Underworld, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Silverchair
1 March 1999
In 1999, techno/rave/electronica/dance music/whatever you want to call it was exploding. Even if 1997’s predicted transformation into an e-shaped, glowstick-twirling, PLUR-rific globe didn’t exactly materialize, filmmakers, journalists, cultural theorists, and aging musicians were still, two years later, struggling to figure out what the hell this music was, what it represented, where the hell it came from, and what the hell it wanted from us.
Underworld, a band nearly two decades old by 1999, had already fully embraced the style, and became a major player with their massive club anthem “Born Slippy .NUXX”, known to most Americans as “that song from Trainspotting”. Expectations for the new album were insanely high. Purists wanted something without a hint of sell-out or crossover to keep the scene from being gentrified. Newbie party-crashers wanted “Born Slippy parts II-XII”, ecstatic rave-ups translatable to rock and hip-hop audiences.
Beaucoup Fish was instead a wide plate that seemed neither too unapproachably Underworld—particularly since only one track on the album didn’t have vocals (“Kittens”)—nor lacking in Underworld’s signature trance riffs, tribal drum exercises, or pummeling club sensibility. Far from a compromise though, Beaucoup Fish is a diverse and mature outing by a band comfortable enough in their own skin to expand their depths, be it through melancholy vocoder elegies (“Winjer”), ambient space croons with no beats (“Skym”), braindead-simple hip-hop with gigantic beats (“Bruce Lee”), or arresting and sublime synthpop that outshines the entirety of the band’s catalogue back when they used to solely do synthpop (“Jumbo”). Karl Hyde’s stream of consciousness verse provided absurdist propulsion for the album with his slam-style reading of “Push Upstairs” being perhaps the first and last slam-style reading to ever work on record post-Soul Coughing. Perhaps the most recondite is all the babbling about ding-dongs and Tom and Jerry in the album’s most massive track, “Shudder/King of Snakes”, which interpolates arpeggios off of the pivotal Summer/Moroder anthem “I Feel Love”.
The diversity of the album is likely what has kept the album fresh, as a recent spin confirmed in this reviewer that it hasn’t aged an inch. After this album, Darren Emerson departed and the band soon fell from great heights as the Ritalin flirtation with techno came to a close. Ten years on, after a series of crappy vampire flicks stole their name from under them, Underworld are mostly forgotten, their soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine almost escaping release altogether. Maybe this anniversary’s a good excuse to remember why we fell in love with them in the first place. Timothy Gabriele
8 March 1999
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada
On the front cover of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s sole EP sits a Hebrew phrase from the Book of Jeremiah: tohu va-vohu—in English, “void” or “nothingness.” It comes from the verse in which the Lord goes medieval on the Earth and turns it into a barren wasteland, which is printed in the liners along with a scribbled call to action: “Let’s build quiet armies, friends.” On the reverse side is an Italian pictorial diagram of a homemade bomb. Nothing out of the ordinary for this shadowy Canadian collective, who, from their first proper album (F#A#(infinity)) in 1997 until their indefinite hiatus in 2003, possessed the dumbfounding ability to make all this fire-and-brimstone mishegaas seem as serious as a heart attack. An apocalyptic black mystique still surrounds Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada; ten years, the disclosure of the players’ identities, and a glut of post-rock copycats have done nothing to diminish its power.
Although it’s only two tracks and runs a bit under half an hour, Slow Riot is an EP in name only, given the reputation of EPs as precursors or B-side fat. In Godspeed’s case, it was simply another way to release the monolithic music they explored on F#A#(infinity) in twice the time. Conciseness is a virtue, as many an educator has told us, and here the band made impressive use of an economical format, cultivating the songs to maturity without wasting an iota of space. At the same time, they were beginning to move away from the post-apocalyptic drift of their debut and toward tightly wound passages of tension and release.
On “Moya”, the first track, strings caterwaul for several minutes before the floor drops out and a lone guitar weeps for them in near-silence. The band then flips the elegiac scene right on its head as the instruments pick themselves up and fuse together, climbing like espaliers and collecting enough strength for a hard-won climax. Not casual listening by any standard, but the song’s objectively high quality managed to keep swaths of diverse audiences mesmerized over its daunting length.
The band’s improved compositional skills extended to their field recordings, which were both more effective in themselves and more effectively placed into the overall context. Only Mogwai and a scarce few others ever came close. Slow Riot is especially significant for featuring what is arguably (and boy, have we argued) the best track in Godspeed’s oeuvre: “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III”, a synthesis of orchestral sturm und drang and man-on-the-street diatribes that would make any sound artist envious. The group found the titular derelict on a sidewalk in Providence, RI, and taped him spewing scarily focused vitriol at the country that abandoned him. When he lists off his weapons one by one, it’s hard to tell whether he’s merely nuts or extremely dangerous, just as we’re forced to question if music by itself can’t contain actual violence.
But Godspeed deal in destructiveness of a very particular kind. The verse in Jeremiah concludes with the Lord assuring, “Yet I will not make a full end.” With its multitude of languages and conflicting messages of religiosity and anarchy, Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada was the place where Godspeed You! Black Emperor looked a bit like gods themselves, pissed off at a fucked-up world they’d be willing to destroy if it would bring about a new beginning. Mike Newmark
8 March 1999
Regarded by Daniel Johns as Silverchair’s “first record”, Neon Ballroom was indeed an evolution from the adolescent grunge days of Frogstomp and Freak Show. The members of the band were only 18 when they composed Neon Ballroom, but the band always proved more mature than their age. Immediately, opener “Emotion Sickness” showed a whole new side to the band’s ability to compose. Adding strings, piano, and a new, more evolved level of song structure, “Emotion Sickness” remains a fan favorite, often regarded as one of the band’s best songs ever written.
Even the generic rocker “Anthem for the Year 2000” proved the band’s ability to evolve with the times. As grunge died, they moved on, becoming a more versatile act than grunge giants Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. Throughout the album, electronic flourishes grace the album to further the band’s experimentation into poppier territory. Of course, these influences would come to dominate their later albums Diorama and Young Modern.
Johns also grew as a lyricist, evolving out of the pure angst he demonstrated on the band’s first two albums. “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)”, of course, dealt with his struggle with anorexia, a condition that would set the band on hiatus in later years. It’s already an elevated topic, but the way he develops the topic is quite original: slurring his words “Ana wrecks your life” to sound more like “anorexia.” Neon Ballroom may have been more of a stepping stone to Diorama than anything, but it was surely Silverchair’s coming out party in terms of musicality. Tyler Fisher