Robert 'Throb' Young 1965-2014 R.I.P.
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Primal Scream in 1997 were in a pretty bad position: their excursion into Rolling Stonesy revivalism Give Out But Don't Give Up had been trashed critically, and their position as innovators being threatened. They responded by recruiting the Stone Roses bassist, Gary "Mani" Mounfield, and recruiting Brendan Lynch and their former producer Andrew Weatherall to oversee their return to warped electronic-rock territory. In the process they created another great album.
The album overall The simplest way to describe this album would be Screamadelica thrown through a noir filter. All the previous colour and character has been replaced with a dark, menacing atmosphere and tension. The production for the album is appropriately grimy and the spontaneous nature of the recordings (the album having been recorded in two months with heavy live improvisation) adds to the paranoia.
The songs: Burning Wheel opens the album with heavily echoed drum machines and a sampled sitar, which give way to a more improvised ambient composition, anchored by a trip-hop beat and punctuated by random layering of sounds. Bobby Gillespie's lyrics, often the band's Achilles' heel, are used well in this context, as a collection of random images that seem to describe a bad trip. The sprawling, rambling arrangement allows the band time to take all sorts of unpredictable twists, yet somehow the song never feels self-indulgent. And as an opening salvo, it's better than "Movin' On Up" or "Jailbird".
The instrumental follow-up Get Duffy is an early highlight, thanks to its seedy main piano riff and its Portishead-imitation groove, constructed from old drum machines, horns, and an eagerly abused filtered echo pedals. At the middle, it takes a darker turn, with dissonant notes and wah guitar. Recommended.
Kowalski is a song about one of the characters from the film the album was named after. It opens with sampled film dialogue, reversed beats and lo-fi synths, turning into a nervous, tense breakbeat-fest. Again, the lyrics work rather well thanks to their minimalism (he just tends to repeat "Like Kowalski in Vanishing Point" or something to that effect), which doesn't detract from the overall mood (although no doubt the song would've worked better as an instrumental). The song too boasts a rambling, improvisatory arrangement, and plenty of industrial, heavy beats. Another highlight.
Star is the first clunker on the album, a dubby, bass-heavy attempt to update Screamadelica's "Shine like Stars". While Augustus Pablo's melodica is a nice touch (reminding one of Gorillaz) and the introduction with just bass and drum machine is sample-friendly, the rest wobbles on its feet. The optimistic, shiny melodies clash badly with the dirty sound, and Gillespie's lyrics are laughable, a platitude-filled tribute to revolutionaries. It begins by asking, "Are you solid as a rock/Have you a strong foundation/Or can your soul be bought", says there's "no greater anarchist" than "the queen of England", and has a limp "Every brother is a star/Every sister is a star" chorus.
If They Move, Kill 'Em rectifies the quality control issue by disposing with vocals and ratcheting up the menace. The introductory high-pitched synth line is more effective than any time Dr. Dre used the same gimmick, the bass is deep as a fountain, and the trip-hop beats are suitably heavy. Duncan Mackay and Jim Hunt return from "Get Duffy" to provide more cheap spy-movie horns. Marco Nelson's basslines are hypnotic, and the structure is chaotic. All of this adds up to another highlight.
Out of the Void is a slow dirge that takes 60s psychedelic influences and smashes them against trip-hop and dub. This time the lyrics are a direct lament from a man stuck in a vicious cycle, and they mesh well with the slow dirge that swirls around Bobby. Martin Duffy seizes the opportunity to do some great Leslie organ solos, and Young's quick guitar licks betray a distinct Stones influence.
Stuka opens with yet more heavily echoed, distorted drums, and another good dub-influenced bassline (again from Marco Nelson, as somehow Mani tends to be underused on the album). A high-tech beat is then layered underneath, the song nicely summoning the atmosphere of a deserted industrial factory at night.
But then the vocals come in, and again derail an otherwise fine mood-piece (conforming to the pattern already set). This time they're heavily processed and vocoded, and more incoherent, thanks to some rambling about how "Jesus" and "a demon" are "in my head like a stinger" and "move from tree to tree". Luckily the damage is not severe, as they disappear for most of the midsection. The song ends abruptly with an echoed flute sample.
Medication is another expected Stones imitation, but this time it boasts a good guitar riff, a pounding backbeat, and assistance from Glen Matlock on bass. Sure, everyone knows by now, Bobby's a bad writer. But this time the lyrics are at least coherent, simplified, and meet a minimal level of quality. Oh, and Robert Young drops in just in time to deliver a blistering solo.
Motörhead is a cover of a song by Hawkwind. Primal Scream take what was presumably a heavy metal original, and apply the Screamadelica twist: stiff dance beat plus distorted guitars. The result is a ragged, chaotic song approaching industrial rock. There are some sore spots: they abuse the white noise generator too much in some parts, and the ending is too sudden and loud. Don't listen to it at maximum volume.
Trainspotting was the Primals' contribution to the eponymous film's soundtrack. The song is obviously influenced by dub and ambient in its monotone construction and emphasis of repetition for hypnotic effect. Again, the song is anchored by a trip-hop beat, and Mani finally gets to cleanly deliver a great bassline. At the 2-minute point a guitar riff reminiscent of Dr. Dre's song "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" is introduced, and repeated throughout. The rest of the band improvise on this theme, many samples and sounds are added, and the song ends before it can turn into an aimless jam.
Trainspotting would've been a great way to end the album, but we get Long Life instead, which suffers from "Star" syndrome at first, attempting to marry clichéd, "positive" lyrics (sample: "Good to be alive/alive/alive/alive") with menacing, acid-trip grooves. Luckily Bobby tunes out quickly, and we're left with the swirling synths, echoed guitars and mechanic drumming. An okay ending for a good album.
Conclusion Vanishing Point was a "comeback" for Primal Scream, and it set their stage for their last great album so far, XTRMNTR. These two albums have proved once and for all that Primal Scream's best material results from their uncanny ability to synthesise electronic music and rock into an inventive, exciting blend.