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"The Brothers gonna work it out"

Class D

Main Category: Electronica
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Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
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Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Chemical Brothers fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Chemical Brothers fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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As somebody at least a few slices short of even a marginal electronica connoisseur loaf, I do firmly realize that much of what I'm going to say here and elsewhere about the Chemical Brothers will seem like total bullshit to the true representatives of Generation Two Thousand, but then again, the world ain't exclusively limited to representatives of that particular generation. And besides, depriving me of my right to free speech in this matter would definitely go against the quintessence of the Bros' approach to making music.

For all there is, I can vouch that Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are no musical geniuses (just for the record, I couldn't vouch for Sean Booth and Rob Brown of Autechre because I'm afraid in their case their genius, if existent, won't be clear until a couple thousand years later). First and foremost they are just two regular DJs whose primary function is to make people move their asses. Their work does not strive to be self-consciously "artsy"; it is meant to appeal to the average kid in the here and now, and their mainstream success is hardly surprising. What makes them - or, at least, used to make them - special is the desire to make more than just dance music. And what makes them trailblazers is the desire to make more than just intelligent dance music.

Just about any critical bio of the two guys will tell you that they pioneered what is now known as "big beat", although not every bio will tell you what exactly is meant by the term "big beat". Well, at the very least, in the case of The Chemical Brothers, "big beat" means "full-sounding electronic music with a heavy rhythm section, based on rock-oriented sampling". In other words, instead of focusing on the usual 'wussy' synth loops and crappy lifeless techno beats, the Brothers chose to merge the seasoned electronica scene with elements of rock, funk, and R&B in general. It is a dangerous synthesis, apt to piss off both rock and electronica fans; but the gamble paid off, and the duo was able to do the reverse - demonstrating to the whole wide world that the old values and the new values are not at all incompatible, on the contrary, they can sometimes bring out the best in each other.

I'm no electronica fan, but there are several really exciting things about the Bros that made me appreciate their talents. First of all, their reckless eclecticism. Note that "eclecticism" in this case does not mean a "try anything" approach: this is no 'Revolution # 9' cloning-ensemble we're talking here. The Bros strictly stick to dance music, but as long as you can dance to it, they're really ready to throw in anything that makes a good sample. Well, maybe not anything (I still haven't heard them bringing ukuleles into the mix), but lots of things. Guitars, keyboards, different drumming styles, sitars (!), even guest vocals from people who actually sing, something not too tolerable for an electronica purist.

Second, it's the energy level. At their best, the Bros demonstrate an almost wizard-like capacity to make their formally "dead", artificial music to come alive and rip the shit outta your innards the way a good sweaty live funk band is expected to do. For somebody like me, nurtured on rock music played with live instruments, electronic music is normally a thing to listen to with interest, but very rarely a thing to be caught up in groove-wise; the Chemical Brothers, however, have a pretty good understanding of a good funky groove - after all, they hailed from Manchester ("Madchester"), which in the late Eighties was arguably the best place in England to get the gist of that groove - and make their best not to spoil it.

Third, as much as that would seem out of place here, they do have melodic talents. Unless all of their melodic lines have been stolen, er, lifted, er, sampled from other artists which I cannot identify (I was always very, very, very bad at that kind of thing), some of their more "song-like" compositions are actually beautiful - check out 'One Too Many Mornings' or 'Where Do I Begin' for proof. And repeated listens just keep bringing out the potential... and yes, I said listens, because, like the best of dance music, you don't really have to do your ecstasy-loaded thing to 'get' the Brothers - this is music that can just as well be appreciated out of the comfort of your chair. Granted, not your wheelchair, because if you happen to be disabled, it'll be a real drag not to toe-tap to this stuff.

There is a downside, of course. The Chemical Brothers may have announced the revolution, but they never expanded on that announcement. I haven't yet had the chance to listen to their latest offerings, but from what I hear, they haven't really made any serious progress since Dig Your Own Hole, even if there was plenty of opportunity. The exact reasons are unknown, of course, but if I may be permitted to make an assumption, it would be the assumptuous assumption assuming they simply didn't, and still don't, have the guts to rise above their established image, to break the vicious DJ-ing circle. Maybe 'guts' isn't quite the right word, of course; maybe they just never wanted to.

