They Kept Good Company
Scotland’s the Shamen were one of several marginal art-rock groups that gained some freak American success from their involvement with the UK’s “indie dance” craze of the early ‘90s. Unlike the Farm, Pop Will Eat Itself, and even Happy Mondays, they were largely unnoticed until they discovered the then-emerging techno rave scene and incorporated its danceable rhythms and hip producers into their music. Along with Underworld, the Shamen went even farther, though, ditching their guitars and completely reinventing themselves as ravers, with much better commercial (and critical) results.
The Shamen Collection is a straight reissue of a 1998 UK release of the same name, a product of UK label One Little Indian’s distribution deal with the Navarre empire. Including tracks from all four of the band’s major rave era albums spanning 1991-1996 (a fifth album, 1998’s little-heard UV, was released after they left One Little Indian and is therefore not featured), it’s all the Shamen most listeners will ever need.
Wisely, the group’s US label issued a version of 1991 breakthrough album En-Tact that replaced many original recordings with single mixes by Steve Osbourne, William Orbit, and house hitmakers the Beatmasters, making the Shamen sound even cooler than they really were. Mixing driving rhythms and atmosphere with just enough pop punch, these tracks are the band’s best. “Omega Amigo” is sublime, “Make it Mine” makes good use of a mean guitar riff, and “Hyperreal” showcases Orbit’s clean, steely sound (from which he would mine commercial gold several years later on Madonna’s Ray of Light album). “Move Any Mountain” was an American Top 40 hit and established the Shamen formula as well: a chugging electro beat, monosyllabic vocals from Colin Angus, chorus repeated as often as possible, and sprightly, cartoon-like rap from everybody’s favorite cockney-voiced MC, Richard “Mr. C” West, in the middle. The hokey, utopian positivism that marked everything the Shamen did from here on out actually adds to the fun. And how nice it was in 1991 to be able to listen to dance pop and not be commanded to “dance now” or “work that body!”
For 1992’s follow-up, Boss Drum, the Shamen honed the pop aspects of their formula, settling on the Beatmasters for mixes, making Mr. C their front man and adding female vocals for extra commercial appeal. The result was a yield of no less than four UK Top Ten hits, all of which are included here. “Ebeneezer Goode” went all the way to Number One, and with it this docile crew stirred up some actual controversy, over whether Mr. C sang “‘Eezer Goode” or “E’s are good”, E being short for raver drug of choice ecstasy. Either way, the track sounded like a novelty song then, and it hasn’t gotten any less annoying with age. By the time of 1995’s Axis Mutatis, the formulaic singles had become tiring, and dance music trends were beginning to pass them by. “Transamazonia” and “Heal” try to shake things up a bit, with the latter even employing a different mixing team. But three years is a long time in dance music, and the Shamen’s time was about up.
With so many of the Shamen’s singles made from the same template, the few tracks on The Shamen Collection that break the mold are especially striking. “Re:evolution” is nine minutes of official weirdo Terence Mckenna rambling on cryptically with snaking, almost ambient musical accompaniment. Far out, man! “Indica” wraps things up on a straight techno note from 1996’s all-instrumental Hempton Manor.
Even those who aren’t fans of the Shamen might find it hard to pass on The Shamen Collection, though, thanks to the remarkable remix disc that’s included. Segued capably by Mr. C, it’s broken down neatly into four tracks, each representing a sub-genre: alternative, house, acid, and drum ‘n’ bass. When it came to budgeting remixes, the Shamen didn’t skimp; the credits are a who’s who of mid-‘90s electronica. Read ‘em and weep: Meat Beat Manifesto, 808 State, Paul Oakenfold, Renegade Soundwave, Orbital, Moby, Deep Dish, Danny Tenaglia, Richie Hawtin, Hardfloor, LTJ Bukem, and others. From Meat Beat’s psychotic hip-hop breaks to Bukem’s spectral synths, each puts their signature stamp on the material. While not everyone delivers their best work, the 70-minute disc is a virtual time capsule, and a highly danceable one, too. At the price of a single disc, The Shamen Collection is a steal. You may or may not warm to the quirky Shamen, but you can’t deny the company they keep.