Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire (Epic – 1996)

Their eponymous debut may have may have made triple-platinum them counter-cultural must haves, something any teenager could adopt and where as a badge of non-conformity no matter how much of the subject matter was appreciated, but it was a deeply flawed work. While strong tracks were exceptional they were not the rule. By the time of the arrival of the album’s second half the going had become leaden and unrelenting, in this reviewer’s mind for one reason; production. Debates (dull ones) abound about who first or best or absolutely fucking whatever about the fusion of rap and metal but RATM: The Album arrived in the context of Metallica’s ‘black album’ the year before, a sound both typifying and defining the sound of metal in that period.

Everything was thick and compressed so that all sustained notes were of the same volume as the initial strike, the ‘studio sound’ was all, drums resonate for a clinically uncomfortable amount of time with any trace of live playing squashed. All this was during choruses and verses, metal, when looking to be authentic (thanks guys) would replicate the ‘live’ sound by not having a guitar double the bass during solos, Pantera records and RATM’s first are prime examples of the ‘solo shitifier’, a technique by which all inertia and weight could disappear from a track as soon as soon as the guitarist wanted to ‘flash his blade’.  This was a particular gripe of mine on RATM’s debut given that all the sound collapsed at the same time a rock guitarist was about to do something interesting for the first time in about a decade. It was claustrophobic in a negative way, it wasn’t making a point it was just what it sounded like, and it sounded like 1992. If your early 90s metal album didn’t sound like your voice the interior of a waste paper bin when worn as a knight’s helmet then something had gone amiss. While RATM’s innovative nature can be argued (see ‘absolutely fucking whatever’ from earlier) it would seem that in this instance they had gone with convention.

When Evil Empire emerged four years later it was clear from the first note that this heavy woolly sound had been banished.  It sounded like the guitar was being played in the same room as the drums at the same time, the tone was lively, it sounded like a thing that was actually happened and was captured, it was exciting, it was fresh, it was vital and yet paradoxically it was all of these things because finally someone had gotten the whole ‘just sound loads like Zeppelin’ thing immaculately right. Metal had in the late 80s/early 90s become obsessed with mid range and distortion, this had been seen as the quickest route to the heaviest sound (along with palm muting), Zeppelin were never that heavy in tone, their heavy secret, was to operate as unit. In doing this RATM allowed groove to become a tool as available to them just as it was to the mighty Zeppelin. In the main metal had gone route one distortion and straight-laced fast tight drumming, this gave RATM’s sound of defiance another dimension with which to separate itself before the vocals have even been factored.

Trying to sound like Zeppelin isn’t a new idea so comparing RATM to Aerosmith and Soundgarden is unnecessary (well maybe Soundgarden, maybe) as the vocals completely eschew them. While De La Rocha was not calm on the first album this time he’s Howard Beale in Network, not only because he’s mad as hell and his isn’t going to take it any more is convenient and so hackneyed I have to include it, but his spirit of possession, possibly unhinged, saying dangerous things, lifting the lid on the backstage processes of the modern world, the power and conviction, all the weary last ditch flailing which Peter Finch brought to the role are in the voice this time, the sense that anger can bring about change, that it was believable, that it was well portrayed. The vocals could not have worked if they were not a) well written and b) well delivered. This might seem trite but mainstream music is normally as conservative as RATM aren’t so getting a record featuring songs about the Christian Right’s influence on mainstream media output, social inequality, the US military-industrial complex or the Zapatista revolution then it needs to be both good and cool when you do it.  You need conviction, authority and talent, De La Rocha was always this and fiercely so, more Chuck D or KRS-One (yeah, lazy and I’ve already cited Network, but in my defence if I named some other similar rappers you’d just have to Google them) than James Hetfield or Axl Rose of conventional rock, he was able to say more, more angrily and more substantive than rock’s norms of comforting ambiguity.

The Battle for Los Angles (to date their last album proper) would see the band build on this groove and tone it would never be as simple as it was here as Morello moved yet further towards utilising the guitar as technological interface rather than an instrument of pure riff, a device to be used in conjunction Wilk and Commerford. But thankfully the road map marked ‘production’ used on Evil Empire was used again. Maybe it’s just an unnecessary complaint on my part that I feel my favourite album by a particular band is often the one that seems to be either omitted from their collection or the one bought last. Sixteen years on Evil Empire is not only still lyrically relevant but a lively and vital sounding record that perhaps should be held up as a benchmark in the place of its predecessor.

Adam Hiles

 

 

 

 

 

1981

Kraftwerk – Computer World (Kling Klang)

Even by 1981 Kraftwerk’s influence was assured but Computer World saw them further embedded into consciousness of virtually everything that would follow it.  The themes of technological advancement, supremacy and isolation are prominent throughout, which begs the question as to whether Hutter et al where psychic or whether nothing has changed in the intervening 30 years.  Away from lyrical concerns their compact approach to electronic music has become a filter that all music is now heard through, every keyboard, drum machine or sequencer that is ever used evolved from their work, whether it is stylistically or technological, all dance, synth-pop and electronic is here but it is this album’s influence on hip-hop that makes it singular. Effortless, innovative, profound and fun, it is not only a part of the canon but a work that impacted on all its subsequent members.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5UfJA2evY

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)

Perhaps Kraftwerk’s only ommission was not to fully predict, pre-empt and define sampling culture, thankfully Eno & Byrne decided to take time out after ‘Remain in Light’ and record future music.  Rhythm tracks and layered improvisation was then topped with found vocal sounds in lieu of ‘actual’ singing, while Byrne’s vocals had recently been taking Talking Heads to new heights here his voice is silent, instead the altered voices of politicians handling criticism or loops of an exorcism take the centre ground.  The result is an intense eerie space of cold funk, as rhythmic as it is ambient, still as fresh and unparalleled today as it must have been 30 years ago.  I once read that this was Terminator X’s favourite album and to be honest if the words ‘David Byrne’, ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Terminator X’ in that context don’t get you excited then you should go and use Google to find something else to read as this blog may not be of use to you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NWtm3LE-x4