Meaning I really like their first two records, but in my mind's eye, they can really only function as a promising prologue to something bigger. No clear ideas as to what that "bigger" could actually be - an electronic-rock opera or a sample-powered White Album - but whatever it could be, it still isn't, and most probably, will never be, because the Brothers are still being held back by the format and the purpose. They are still only a pair of quirky DJs who want to have fun. And no one can blame them for that, but one can certainly feel a little sad about potentially wasted potential, if you know what I mean. Still, even so they have done enough to earn them their place in history. And, of course, you could argue that their influence on popular music has been more negative than positive (well, aren't they indirectly responsible for the waves upon waves of this generic 'rocking electronic' crap that gets hoisted upon you in every second commercial or cheap action movie?), but since this does not apply to their own music (at least, not to the first two albums), that's not a valid complaint.

Not being a huge fan of the genre, I'm not going to bother with these guys' numerous EPs, remix albums, twelve inch whatchamacallits and suchlike (ah, the inevitable discography hell each time it comes to reviewing an electronic "band"), but fortunately, their best stuff does seem to be concentrated on regular LPs, two of which at least are minor (major?) Nineties' classics.



Year Of Release: 1995

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11

I'm a wuss for wishing this... but I'd sure like to see a real band try some of this stuff out.

Best song: ALIVE ALONE

Track listing: 1) Leave Home; 2) In Dust We Trust; 3) Song To The Siren; 4) Three Little Birdies Down Beats; 5) Fuck Up Beats; 6) Chemical Beats; 7) Chico's Groove; 8) One Too Many Mornings; 9) Life Is Sweet; 10) Playground For A Wedgeless Firm; 11) Alive Alone.

So there you have it: the Brothers' debut, for some people - arguably (or inarguably) the best synthesis of electronica and rock music ever. For the moment, let us forget the eternal burning question of just how much inherent aesthetic value is contained in this stuff, and proceed to the basics, which, in this particular case, happens to be the question: how good does it sound?

Well, it sounds... pretty cool. Few people are willing to explain why this sounds cooler than everything else, but the general story goes like this: the Chemical Brothers (former Dust Brothers before the real Dust Brothers promised to whup their asses for namelifting, hence the self-ironic album title) liked electronica and rock music, so they almost singlehandedly created this thing called "big beat" that gave you all the pleasures of electronica combined with rock'n'roll drive and music has never been the same ever since. Exit Planet Dust places a lot of reservations on these statements, of course, but essentially that's true. By sampling aggressive, distorted guitar riffs and relying on synthesized funky bass, the Brothers really made this thang that was definitely electronic, yet managed to rock, unlike, umm, well, everybody else. Who did electronics, that is.

But never mind, I'm off the tangent again. Let's get closer to business. This is a fifty minute album with all the tracks pressed together with no breaks - naturally, because if you refuse to break dance to stuff like this for at least fifty minutes without stopping you belong in Disneyland - yet, at this moment at least, I can honestly say that break dancing is far from the only thing that can be done under the influence of this record. In fact, at least some of the tracks you couldn't even break dance to, not even if you really wanted it.

The basic premise on every track is, of course, the classic electronic premise: The Loop. Sometimes The Loop is clearly electronic in origin; sometimes it sounds almost like a guitar but turns out to be synthesized at the last moment; and sometimes it might even be a real guitar. What's particularly important is that the loops don't give the impression of having been chosen randomly. Most of them actually convey a mood, and this mood can convey a trance in case you're not out there on the dancefloor but actually bobbing your head along to it sitting out there in your headphones. Already the first track, 'Leave Home', promises you that 'The Brothers gonna work it out!', and apparently, work it out they do. There's the main loop; then there's the ultra-funky middle-eight - listen to that swirling bass, it drives me crazy every time I hear it - and then from time to time there are maniac crescendos supposed to bring you to the boiling point. In other words - it works like your average classic funk jam, putting you pretty much in the same expected state.

