rimal Scream is just your typical techno-punk-terrorist-jazzy-anti-fascist-new wave group. Many groups out there excel at switching identities and sounds like most of us change underwear, but none of them more so than Primal Scream.
In fact, Primal Scream's schizophrenic nature and shifting ethics are what has earned them such a rabid fan base, in an age where musical nonconformity is seen as only slightly better than bubonic plague. They started off as a nondescript blues-rockin' Stones outfit, which made 1991's complete sonic makeover, Screamadelica, such a galvanizing wake-up call.
Birthed in England's Manchester, which celebrated raves, Ecstasy and the groove above all, Screamadelica was a kaleidoscopic journey of neo-hippieism. Noone before had dared to bring electronica song structures and production techniques to the rock audience at this level. Primal Scream provided the modern-day template, updating the work of earlier electro-rock pioneers such as New Order.
But the Scream promptly returned to their 60s-rock roots with their next album, Give Out But Don't Give Up, and then updated Screamadelica with 1997's Vanishing Point, an accomplished but uninspiring album. Now, with their newest offering, XTRMNTR (pronounced "Exterminator"), Primal Scream takes a sledgehammer to their entire back catalogue, and marches bravely into their future, wielding flame-throwers and crowbars.
Just a quick glance at the song titles should be a clue to Scream veterans that they've changed their peaceful worldview. "Kill All Hippies," "Swastika Eyes," "Shoot Speed/Kill Light": this from a group that used to sing lines like "I believe in live and let live," and named previous songs with titles like "Come Together." As the rallying sample in the opener, "Kill All Hippies" says - "subvert normality."
Subvert normality, indeed. Not one song on XTRMNTR sounds like any other, but all flow into the next like molten lava, scorching your ears, and providing the album with a unified front. The music itself runs the gamut from thrash-punk ("Accelerator"), acid-techno ("Swastika Eyes"), abstractionist jazz/rock fusion ("Blood Money"), and elegiac trance ("Keep Your Dreams").
The strand that ties the album together is its sheer confrontational nature. If you can listen to this album without it grabbing you by the throat and bitch-slapping you to attention, then check your hearing-aid, grandpa. Louder than loud, rude, raunchy, perversely evil - XTRMNTR sounds like someone took an old Kraftwerk record, dipped it in acid, grafted Buzzcock guitars on it, and then played it backwards. If pot fueled their rock-oriented albums, and Ecstasy did the same for Screamadelica, then these guys must have taken up injecting cockroach blood in their veins (which would explain unsettling lines like "I'm a host/Parasites living in me/Insect royalty/Beating inside of me").
Lead singer (read: ranter) Bobby Gillespie is an uncaged mental patient on this record, morphing his voice to fit the proceedings. For the Terminator-funk of "Kill All Hippies," he adopts a gleefully weird white boy-Marvin Gaye croon, quipping that "You've got the money/I've got the soul/I can't be bought/I can't be owned." He gargles nine inch nails a track later for "Accelerator," and enters a dream-like stupor on "Keep Your Dreams." Lyrically, Gillespie sums up the entire album's vibe in the eerie pseudo-rap of "Pills," with its repeated chant of "Sick! Sick! Fuck! Fuck! Sick fuck! Sick fuck!" Needless to say, keep the kids away from this one.
Also notable on XTRMNTR is the return (at least in any substantial form) of alt-rock mastermind Kevin Shields, formerly of My Bloody Valentine. Breaking his silence that's lasted since 1991, the "Brian Wilson of alternative" appears here as a guest member/producer, and his contributions are unmistakable. "Blood Money" shows the direction My Bloody Valentine might have taken if Shields wasn't such a damned perfectionist.
The groove is like an infectious disease, hoisted along by the flawless bass playing, and accentuated with dissonant and nightmarish jazz horns (which seems to be the new "big trend" in modern art rock). Top it all off with blood-boiling guitar, and glorious yet sparse synthesizers, and you've got sonic heaven. Equally impressive is the Shields showcase of "MBV Arkestra (If They Move Kill 'Em)." "MBV Arkestra" follows through on "Blood Money," only looser, funkier (hell, there's bongos in it),and way dancier.
Also making an impressive guest spot is New Order's frontman Bernard Sumner himself, playing guitar on the driving, incendiary "Shoot Speed/Kill Light." Propelled into warp speed by Sumner's unchained riff and Gillespie's processed vocal, "Shoot Speed/Kill Light" sounds like a lost New Order single. It's hard not to imagine that Peter Hook is on the knuckle-dragging bass. Finally, the Chemical Brothers show up to work their magic on a remix of "Swastika Eyes," making it sound like, umm....a Chemical Brothers tune.
Ultimately, XTRMNTR is all about completely rearranging your view on popular music, even if it means they have to take a chainsaw to you to accomplish this. The quasi-political bile in many of the lyrics aren't really substantial, just icing on the cake. Many simply extol the virtues of being a counter-culture rebel. The Scream enjoy pulling the rug out from under your feet more than anything. Take "Keep Your Dreams": the music is calming and ethereal, before Gillespie crashes the party by announcing "I believe that sinfullness can burn your soul away/There's no release from nothingness when love has gone away."
XTRMNTR is a tripped-out journey through a future world of crippled empty people and rusted machinery. Yet, it's also invigorating, danceable, funky and completely visionary. Gillespie boasts in the closing track that "I'm leaving everyone so far behind/I'm five years ahead of my time," and he's completely right. How's that for a neat little trick? Now quit reading and listen to the Scream's "civil disobedience."
Reviewed by: Keith Gwillim
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01