ABBA – The Visitors (Polar)

To dislike ABBA is to wilfully dislike joy, their ability to fuse the radical and familiar in a hummable form and be HUGE may not have been seen since, and they also seem to have been the first to do so, since The Beatles.  While their last album may only feature one track that made an appearance on the omnipresent uber-work that is ABBA Gold this has no shortage of genuine hooks found in surprising places.  While The Beatles saw out their time under that trading name in increasingly separate spaces ABBA stayed ABBA.  Recording on ‘The Visitors’ started only weeks after Benny and Frida’s divorce in a mist of synths, an air of introspection and melancholy which has none of the euphoric disco of their earlier works, instead the weave of arpeggiated keys and singing in the round instil a sense of loss and longing that cannot help but draw attention to the circumstances that went into its creation.  Evidently as emotionally as they are musically mature, this is a dignified and precise detailing of heartbreak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2dCvoext0

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (EMI)

Some years ago another writer from this blog had drag me away from a young man who had dared to suggest that fashion was more important than politics. I stand by that (although I may have made a better job of expressing myself at the time) however it is sad that today’s pop music has nothing that can even hold a candle to DD. Aside from the Scissor Sisters, think of a modern pop act that has gained any modicum of success off its own back without being manufactured in some way? You can’t can you. Positive, well made, middle class popular music is dead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gudEttJlw3s

Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)

Claire Grogan. Mmmm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40K2S0-5Xo0

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizzare)

From the opening rhythm of the syth that builds like a toy steam engine revving up, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love remains a pure joy and as with Duran Duran’s overtly middle class preening it’s hard to see any modern pop band getting away with releasing an album with such overtly homo-erotic content (Scissor Sisters excepted). The final track Say Hello Wave Goodbye proves that electronic music can be both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time; Marc Almond’s half spoken vocals somehow managing to simultaneously convey feelings of hope and remorse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbEOgfq3CNc

The Clash – Sandinista! (Epic)

‘Sandinista!’ is a glorious failure, arguably the worst of the first five proper albums The Clash and for all that maybe the most intriguing for it. The grand folly of the double album is something which has plagued the plagued every credible ‘artist’ since The Beatles unleashed the ever so slightly self-indulgent nonsense of ‘The White Album’, but The Clash’s decision to trump their relatively focused ‘London Calling’ with a triple beast showed such scant regard for quality control, that the brainstorm of ideas that swamped its audience deserved attention for its sheer ambition and desire to play with genres about a million miles away from the easily dismissed ‘garage band’ of five years previous. The reggae and dub influences of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mikey Dread are to the forefront of the album with levels of echo only previously embraced in straight rock songs during the week that Phil Spector had a particularly nasty bout of tinnitus, while the fledgling genre of rap is heard through ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months and making real claims to be the first white rap record, which considering much of what followed is in itself quite a dubious claim to fame. The album cemented mainstream success in America while drawing disapproving looks at home its self-indulgence and UK critics did of course have a point, but for glorious ambition and a desire to share every grand design with their public, ‘Sandinista!’ must be applauded at least as a catalyst for the experimentation with world music that followed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijiazWlawUY

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Trust (F-Beat)

Like all great artists of a certain age, Elvis Costello has been working hard for many a year to piss away his legacy with sentimental tosh punctuated with a brief glimpses of what made him great in the first place, prompting earnest declarations of that most terrifying phrase, namely the ‘return to form.’ Back in 1981, Costello’s fifth album and one of two that year with the country covers album ‘Almost Blue’ following it, ‘Trust’ was Declan McManus at the peak of his game, with spiky new wave melodies branching out into blue eyed soul and cataloguing tensions within his marriage and band. ‘Clubland’ has all the urgency of earlier works, while ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ evokes The Pretenders and ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’, a duet with Squeeze’s Chris Difford provides a joyous contrast between Costello’s rasp and Difford’s poppy croon. Ironically, the album was a relative commercial flop in comparison with the covers which followed, but this was Costello at his poetic best and an undervalued gem amongst more revered albums of this Nick Lowe produced period.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbasuu1gCDs

Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming (Epic)

It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, which is true of most things in life, but absolutely true when it comes to pop music. Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni almost certainly didn’t change the world musically, but they did have enough ludicrous vision to present an utterly grand a ridiculous view of the world which has been ideologically imitated but never bettered with regards to creating a grand, fanciful design. When examined closely, the title track, replete with an aging Diana Dors in the video exclaiming ‘Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ to a tango seems such improbable number one single material, but there it is as much a triumph of style as anything the Sex Pistols ever managed. Will we ever see a better single about a highwayman than ‘Stand and Deliver’? I think not. Can you refrain from singing and at least partially dancing along? Almost certainly not. ‘Ant Rap’, which was the final single to be taken from the album is, in retrospect, utter tosh, but in the context of rap’s first fledgling steps, it strangely has the album ham-fistedly surfing the zeitgeist. Aside from the singles, ‘Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios’ has quirky new wave charm and even the faintly ludicrous ‘S.E.X’ foresees Damon Albarn’s attempts at capturing a very British sensuality. The album is far from a masterpiece, but it seems nigh on impossible that mainstream pop music could be quite so willingly dandy ever again and the world is poorer for it.

PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

We are legally obliged to include this album in any list.