Release Date: Jun 18, 2013
Record label: Sony Music Entertainment
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Primal Scream always refracted the past through the prism of the present, turning hero worship into something resembling high art. It wasn't always this way, not at the start, when they were part of the delicate, brittle C86 scene, nor was it true when they exploded in a brilliant blast of acid house on Screamadelica. The art came later, after they halted their ascendency via the Stones-aping Give Out But Don't Give Up, a move that in retrospect seems to be an important final foundation within the construction of Primal Scream but at the time seemed odd, halting, flying in the face of Cool Britannia.
Few contemporary bands can challenge Primal Scream for their ability to revolutionize music, knocking out two era-defining classic albums and, well, consuming enough drugs to kill a small nation. The fact that they've been around for 30 years just makes it all the more impressive. For their tenth LP, Bobby Gillespie and the gang have created yet another release that sounds like no other in their catalogue.
Primal Scream's recent output has been blighted by an overreliance on their default setting of "ersatz Stones". Thankfully their 10th album finds them stepping out of their comfort zone again: nine-minute opener 2013 is a bold mix of shrieking sax, Kevin Shields's guitar noise and state-of-the-nation rhetoric. The more restrained moments are equally unpredictable and equally well judged.
You could be forgiven for thinking of More Light, Primal Scream’s 10th album, as something of a reunion record. It’s been five years since their last album broke cover, but it is still quite remarkable that, while many of their peers have burnt out, split, reformed, cashed in and crashed out again, the Glasgow band have, despite having a revolving door policy with over 20 members, remained alive and consistent throughout. Perhaps the secret of this longevity is their inability to step out of the limelight and to keep reinventing themselves.
When a despot or serial killer dies, it’s customary to remember their victims. So while pockets of the UK pull on their grave-dancing shoes and sycophantic moron Boris Johnson blubbers on about how he can’t understand how the UK youth could think so badly of such a great leader (hmmmm, perhaps because they’re facing a lifetime unable to afford an education or home while desperately trying to keep their heads above the debt-blighted, underpaid, overpriced, yawning-wealth-gap, dream-dead shit of Cesspool Britain that Thatcherism created, you despicable millionaire FUCKWIT), it’s fallen to Primal Scream to accidentally provide the most astute ‘tribute’ to dead Thatcher. “Twenty-first century slaves, a peasant underclass”, goes opener ‘2013’.
Whether they were dismantling the divide between rock n’ roll and acid house, or simply regressing into Rolling Stones role-play, the Primal Scream that broke overground in the early 90s had little use for politics, their ideology no more developed than the Spinal Tap-ian maxim of “have a good time, all the time. ” It would take the death of Lady Diana, of all things, to bring frontman Bobby Gillespie’s working-class roots and proletariat sympathies to the fore. In the wake of the fatal car crash that claimed the former Princess of Wales, concerts across a grieving U.
Primal Scream may not be the most important or influential band in music, but much like Forrest Gump, history will show that they were present for a lot. In the ’80s the group contributed the B-side “Velocity Girl” to NME’s now legendary C86 cassette compilation. A collection that in the eyes of history has come to define the mid-80s UK indie pop scene.
Primal Scream albums are—to quote Forrest Gump—like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get. The group's 10th album, More Light, comes five years after its confusing predecessor, Beautiful Future, and it follows up the group touring its seminal album, 1991's Screamadelica. Produced by critically acclaimed DJ and soundtrack stalwart David Holmes, More Light has an ear-catching list of collaborators: Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant ("Elimination Blues"), My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields ("2013"), The Pop Group's Mark Stewart, Jason Falkner, and the Sun Ra Arkestra.
One of the most memorable record reviews that I’ve ever read, something that has stuck with me all of these years, came in 1997. Ben Rayner, then of the Ottawa Sun and currently of the Toronto Star, reviewed the then-new album by Scottish band Primal Scream, Vanishing Point, and he said something to the effect that the album was so cool, that even tearing open the cellophane wrapping off the CD case went so far to heighten expectations for what was inside. That image of hearing the rip-and-crinkle of torn plastic sheathing to get to a shiny disc on the other side of the packaging resonated with me.
Every decent band evolves, morphs, changes and shifts their sound as years go by. The Beatles are respected because they made it from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper’s to Let It Be. If you set your sights on staying one way, you just end up being another Rooney or Phantom Planet. Then there are ….
It ain’t easy being a Primal Scream fan. You spend an awful lot of time defending them against those who see nothing but a Stones tribute act that got lucky. You struggle to convince followers of ‘proper’ bands that Primal Scream do more than derivatively imitate older groups’ sounds, singles, riffs and catchphrases. You try to explain the cultural significance of Screamadelica.
