[6 July 2004]
The Welsh band Super Furry Animals is no stranger to innovation. They’ve based an entire career on the stuff, barbequing conventions and reinventing their sound on each successive album. They are the Mission: Impossible agents of contemporary pop, adept at changing disguises with finesse and ease: they’ve played the part of Marshall-stacked Britpoppers (Fuzzy Logic); indie rock encyclopedists (Radiator); progressive technoheads (Guerilla); and unabashed garage rockers (the Welsh language Mwng). Even their b-side compilation (Outspaced) is stronger than most bands’ proper releases.
Super Furry Animals’ most recent albums (2001’s Rings Around the World and 2003’s Phantom Power) were released with simultaneous DVD versions, yet another example of the band’s embrace of modern technology and forward-thinking creativity. The DVDs offer the band’s best albums to date, mixed in 5.1 surround sound, set to kaleidoscopic visual accompaniments with the added bonus of remixes by other artists. But don’t be mistaken; the DVDs are not mere exercises in self-indulgence or the sort of Dark Side of the Moon-via-The Wizard of Oz trickery that makes cosmic sense only to those under the influence. Rather, Super Furry Animals offered a way to experience music that would make Wayne Coyne salivate, fully submerging the listener/viewer into a world that required nothing short of complete attention.
While the remixes of Rings Around the World are available only on the DVD version, the band decided to re-release the Phantom Power remixes as a separate album through their own Placid Casual label. The result is the just-released Phantom Phorce: 80 minutes of cut-and-paste interpretations of every song from its respective album (including two versions of the songs “Valet Parking” and “Hello Sunshine”). While it’s by no means meant to replace the original album, Phantom Phorce does work very well as a companion piece, offering fans some intriguing new ways in which to look at Phantom Power‘s songs.
The remixers all have one common element on their side: flawless original material to work with. While some purists may flinch at the thought of others creatively mangling these perfect tracks, it’s ultimately an aspect of Super Furry Animals’ modus operandi to continually alter the perception of their output.
Killa Kela’s skeletal remix of “Golden Retriever” spins a web of human beat-boxing around the lead vocal, turning its psych-blues stomp into lo-fi street corner funk. Mario Caldato Jr. exploits the lounge element in “Liberty Belle”, opting to focus on flute and percussion embellishments instead of drastic alterations. “Sex, War & Robots” is rendered unrecognizable by Wauvenfold, who forgoes the song’s original country flavor for a muscle spasm dance attack. The intricate vocal harmonies of “Cityscape Skybaby” are at the forefront of Minotaur Shock’s remix: ethereal multi-tracked voices swim in a giant Bonham-esque drum loop. One of the original album’s best tracks, “The Undefeated”, is equally memorable here, as Llwybr Llaethog uses the prominent horn section to concoct a reverberated reggae groove.
The tranced-out atmospherians are aptly represented on the disc as well: Weevil, Brave Captain, and the High Llamas all turn in hypnotically unpretentious (and markedly contrasted) versions of “Hello Sunshine”, “Bleed Forever”, and “Valet Parking”, respectively. Their inclusion makes for an eclectic range of styles and creates a balanced flow from track to track. (One minor annoyance in the album’s flow is the inclusion of samples from the DVD’s fake producer commentary track; on the DVD, it amuses at times, but here feels utterly useless and distracting.)
The first printing of the album comes with a bonus second disc aimed to promote the latest Phantom Power single “Slow Life”, aptly titled Slow Life EP. Along with its epic title track, the disc boasts two new b-sides that offer diverse glimpses at Super Furry Animals’ multiple (and eccentric) personalities. “Motherfokker”, a collaboration with Goldie Lookin Chain, drenches its chanted title refrain in old school keyboard orgies and truly bizarre raps about alien abduction. The instrumental “Lost Control” initially sounds like a not-so-distant cousin to Phantom Power‘s “Out of Control”, but quickly veers off into crazed space jam (with Cian Ciaran once again proving himself the master of electronic manipulation). Still, as b-sides frequently do, these tracks come off more as footnotes to the band’s catalog rather than essentials.
As far as collectors and completists go, a tempting reason to overlook the stiff price tag (as an import, it’s $20+ here in the U.S.) and pick up the album is its extensively imaginative packaging. The two CDs, housed in simple paper sleeves resembling old 3.5” floppy disks, come encased in an elaborate 3-D foldout design, which one is encouraged to assemble (being the geek that I am, I instantly assembled it with sheer geeky delight). If nothing else, Phantom Phorce will be remembered for its ingenious presentation alone. (I’m reminded of a quote from Elvis Costello about album packaging, in which he said—and I’m paraphrasing here—: “You don’t buy corn flakes to read the box; you buy them to eat the corn flakes.” While the man has a valid point, corn flakes were never packaged like this!)
Fans of electronic music will find plenty of tracks on Phantom Phorce to rock their bodies (other artists on the album not mentioned previously include Four Tet, Boom Bip, Zan Lyons, and Massimo); however, those who know the original material will get the most satisfaction from the remixes. Even though Phantom Phorce is available in its entirety on the DVD, these are some intelligent and intriguing remixes, worthy of being issued on their own. Super Furry Animals, kings of invention and permutation, continue to prove themselves as artists of notable distinction, even with stopgap collections constructed of outsider interpretations.