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Sunday, 4 November 2012

Primal Scream - XTRMNTR (2000)

When people have asked me over the years what my favourite gig is of all time, my immediate response is to say Primal Scream at the Birmingham Academy. It’s a strange kind of Pavlovian reaction, because when I start to think about it, memories of other great gigs come flooding back: Shellac at the Custard Factory, New Order at Roskilde, Faith No More at Download, the Music at the Glasgow Barrowlands, P-Funk in Dublin, Pixies, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Final Fantasy. Mars Volta, Suede, !!!, Queens of the Stone Age... the list goes on and could probably go on all day if I really thought about it. But there was something quite magical about that particular gig so it pops into my head immediately when faced with such a question.

Primal Scream had already done a full XTRMNTR tour, and I had already seen them play earlier that year at Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall. It was a greatest hits set with a few tracks from XTRMNTR thrown in, but it was a show heavy with the poppier side of their work. A few months later, they announced a mini tour which saw them play at four venues in Brighton, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham. I went to the Birmingham show - it was about a week before Christmas, and the set couldn’t have been more different to the Wolverhampton show. They played pretty much every track from XTRMNTR, some of the darker tracks from Vanishing Point, and a couple of new tracks that probably made it onto Evil Heat (‘Rise’ is the only one I can really remember hearing later) – there was no room for tracks like Rocks or Jailbird. The show was amazing, and there was some intangible quality that night that made you know that you were witnessing something incredible. Familiar tracks were given a new twist with an XTRMNTR paint-job: tracks like ‘Burning Wheel’, ‘Higher than the Sun’ and ‘If They Move, Kill ‘Em’ were overhauled and given a new veneer of dirty bass and noisy distortion.

Sometimes when you see a band live, it takes away quite a lot from the album. The power and sheer physicality of the live experience can make the records sound flat in comparison: this happened to me with XTRMNTR. When the album came out, I listened to it more times than I can remember, but once I’d seen the energy that the tracks had within them, I listened to the album less and less, because I knew that it came nowhere near the sound that was produced that night in Birmingham. I spent the next year visiting record fairs and a dodgy music shop in Manchester’s Afflecks Palace to try and find a bootleg of the show, but never managed to find one. Revisiting XTRMNTR today, that feeling of wanting is still there, but I think enough time has passed to appreciate this album on its own merits and not as something inferior or secondary to the live show.

XTRMNTR opens with the metallic punk-funk stomper ‘Kill All Hippies’, with its falsetto vocals, spiky drum patterns, and a bass-line so dirty that it is practically indecent. The filth continues, with the sleazy rock and roll of ‘Accelerator’, which sounds like MC5 blasting loudly from broken speakers - an awesome tune. ‘Exterminator’ sounds edgy and paranoid, with its claustrophobic bass-lines, fractured guitar riff, disconcerting electronic bleeps and creepy synth loops. ‘Swastika Eyes’ is what you get when a rock band does techno. The live bass-line in this one gives it an incredible sense of urgency and power. Bobby Gillespie’s lyrics are full of imagery of urban decay and military industrial excess, that help leave you reaching for the Jesse Ventura books to read a bit more about those black helicopters and another secret CIA mind-control programme. ‘Pills’ is just hilarious. I love the music, and when live it spirals with anger and fear: the way the bass and synthesized strings slip and weave around each other sounds awesome. The song is let down, however, by Gillespie’s rapping – it doesn’t work, until the intensity of the final verse where he is screaming “sick / fuck / sick” over and over. ‘Blood Money’ steps up the intensity with driving jazz rhythms, a relentless bass-line, and a moody Film Noire brass section that all combine to create a sense of nervous frenzy. ‘Keep Your Dreams’ is stunning and sleepy, with its lullaby chimes and vocals that seem to drift and float. The final section of this song is epic and anthemic, and reminds us of just how powerful some of Primal Scream’s records can be. ‘Insect Royalty’ brings back the hip hop influences, but throws in a massive helping of anxiety and paranoia. The song is intense and unrelenting, but in a very different way to ‘Accelerator’ – I can imagine Marilyn Manson recording a song like this during his Mechanical Animals phase, with its dark electronica and vocal distortion creating that sense of horror that Marilyn Manson was so good at for a while. ‘MBV Arkestra (If They Move Kill ‘Em)’ is by far the most exciting and innovative track on the album. Though it originally turned up as a remix on the B-side to ‘If They Move Kill ‘Em’, this is a track that needs to be experienced. When I first heard it, it sounded like a mess of noise and distortion, but one day its genius hit me and something clicked in my head. This is not just a piece of music, it’s more like an essay on the possibility of music, an exploration around the edges of rock sound and song-form – as if the very lines of what we define as a song or piece of music have been unceremoniously twisted, pulled and called into question. It reminds me of how artists like Ian Davenport seem to play around with the very limits of painting, where the lines of what constitutes and defines painting are pushed and blurred. ‘Swastika Eyes (Chemical Brothers remix)’ seems to be a little redundant on the album, and would have been much better as a B-side, as it is incredibly similar to the original, whist also sounding rather like the Chemical Brothers’ remix of Primal Scream’s ‘Burning Wheel’ from a few years before. ‘Shoot Speed Kill Light’ is an awesome album-closer where the influence of Kevin Shields can clearly be felt. It’s a song that manages to combine elements of Krautrock pioneers Neu! with a punk sensibility whilst layers of vocals, synths and guitars collide beautifully over the song’s simple but driving rhythm section.

This is a solid album with some truly astonishing moments. Though it still doesn’t capture the force and vigour of the live performance, it is certainly worth revisiting. This isn’t an album I’m going to be sending to the charity shop any time soon.

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JC said...

This is Keep or Cull number 50, deserves some kind of celebration...

deep-blue said...

Awesome album!

Listen also to the Japan bonus track "I'm 5 Years Ahead of My Time" (it's a cover):

JC said...

Yeah, I think it was an XTC cover. It was a B-side to Accelerator (I think), great tune.

Anonymous said...

Recommend the live in Japan album, from the Evil heat tour. Pretty much fits the description of the gig you were at.

JC said...

Cheers, I will have to try and track a copy down.

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