Monday, November 10, 2008

Primal Scream -- Vanishing Point

Primal Scream is a band to whom absolutely no corollary can be drawn; like their sometimes brothers-in-arms My Bloody Valentine, the Scream are unique unto themselves. They aren't willfully outlaws in whichever genre they decide to tackle; you get the impression that more often than not, the outlaw is the only archetype that they know how to inhabit. Primal Scream is composed of equal parts a celebration of rock 'n roll debauchery (at least during the earlier part of their career), stubborn gang mentality ("We are the Primal Scream, know what I mean?" their lead singer Bobby Gillespie has said.), and devil-may-care exploration of why-the-fook-can't-we-make-a-record-like-this? That last part has both given them their highest triumphs, but contributed to their seemingly uninspired lesser releases as well. For all these reasons and more, they are a band that you ultimately either like, love, or couldn't give a flying fuck about.

I realize that nowhere in that first paragraph have I given you any indication as to how their music sounds. That is purposeful; the Scream have a weird way of changing entire genres between albums. Some have linked this change to whichever drugs they were taking at the time. The blissed acid house of Screamadelica came out in 1991, when E was the rave and raves were ecstatic. Give Out But Don't Give Up from 1994 can be seen as the product of too much heroin, a southern fried tribute to the Stones, filtered through Memphis and Glasgow. They found themselves enamored with amphetamines for the jagged and unrelenting XTRMNTR in 2000. Not until 2004 did the Scream seem to be repeating themselves; all accounts that I have heard (and the songs I've heard for myself) paint Riot City Blues as a weaker retread of the Stonesy tributes of Give Out..., which itself is honestly a fine record taken on its own terms.

In 1997, however, it's more than obvious that the band was turned on by Dr. Owsley's famous lysergic diethylamide. The album they released, Vanishing Point, is an amazing album on all fronts. I have never ingested any hallucinogens, but I can only imagine from what I've heard that this album sonically replicates one hell of a trip. The album is dark, dubby (dub seems to be, to me, just echoey repetitive reggae), soul-inflected, trippy, psychedelic, and above all, powerful as all hell. This album also marked the first album to feature their new bassist, former Stone Roses bassman Gary "Mani" Mounfield. He joined the band towards the end of the recording sessions for this album, and his addition turned out to be incredible chemistry (pardon the pharmacological pun). Primal Scream named the album after a 1971 road movie of the same name; in it, the amphetamine-fuelled protagonist Kowalski attempts to win a bet by driving from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. The movie, by all reports, is stark, and allegorical. All along the way, the long arm of the law conspires to stop Kowalski. Cleavon Little stars as a blind DJ who acts as both cheering section and guardian angel who warns Kowalski along the way of all the ways that the cops are trying to stop him. So enamored of this movie were the Scream that they posited their album as an alternate soundtrack of sorts to the film. Regardless of the movie of which I haven't seen, Primal Scream's end result is nothing short of stunning. When this was originally released on vinyl by Creation Records, it was a double LP. Maybe that will give you a better idea of the cinematic scope of this album, and of all that it strives to achieve.

The proceedings start with strange noises, like the clatterings of chairs in the empty chambers of a really big mindspace. It's dark inside that head, a bit spooky, but fascinating in the depths that the sounds conjure up. A light percussive beat ushers the song "Burning Wheel", which adds a layer at a time to an incredible groover, which forebodes the maroon sonic tones of the tracks which succeed it:
If you could see what I can see
Feel what I feel
When my head is on fire
When I'm a burning wheel
Sometimes it's tempting to ask, "what makes this uniquely psychedelic? What separates this from any old pop record?" Then you realize that all of those sonic curlicues, the manic woodwind touches, that exist for no reason other than to build the mood, that's what separates mere pop from psychedelia. The song trails off with a sly nod to "Strawberry Fields Forever". Next up, "Get Duffy" takes its titular momentum from both the Roy Budd-scored Michael Caine gangster film Get Carter and Martin Duffy, the Scream's keyboard player. The tune is a loping Henry Mancini-esque song with tastefully dusky horns which could easily be imagined underscoring a caper flick; it evokes a dark scenario lit by streetlight and nudged onwards by mystery and intrigue. As it fades away, the song named for the movie's hero, "Kowalski", builds with a throbbing bassline into a shrieking, stereo-panning, tooth-filling rattler of a song.
The lyrics are whispered, tension so thick you can barely see light through it. Quotes of Cleavon Little as the DJ from the movie give an idea of the craziness that a car chase can evoke, especially if you're flying high on amphetamines and high-test fuel. It ultimately fades away slowly, like a snake which slithers away after it's eaten its meal. A low, undulating static fades up with "Star", a mercifully slower song which pays tribute to our past's (sometimes violent) revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Its lyrics are relevant to this day and age as well:
For the dreamers, rebel souls & future days
Be brave & strong
Keep keepin' on
Be conscious in the chaos
The queen of England
There's no greater anarchist
One man's freedom tighter
Is another's terrorist
The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love), the same duo which graced a zillion Stax classics, provide beautiful coloration, as does a lovely melodica part by Augustus Pablo. This song seems to provide a lovely side break of sorts; there's actually a second or so of breathing room between this song and the next.

