[3 April 2011]
A few years ago, Zomby issued a primer to certain early-‘90s dance sounds in the form of period piece Where Were U in ’92?. The album locks into its signature elements quickly and dirtily, serving wall-to-wall rave piano, sirens, plunging, wobbling bass, rapid drills, and diva and chipmunk vocals, rarely letting in any air. This is a set of songs designed to create movement. Yet for those lacking physical and emotional contexts for the music—listeners not inclined to look back with nostalgia on crowded dance floors, swirling lights, and ear-shattering volume—Where Were U in ’92? can be an overwhelming experience, best taken in small doses.
For Primal Scream, there’s a specific answer to the question posed by Zomby’s exercise in rave history. What was the Scottish band up to in 1992? Winning the inaugural Mercury Music Prize for breakthrough album Screamadelica (released in 1991). Presently being reissued in several editions for its 20th anniversary, Screamadelica remains the most rewarding, most enduring evidence of the variety of sounds that could be folded into early 1990s dance music. Screamadelica is an exceptionally well-crafted album, wasting not one moment in its journey through numerous strands of popular music. A testament to rule-breaking and genre-bending, the album is that rare kind of pastiche that elevates what it imitates, and in the process, innovates.
Having tested its psychedelic guitar rock aspirations on Sonic Flower Groove (1987) and Primal Scream (1989), the group partnered with production personnel including Jimmy Miller, Andrew Weatherall, and the Orb (among others) to create Screamadelica, which opens with a track that is fundamental to the band’s transition from 60s/70s rock throwbacks. “Movin’ on Up”, produced by Miller, reaches for (and well attains) the kind of gospel hybridization that the Rolling Stones succeeded in on songs such as the Jimmy Miller-produced “Gimme Shelter” (here’s looking at you, Merry Clayton). “Movin’ on Up” is a perfect opening invocation, readying the listener for a party but also not shying away from the “Amazing Grace” salvation sentiment around which the song turns.
“Slip Inside this House” is another spot-on hybrid, but the sonic palette of the source material (a song of the same name by 13th Floor Elevators) has been totally absorbed into a synthetic bass-heavy, Eastern-tinged dance music number. Moving ever more boldly towards pure electronic dance music with bass and percussion samples, “Don’t Fight It, Feel It” soars on Denise Johnson’s lead vocals and introduces the siren sound that would become a Primal Scream hallmark (most prominently in live versions of “Swastika Eyes” from 2000’s XTRMNTR).
Having been moved to dance by the siren song of Denise Johnson, the listener is then dropped without warning into the rabbit hole by “Higher Than the Sun”. This down-tempo left turn (and its continued slow dive into the gorgeous “Inner Flight”) provides the kind of surprise and variety that make Screamadelica mandatory listening—an album of such a deep and wide matrix that 20 years later, I cannot think of another album within popular music that blends genres so seamlessly. Directly linking the elimination of boundaries and barriers to its own watershed identity, album centerpiece “Come Together” samples Jesse Jackson’s comments from the 1972 Wattstax concert (“Today on this program you will hear gospel and rhythm and blues and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”)
Compared to the first half of Screamadelica, the songs following “Come Together” could be said to more heavily involve the drug associations of both the band and dance/rave culture at large. Piano and horn jam “Loaded” essentially spells out its mission statement with an opening sample of Peter Fonda’s “Blues” character from Roger Corman’s Wild Angels: “We wanna be free. We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded”. Primal Scream front man Bobby Gillespie replaces Fonda in the middle of the song, declaring that he’s going to “get deep down, deep down”.
Coming down from the album’s highs, “Damaged” and “I’m Comin’ Down” continue to push the compositional complexity (blues, jazz, etc.) of the album while lyrically balancing the permanent effects and temporary relief of both love and drugs. There’s also an audacious reprisal of “Higher than the Sun” called “A Dub Symphony in Two Parts”. The band and Weatherall justify the repetition by recasting the song as a dub number with sci-fi textures. During final track “Shine Like Stars”, Gillespie sings pleasantly over a mixture of light electronic drums, confused circuitry, keyboards, and possibly an accordion, all while playing off the Eastern influence introduced earlier on “Slip Inside this House”. On paper, this combination reads like a mess. In execution, the song is a triumph of coalescence.
A large part of Screamadelica’s legacy is the skill with which it delivers on an improbable cocktail of sounds. To even attempt this fusion took a great deal of boldness, and the songs might have made far less of an impact without the incomparable guidance of Miller and Weatherall.
Primal Scream has gone on to release several strong records in the two decades since Screamadelica. One of those—XTRMNTR—repeated the boundary-shattering success of Screamadelica, though with a far different set of musical ingredients and under the influence of another great sonic auteur (My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields). It’s fitting, therefore, that Shields has been given the task of remastering Screamadelica for the album’s 20th anniversary. His work here updates the classic in all the right ways, creating lower lows, more pronounced panning, and an overall sense of rhythmic clarity that make the original CD release sound somewhat dim by comparison. Shields has not remixed anything, though, so the elements that made Screamadelica such a landmark album in 1991 are all present and accounted for.