Johnny Rotten once famously asked, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Sean Cook poses that same question at the end of “This Condition” on Lupine Howl’s debut album. When you bear in mind the origins of Lupine Howl — the members of which were unceremoniously ousted, with little money, from Spiritualized — that question has considerable significance.
Along with guitarist Mike Mooney and drummer Damon Reece, Cook had been a core member of Spiritualized. Although Mooney and Reece only came on board in 1997, Cook had served as bassist alongside frontman Jason Pierce since 1992. Because of the way their story unfolded, it’s hard to avoid the question of the extent to which Lupine Howl are the legitimate heirs of the Spiritualized sound.
As Cook tells it, being in Spiritualized had become a less than pleasant experience. Following the release of the enormously successful Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space in 1997 — a record that might have been even bigger had it not come out around the same time as an album called OK Computer — the band embarked on 18 months of touring. During that time, things began to unravel. Various accounts point to Pierce’s distance from and lack of respect for the rest of the group, as well as his and the management’s reluctance to issue Cook, Mooney and Reece with contracts.
As the relationship between Pierce and the band became more and more strained, Cook and Mooney even resorted to onstage subterfuge, for instance spontaneously playing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” in the middle of songs. Pierce, apparently in a world of his own, was oblivious to such things.
Matters came to a head just prior to the recording of Spiritualized’s remarkable live album at the Royal Albert Hall in London in the autumn of 1997. Feeling that they’d been fobbed off for long enough, Cook, Mooney and Reece initially refused to play the show without proper contracts. The band’s management promised to take care of it after the gig, and the performance went ahead. The contracts did finally materialize, although the terms were not exactly attractive. As Cook told Richard Hinton of Bristol Sound, “it was a case of we could sign the contract, get three grand and then get sacked, or we could choose not to sign and just be sacked”.
And of course, the trio were ultimately sacked in May 1999. Cook was in such dire financial straits that he attempted to sign up for unemployment benefit. This was not without its own problems. “I turned up for my interview…with this old woman”, recalled Cook. “She went into a drawer and pulled out a pile of NMEs. I couldn’t believe it. She just looked at me and asked how I could claim to be penniless when I featured in all of these. I had to dig out all my receipts and the tour budgets before I could get anything. Times like that you realise fame can be such a double-edged sword”.
Having relocated to Bristol with the idea of working together as a band, Cook, Mooney and Reece were saved from penury by an offer of session work on Massive Attack’s still-unreleased follow-up to Mezzanine and they were soon solvent enough to pursue their own project. Although they still had no name for their new band and had not released any material, in late 1999 The Face solicited an interview with them. Things began to look up. Positive critical notices of the group’s first live performances and favourable reviews of the singles “Vaporizer”, “Bronzage” and “125” made people start to sit up and take notice.
Even so, it wouldn’t be stretching it to say that the amount of interest in the activities of Lupine Howl and their debut album was perhaps inversely proportional to the apparent lack of activity on the part of Jason Pierce. Following the highly publicized dismissal of his bandmates, he had disappeared from view without comment and, by the time of the UK release of The Carnivorous Lunar Activities in April of this year, had still not delivered Spiritualized’s long-awaited follow-up to Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
In a sense, Lupine Howl are in something of a no-win situation since they have the albatross of Spiritualized around their necks. Inevitably, whatever they produce is destined to be compared with the work of what was arguably one of the best British acts of the ’90s. And it didn’t help matters that the US release of Lupine Howl’s debut album pretty much coincided with the unveiling of their former employer’s new record, Let It Come Down.
In places, The Carnivorous Lunar Activities of Lupine Howl has more in common with the Spiritualized of old than does Let It Come Down, on which Jason Pierce has traded his minimalism for an unprecedented quantity of orchestral and gospel grandeur. While The Carnivorous Lunar Activities is a diverse and to some extent even a fragmentary and confused album, it develops a number of trademark Spiritualized sounds and strategies amid its multiple trajectories.
On “This Condition”, for instance, Lupine Howl follow a familiar Spiritualized path of building on a simple, repeating melodic line and gradually assembling sonic layers that periodically erupt into a wall of sound. Similarly, the track “Sometimes” reworks another recognisable motif from Spiritualized’s pre-Let It Come Down oeuvre — the kind of driving, bass-heavy jam, enhanced with squalling horns, that’s largely absent from Pierce’s new album (although still alive and well in performance, as anyone who witnessed any of his band’s recent live shows will confirm). Nevertheless, that particular section of the eight-and-a-half minute “Sometimes” only kicks in around the seven-minute mark. Prior to that, the song changes its identity a couple of times, moving from early ’70s Pink Floyd spaciness to a sudden acceleration of horns, organ and acoustic guitar very reminiscent of Love, to a bluesy harmonica and slide-guitar interlude, before building up to the aforementioned climax.
Sean Cook has characterized The Carnivorous Lunar Activities of Lupine Howl as “nine schizophrenic tracks” and “Sometimes” captures the different facets of the album, embodying in one song the record’s seemingly antithetical identities: a tendency toward prog-nuanced atmospherics as well as an often amphetamine-paced intensity.
The more laid-back side of Lupine Howl’s Jekyll and Hyde personality manifests itself on the pairing of “Carnival” — a pulsing ten-minute epic with mini-moog textures — and the shimmering “Lonely Roads”, a number with watery keyboards that trips and floats along in a way that recalls Primal Scream’s “Higher Than the Sun”.
The harder, more urgent dimensions of the band’s sonic character can be heard on several tracks that bring to the surface the feelings of paranoia and angst permeating much of this album. Suggesting Primal Scream doing Funkadelic, “Vaporizer” combines drug-addled free-associating lyrics with a throbbing, psychedelically tinged groove. The energy is ratcheted up on “125”, as relentlessly driving rhythms and searing guitars propel the track, in keeping with the locomotive spirit of its title. No less intense is the frantic stop-start dynamic of closing track “The Jam That Ate Itself”; punctuated by the manic refrain “I’m gonna be sick”, it sums up the generally dark, disgusted mood of this record.
While The Carnivorous Lunar Activities of Lupine Howl isn’t a consistent, polished masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, it’s an excellent starting point. You get the sense that Cook, Mooney and Reece are still in the process of working out their sound, as well as exorcising a few demons along the way. Nevertheless, in that process, they’ve recorded some promising material.