "It is happening again", before what sounds like a faint smirk serves as the last noise on the album.
Those of you who are familiar with this album will probably know what I mean when I say that this is an album that seems to pass in a matter of seconds. In writing this review alone, I must have listened to it four times, due to the fact that while writing it I inadvertently stopped typing and just sat and listened to it, so great is its effect, which can go unnoticed, but yet definitely exists. Its dreamlike qualities, along with the sheer flowing beauty of the music makes it an ideal album to listen to relax to, although it's punctuated with moments of chaos that wouldn't normally be associated with this genre. If you think it wouldn't be for you, do not be put off by genres, or anything like that, since this is an album that fans of any and all types of music can appreciate and return to again and again. Not only a hugely innovative album, but also one that reaches heights of musical perfection that few others can approach, this fully deserves 5 stars.