It is only to be expected, despite occasional feints, that the Manic Street Preachers have never achieved any significant success in the United States. Whereas contemporaries such as Blur and Oasis both managed respectable American careers during the ’90s, striding across the pond at the height of the “Britpop” craze, the Manics have always seemed a particularly English phenomenon, a unique presence in the British music scene that remains essentially untranslatable. It is difficult under any circumstances to conceive any American group or artist achieving a number-one chart hit with a track openly espousing a leftist political agenda and yet that is exactly what the Manics have done in Britain — twice. (The first time was with 1998’s “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”, and the second with 2000’s “The Masses Against the Classes”.)
That their defining album — 1995’s The Holy Bible — has never before been officially released in the United States undoubtedly contributed to their obscurity. While the preceding decade has seen the album assume a place of honor in Britain as one of the milestones of contemporary music, it remains mostly an unknown quantity in America. Available until now only as a costly import, this gorgeously compiled 10th Anniversary edition of The Holy Bible goes a long way towards redressing the problem.
Although Nirvana and their peers never suffered for want of success in the UK, Britain was never really able to produce a domestic answer to the grunge sound. The Manics were certainly never grunge — they enjoyed being rock stars and relished the glam trappings of rock stardom too much for that — they certainly understood the pathos and conflict of Kurt Cobain’s tortured lyrics and bitterly drained public persona. While Cobain and his peers suffered endlessly (and one might argue in hindsight, quite needlessly) over their “authenticity”, the Manics were never doubted. During a 1991 interview with the NME, guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards answered any and all present and future doubts as to his band’s “authenticity” by carving the cryptic legend “4 REAL” into his forearm with a razor blade.
The Holy Bible would be Edwards’ album, the zenith of his lyrical and conceptual contribution to the band. Uncompromising and dark, unhinged in places and almost heartbreakingly sad in others, the album was a glass of cold water in the face of the British music industry. At a time when Blur’s Parklife and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe represented the twin heights of British pop, The Holy Bible represented something strange and alien: a slap in the face to all things hedonistic and superfluous, and a galling, cankerous reminder of the painful and profound issues that the majority of pop music has always been designed to mask. If the album seems strained in places, overwrought in others and unimaginably grim throughout, it is still — despite these flaws — a vital and demanding work.
But if the album was Edwards’ greatest achievement, it would also serve as a premature last will and testament. The Holy Bible was released in Britain in August of 1994 (making the American release technically the 11th anniversary). After the following months saw the album achieve almost universal critical acclaim, Edwards disappeared on February 1st of 1995, never to be seen again. His car was later found — near a tall bridge with a notorious reputation as a suicide destination — but his body has never been located. Edwards was declared legally dead in 2002, in accordance with British law, seven full years after his last known appearance.
Just as In Utero would come to be seen as something of a makeshift atlas of Kurt Cobain’s final tumultuous years, The Holy Bible has been endlessly dissected in the hopes of finding clues to Edwards tragically abridged life. Of course, there are no shortage of references to Edwards’ grim ideations: from song titles like “Die In The Summertime” and “4lb 7st” (a reference to Edwards’ long struggles with eating disorders), to the subject matter (there are two songs devoted to the Nazi Holocaust, “Mausoleum” and “The Intense Humming of Evil”), the album is a testament to everything painful and barren in the human soul. From bankrupt ideologies (Fascism, Communism in “Revol”, Conservatism in “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart” and Capitalism in “Yes”) to the exhausting personal tragedies of depression, self-loathing, aggression, anorexia and suicide, it makes for heavy, albeit almost ritualistically compulsive listening.
Throughout the whole thing, however, there is a sense of abiding hope, made manifest by the sheer righteous indignation with which the Manics attack even the most overwhelmingly evil subject matter. It would be easy, in light of what followed, to see the album as a capitulation, but that would be an insult to the surviving Manics as well as a tacit glorification of suicide. While Edwards was unable to outrun his demons, he was also able to channel that pain into something more enduring and universal, taking something intimately poignant and molding it into a work of transformative art. The fact that The Holy Bible exists at all is a reminder of the transcendent power that art exerts across the human imagination.
This extraordinary package presents as complete a picture of the album as anyone could wish for. There are two versions of the album extant: the original British mix of the album overseen by the band themselves, and a radically different American mix. Both mixes are presented here. Whereas oftentimes releasing different album mixes has come off as something of a gimmick (who really needs the stereo and mono mixes of anything?), the two mixes of The Holy Bible are both actually compelling enough to reward repeated listening.
The original mix of the album reflects the Manics’ preoccupations at the time of the recording. They wanted to step away from the overproduced modern-rock sound of their first two albums and create an album that more accurately reflected the music that inspired them to become a band in the first place, specifically first-generation British punk and post-punk. As such, the original mix was hard and sharp, with the guitar sound melted into bloodshot razorwire, the rhythm section reduced to a thunderous howl, and James Dean Bradfield’s voice curdled into a metallic sneer. Like Wire and Public Image Ltd., two oft-stated influences, the Manics had achieved a style that seemed unmistakably brutal and repulsive.