The first track is "2013," and given that we weren't sure he'd make it out of the Nineties, it's perfect that formerly drug-gobbling head Screamer Bobby Gillespie has to remind himself of the year. It takes him nine minutes to get it all out, and he has to rope in My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields to help. Genius! Aided by producer David Holmes, More Light titrates psych rock, garage guitars and shaggy dance music, with Gillespie high on his own supply in a good way.
Rock stars have a tendency to mellow with age. Maybe, but on their 10th album Primal Scream sound like they're going the other way. After cringe-worthy forays into dated Black Crowesy blues rock and conventional pop, the restless Scottish rockers have crafted their best album since XTRMNTR. Tightly produced by David Holmes and featuring collaborations with the Sun Ra Arkestra, MBV's Kevin Shields and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, More Light is a spacey, far-out rock record that succeeds in melding the band's love of gospel, blues, psychedelic grooves, druggy rock, sci-fi pop and anarchist agitprop.
As ever, the ghosts of the past haunt Primal Scream; the pleasure this time is that they are not the ghosts of other bands' pasts. More Light drips with echoes – some faint, some booming – of Screamadelica, be they moods, specific sounds, or even It's Alright, It's OK's reconfiguration of Movin' on Up. There's one genuine masterpiece here: River of Pain blends psychedelic folk into a faintly north African atmosphere, and throws in an astonishing orchestral breakdown, a sunrise cutting through the fog.
It could be said that one of “rock n roll’s” great strengths is also one of its great tragedies; that, despite the widely-held idea that the art-form peaked sometime in the mid-sixties, it very much is a young man’s game. This assumption has allowed what is essentially a simplistic and blunt tool to be successfully refreshed for each generation, but what about those poor unfortunates who got caught up in it all before being unceremoniously rejected for being too old - from the obsessive fans to the legions of wannabes and almost-weres, and even the odd genuine rockstar who didn’t quite grasp that their time had passed? In recent years, Bobby Gillespie has been looking like one of these poor unfortunates - at one point the coolest (and most intoxicated) guy in alternative music, now merely serving as occasional column filler when neither of the Gallagher brothers are available, whose music has long-since played second fiddle to his inebriated rants, in which he comes across as part bitter and narrow-minded, and inflated with a sense of self-belief that, coming from a guy who inflicted Kate Moss’ singing on the world, just seems embarrassing. But then, Primal Scream are more than just Gillespie, and the collective have surprised us more than once in the past; for example the era-defining Screamadelica was practically unrecognisable from their shambling-beginnings.
O, Bobby Gillespie, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… Just as Lulu once gushed (in To Sir With Love) about how on-screen mentor Sidney Poitier had taken her “from crayons to perfume,” Gillespie has, over his quarter-century tenure as frontman for Primal Scream, taken us from the jangle to the groove, freeing both our minds and our asses in the process. The group hit an early summit on landmark ’91 release Screamadelica, a record which, of course, helped redefine the aging UK rock scene for a youth climate awash in DJs, dance music and the drug Ecstasy while connecting it firmly with the hippie movement of yore. Soon enough, however, Primal Scream embarked upon a pick-and-choose exploration of rock’s tattered tapestry that included overt forays into ‘70s-ish, Stones-styled hard rock, ill-advised Prog and even neo-metal, and despite some occasional bursts of excellence (notably 2000’s politically-charged XTRMNTR, powered by hypnotic single “Swastika Eyes”), the group’s commercial star dimmed considerably, along with its reputation as an influential tastemaker.
Primal Scream have always been a hard band to really love. Their lurching from jangling dreamers (Sonic Flower Groove) to drug-touched genre benders (Screamadelica) to rock & roll chop boys (Give Out But Don't Give Up) to dub warriors (Vanishing Point) and millennial digi-industrialists (XTRMNTR) was peculiar to witness, their intent hard to define. This flip-flopping, combined with remarkable inconsistency live (in my experience, Primal Scream gigs have veered between violent transcendence and watching a bunch of old drunks shouting for opening time through a closed pub window) meant it often felt that they were grasping at some dubious, mythical idea of what rock music is and can do, rather than achieving it.
Primal Scream have always defined themselves as true rock ‘n’ roll renegades. Over the course of their career they’ve seen members come and go, and their sound alternate between proto punk, Stones rock, electro noise and the euphoric dance of their landmark album, 1991’s ‘Screamadelica’. The year-long tour to commemorate that release’s 20th anniversary seems to have creatively re-energised a band who were beginning to lose focus.
The reason that Primal Scream have been one of the most compelling bands of the last 25 years is entirely down to their being one of the least reliable. Listening to any new Primal Scream album seems rooted more in trepidation than excitement. As a true student of rock and roll – and someone who seems to love every revolutionary piece of music he hears – Bobby Gillespie simply can’t seem to tell what he is and isn’t good at.