The next phase of the album is ushered in by the instrumental "If They Move, Kill 'Em", which is one of the first line in the Sam Peckinpah film The Wild Bunch. Shaft-styled guitars layer on top of flutes and horns, the aforementioned thumping bassline, shredding guitars, and a great recurring motif. The end result is a psychedelicized version of a spaghetti-western soundtrack, complete with sitars and shredding sound effects. (For an utterly, stunningly psychotic re-interpretation of this same song, check out XTRMNTR's flat-out noise classic "MBV Arkestra", which is Kevin Shields' remix of the song.) I have to give credit to Bobby Gillespie; most frontmen are so egotistical, that they wouldn't allow more than one song per album to be instrumental, lest the audience (which, the thought process goes, has a very short attention span) forget the greatness which is their contribution. Gillespie, by contrast, seems to get it that since the Scream can be likened to a team, not all players are always gonna be on the field at one time. He can step aside and let the rest of the team carry the day if the song calls for it. The song drips away amid electronic blips and beeps, then a jagged guitar segues into a very atmospheric, dark (sorry to use that word so much; it really describes so many tracks so well) "Out Of The Void". The singer, despondent beyond description, expresses his dry horror at his fate with such restraint that the sonic bats and creepy-crawlies between your headphones lurk like a Lewis Carroll tale gone horribly Tim Burton on us, like Beetlejuice gone sinister. Fascination stirs you to peer into the gaping maw as pterodactyls dive bomb your cochleas and moths buzz around your well-coiffed hairstyle. Next up, take the throb of the earlier song "Kowalski", slow down the pace, sing in a monotone through a crackly CB radio, and you have the (you guessed it) dark "Stuka", which in a perfect world could have been a single. Vintage analog synths punctuate the sections of the song, and clattering of rising cadences sit atop a trodding death march of a song.
If you play with fire
You' re gonna get burned
Some of my friends
Are gonna die young
I gotta say, for as much drug use as the Scream purportedly did, they didn't glorify them all the time; more often than not, they seemed all-too-ready to paint the other side, that the drugs did a hell of a number on their psyche.

Next up is "Medication", a noisy hommage of sorts to the Stooges / Iggy Pop styled rockers. But instead of the song being a straightforward rocker, it's got layers of noise on top of it, making it busy and frantic. "Motorhead" is the cover of the song by the same name, but here it has a machine-precise beat and sonic craziness. Lemmy should be proud. Even though the next song was conceived independently of the Vanishing Point album, "Trainspotting" (the theme song to the movie of the same name) is of the same mindset, a wonderful pulsing instrumental. Themes rise and fall, drop in and drop out; the constant are the bass and drums, and for eleven minutes you find yourself utterly entranced by the song. Finally, "Long Life" is a wonderful send-off, a serene song which reminds us that it's "good to be alive".

In the UK, Creation Records released this with the cover art shown at the top of the page. This is a great collage of the different vintage effects pedals and recording gear used by the band during this record's genesis. However, due to the fact that Alan McGee probably didn't give a crap about potential copyright infringement in the display of these (most likely defunct) brand names, Reprise/WB in the US got cold feet, pussied out, and released the cover version to the right, a detail of the collage which didn't contain any brand names. Even though this cover is still enigmatic enough and evocative enough to properly advertise the music within, it is still a compromise. Tragically, now that the Creation Records catalog has been reissued in the UK by Sony, they have opted to issue this album with the safer American album art. If you come across the original artwork for a reasonable price, nab it. To the best of my knowledge, the music within both is identical.

For your information, the original vinyl side division broke down as follows. In parentheses is the phrase that was etched into each album's dead wax (which is the area of the record between the runoff groove and the label).
Side A:
1. Burning Wheel
2. Get Duffy
3. Kowalski

Side B:
4. Star
5. If They Move Kill 'Em
6. Out Of The Void

Side C:
7. Stuka
8. Medication
9. Motorhead

Side D:
10. Trainspotting
11. Long Life

There exists in the UK only a companion release that Primal Scream put out a year later called Echo Dek, which consists of dub remixes by Adrian Sherwood of On-U-Sound of most of the tracks on Vanishing Point. Although it is interesting in places, I don't feel that the remixes are especially revelatory; they offer variations on a theme, as opposed to the full re-invention of the songs (a la "MBV Arkestra"). It stands as an album-length b-side, but is not essential.

Vanishing Point is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. It is the crown jewel in a catalog which boasts several strong albums. If you trust me, you'll buy this. If you end up not liking it, pass it along. It's probably not for everyone, but the music they created here is timeless, rich, and thoroughly rewarding upon repeat listens. Stunning.


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