The “American” mix was commissioned by the band’s American label in anticipation of a large-scale release and subsequent stateside tour in the spring of 1995 — a launch which was permanently cancelled after Edwards’ disappearance. Whereas the Manics’ relationship with their American representatives up to then had been mostly antagonistic, they surprised the group by delivering an exceptional remix job, tailored more specifically to American radio and with the original’s acerbic edge replaced by a much more dynamic sound. The group immediately liked this alternative mix, even going so far as to say that the American mixer — Tom Lord-Alge — bettered the source material on a handful of tracks.
Certainly, the American mix is far more muscular than the British mix, specifically in reference to the rhythm section. Sean Moore’s fiendishly energized drumming pounds out of the speakers with a brutal clarity. Bizarrely, Nicky Wire’s down tuned and aggressive bass playing serves as unnerving foreshadowing for Korn, particularly on “Archives of Pain”. It’s a rather unexpected reminder of how potent that group’s sound was on their first two albums, before they leapt over the edge and into self-parody. “PCP” gains inestimably from the added clarity, as does “Ifwhiteamerica . . .” (unsurprisingly, these two tracks are both bolstered by the specific focus on Moore’s superb drumming). Oddly, “Faster” suffers the most from the American mix, somehow losing a vital jolt of energy from the original.
The package is filled to bursting with bonus material. Both CDs contain extra tracks, including four live tracks, three BBC recordings and two demos. As is usually the case, this material is only of real interest to aficionados — but for said aficionados the tracks are, if not essential, at least eminently enjoyable. I reserve my hosannas for the DVD, which is essential viewing — with 10 complete live clips, three videos and a new thirty-minute interview with the surviving members, it is as exhaustive and edifying a VISUAL chronicle of the period as can be imagined. The live clips should be a revelation for anyone unfamiliar with the group’s early period, revealing a fierce foursome in the full bloom of their youthful energy. In particular, their anomalous appearance on Top of the Pops, in full military regalia (down to a face-covering ski mask for singer Bradfield!) is a classic bit of guerilla agitprop masquerading as pop music.
But none of it — the bonus mixes, the extra tracks, the live material — would be worth anything if the original material weren’t so strong. It seems specious that the album has become so strongly identified with Definitely Maybe and Parklife in the minds of so many British rock critics, because the comparison is uselessly reductive. Both of those albums have already begun to date, becoming inextricably bound to their time and place, whereas the The Holy Bible‘s stature and authority has only grown as it has receded further from the circumstances of its release.
In all honesty, I don’t think that tracks like “The Intense Humming of Evil” were necessarily meant to withstand repeated listenings. The repeated intonation of “Arbeit macht frei” and “six million screaming souls”, along with the painfully abrasive guitar feedback, make it tough going for any but the hardiest souls. How many pop groups can you think of who could write a song about the Holocaust without it seeming like some sort of gruesome joke? The only rational artistic response to tragedy on such a grand scale is to confront it head-on, without any sentimental smokescreen. Any sympathetic palliative intended to ease the conscience of the living is essentially a betrayal of the dead: that’s essentially the driving impulse behind The Holy Bible, from the wholesale tragedy of the Holocaust to the more personal story of one young and deeply troubled Welsh musician.
If you strip away the politics, the rage and the grim black humor, you are left only with the pain, and that pain is as uncompromising and wrathful an emotion as has ever been recorded. “4st 7lb” is the most specifically evocative track on the album, told from the perspective of an anorexic waif watching their life slowly drift away:
“I want to walk in the snow, /
And not leave a footprint, /
I want to walk in the snow, /
And not soil its purity.”
“This Is Yesterday” and “Die In The Summertime” are the hard and knotted core of the album, and taken together they almost comprise a literal suicide note. “This Is Yesterday” is the gentlest song here, with a soothing guitar melody over one of Bradfield’s most effecting vocal performances:
“Someone somewhere soon will take care of you, /
I repent, I’m sorry, everything is falling apart, /
Houses as ruins and gardens as weeds, /
Why do anything when you can forget /
I stare at the sky, /
And it leaves me blind, /
I stare at the sky, /
And this is yesterday.”
“Die In The Summertime” is hard where “Yesterday” was soft, and it is as painful to hear as Nirvana’s “All Apologies”:
“I have crawled so far sideways, /
I recognize dim traces of creation, /
I wanna die, die in the summertime, /
I wanna die.”
You can criticize the album for its faults, but it would be fatuous to criticize the band for their indignation, their skill or their pain. As morbid and deranged as it is in places, it remains perpetually fascinating, a record of haunting and bruised moral authority. The Manic Street Preachers have arguably recorded better albums, but they have never recorded anything as monumentally profound. As it emerges from the mists of history, it becomes possible to see it clearly for the very first time, shorn of the romance of circumstances and gaining momentum as the years recede faster and faster. It shines darkly, a massive obsidian obelisk casting a merciless shadow over the tortured landscape of the 20th century.