Gold Against the Soul is a bit crap, isn’t it? Those with even a passing knowledge of the Manic Street Preachers will know how the story goes. Generation Terrorists, was the band’s spiky, politically vicious call to arms, The Holy Bible their devastatingly bleak masterpiece, and Everything Must Go their commercial rebirth. That leaves Gold Against the Soul as the runt of the Manic’s litter. An unloved largely disowned folly that saw the band’s arena rock ambitions run away with them. However, like everything with the Welsh rockers, the truth is a little more complicated than that.
By the time the band got down to writing what would become Gold Against the Soul, it’s fair to say that their career hadn’t gone completely to plan. The band’s debut, Generation Terrorists hadn’t sold more than Appetite For Destruction and they hadn’t split up. With that headline-grabbing line from their manifesto that wasn’t a manifesto unfulfilled, the band were left with a stark choice. They could quietly disband and celebrate a glorious failure, or they could embark on an actual music career and find out what the Manics might sound like next.
That leads us to Gold Against the Soul, an ambitious, polished rock record with the band embracing their American rock influences. A big sound for a group with big ideas. So what happened? Why didn’t it turn out to be the breakout album they were striving for, and why has it been seemingly consigned to the bargain bin of their back catalogue?
Possible explanations have been debated amongst the band, fans, and press for years. Maybe, they were simply victims of circumstance; collateral damage as the British music press gradually turned their back on grunge and began to champion more English sounding bands like Suede and Blur. Maybe, their narrative was a little more confused now that they didn’t resemble the sloganeering punks of their debut. Perhaps the wider listening public struggled to connect with the songs. Or was it just wasn’t very good? In all likelihood, it was probably for a mixture of these reasons.
The opening of the album still stands up as one of their most thrilling to date. The album kicks off with the razor-wire riff of the fan favorite “Sleepflower”, a song that immediately bridges the gap between Gold Against the Soul and Generation Terrorists. Nonetheless, it’s frontman James Dean Bradfield’s more textured guitar work and the psychedelic bridge that signifies the substantial musical strides the band had made since their debut. This shift in dynamics is startlingly evident on lead single, “From Despair to Where”. Containing some of Bradfield’s best lead licks, the band fills out their sound with organ, layers of guitars and percussion to add more texture to their music. It also features the kind of sweeping string arrangements that would become a staple of their sound during their mid-nineties commercial peak.
The remastering of “La Tristesse Durera” brings out an extra layer of beauty on a track that saw the band explore the space in their sound. Here, the Manics heightened the intensity through repetition, allowing the song to build to a thrillingly intense finale. What quickly becomes clear listening to the reissue is just how much progress the band had made as musicians since their debut. While Bradfield’s playing and singing are still otherworldly, it’s Moore and, particularly Wire, that anchor the record. On “Yourself”, Wire’s bass work does most of the heavy lifting, giving Bradfield license to expand his guitar palette with ringing chord progressions and tasty lead licks.
This air of confidence that they had in each other as musicians shine through on the reissue. “Life Becoming a Landslide” opens as a pretty acoustic ballad before morphing into a muscular hard rock song and back again with each instrument marking out its territory while seamlessly feeding into the band’s sound. “Drug Drug Druggy”, on the other hand, is a little less successful. It’s the first song on the album that sounds like the Manics not sounding like the Manics. Clearly influenced by the grunge boom of the early 1990s, the hooks quickly get lost amongst the noise.
Meanwhile, “Roses in the Hospital” still sounds like the Manics at their most melodic and features one of their most delightfully poppy choruses to date. “Nostalgic Pushead” sounds dated, hampered by annoying synth lines and insipid riffs. “Symphony of Tourette” sees them channeling their inner Chilli Peppers on a song that, in hindsight, feels like a very odd fit for the band. Thankfully, Album closer and the title track just about hold up. The Jane’s Addiction-esque guitar work sounds even more pronounced on the reissue, and there are some, shall we say, interesting percussive choices, but the soaring anthemic heart of the song remains.
The remainder of the first disc of the reissue gathers together the b-sides released around the time. “Donkeys” is worth it for the soaring solo alone while “Comfort Comes” hints at the direction the band would take on The Holy Bible. “Hibernation” is a shimmering, acoustic song with Bradfield’s voice sounding almost breathtakingly angelic. “Us Against You” is a growling rock song while their frenetic cover of McCarthy‘s “Charles Windsor” zips past in a flash.
Then, we come to, for many fans, the highlight of the reissue; cult favorite “Patrick Bateman”. Unforgivably, omitted from B-side collection Lipstick Traces, it holds legendary status amongst the hardcore faithful. From Bradfield’s machine-gun delivery to the brutal Therapy?-esque breakdown, It’s certainly not a classic Manics tune by any stretch, but it still gets the adolescent juices flowing.
The second disc of demos offers a fascinating insight into the writing of the record. Hearing Richy and Nicky’s rudimentary backing vocals on “La Tristesse Durera” as the band quickly locks tightly into the groove is a delight. At the same time, the abandoned solo on “Roses in the Hospital” highlights the care Bradfield took in his guitar work. The demo of “Drug Drug Druggy” scuffs up the edges of the song still further while the band deliberately takes a razor blade to the title track with the sharpness of the music clashing with the more direct melodies. The disc concludes with more remixes of “Roses in the Hospital” than you’ll ever need and a joyous big beat mix of “La Tristesse Durera” by a little known band called the Chemical Brothers (The Dust Brothers as they were known back then).
Whatever the reason or reasons why Gold Against The Soul remains the least celebrated of the band’s storied career, this shiny and very impressive rerelease is an opportunity to rehabilitate it in the minds of many. Meanwhile, for hardcore fans, it’s a chance to fall in love with it all over again. Whether it’ is indeed a misunderstood classic or a confusing misstep, the truth is it certainly isn’t crap.