The first three or four tracks pretty much sound the same, but in the same way that three or four funky jams might sound the same - because the actual beats and loops are, of course, different. Still, I have come to think of them as just one big extended composition. It's not until 'Fuck Up Beats' enter your life that the scenery really changes. First, 'Fuck Up Beats', really are - a minute and a half of experimental confusion, during which it's better to take a short rest from dancing (you just might miss that particular beat, you know). Then, 'Chemical Beats' seems to return us to the already explored territory, but is actually mighty different because of way too much reliance on funky 'electronic guitars' - I have no idea what they fed into that particular keyboard, but it funks along like mad, reveling in its imitation of the classic "poisonous" wah-wah tone.

And after that comes the "atmospheric" part of the album; as the exhausted dancer/listener is ready to collapse, along comes the dreamy, almost 'romantic' 'Chico's Groove', later followed by the even slower, even more sentimental 'One Too Many Mornings'. Turns out that the Chemical Brothers not only know how to rock, they know how to seduce as well. Nor do they refrain from using guest vocalists - like the Charlatans' Tim Burgess on 'Life Is Sweet' (who makes the track sound like a slice of mediocre Brit-pop on first-class acid) and, of course, Beth Horton on 'Alive Alone', the only real "song" on here - and a dang good one as far as anthemic electronic ballads go. According to the Elitist Electronica People, using real vocals on electronic compositions violates the purity of the genre. Which only proves the already well-known truth: if there's a purity to be violated, sooner or later it will be violated. There's no escaping it.

Returning to the eternal burning question, then, we find out that it is actually completely irrelevant. So this is not "real" rock music, but it never claimed to be. I could see, though, how hardcore electronica fans would call this a profanation of their values, while rock fans would definitely call it a profanation of theirs, and both of these feelings would be ten times reinforced by the unexpected love mainstream criticism would demonstrate towards this stuff. However, it would be way preferable to just drop all the baggage and take Exit Planet Dust for what it is. In that case, the obvious defects of this album - (relative) lack of diversity, non-memorability of the melodies, etc. - turn out to be unimportant. The truth is that Exit Planet Dust sets a number of limited, unambitious, and unpretentious goals: to make some modern sounding dance music that would have a rock drive to it. Does it succeed? Absolutely. Is it genius? Absolutely not. The rest is just an extention of your personal ego, not something the former Dust Brothers have forced you to extract outta your big spluttery mouth.

But before we go on, let me just stress that Exit Planet Dust definitely cannot be accused of/praised for its minimalism, because this is not a "minimalistic" record by any means. On the contrary, the Bros are gonna work out as much cool stuff as possible - counting up all the layers of sound on things like 'In Dust We Trust' would take me days. There's a tremendous amount of work involved here, and very little of it actually gets wasted once you've bitten the bullet.



Year Of Release: 1997

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12

This is a MEAN motherfucker of an album. "Oi! BLOODY ROIT!" - Noel Gallagher.

Best song: SETTING SUN

Track listing: 1) Block Rockin' Beats; 2) Dig Your Own Hole; 3) Electrobank; 4) Piku; 5) Setting Sun; 6) It Doesn't Matter; 7) Don't Stop The Rock; 8) Get Up On It Like This; 9) Lost In The K-Hole; 10) Where Do I Begin; 11) The Private Psychedelic Reel.

There is one important difference between the Bros' debut and their follow-up, and that difference is - BLOCK ROCKIN' BEATS! Seriously, no matter how pleased I could be with the successful breeding of the "big beat" style on Planet Dust, its rock overdrive was nothing compared to the brutal onslaught that is Dig Your Own Hole. Its prominent reliance on rock/funk riffage could probably alienate the electronica purists even further - let alone the Bros' continuing reliance on guest vocalists that actually sing instead of rap, but who the heck cares. A more serious "down" argument for me is the relentless frontal assault with nary a single moment of respite... nah, wait, that's actually wrong, there is one really handsome moment when Beth Orton starts singing the romantic 'ballad' 'Where Do I Begin', but even that one is soon transformed into a vacuum-cleaner-powered trance thing.

But that's not really a complaint. What, me complain about sixty minutes of brutality? I've survived Ray Wilson-era Genesis, I can make my way through this. Especially when it's such an awesome way - okay, maybe not for sixty minutes, but definitely for forty-five or fifty. The major show-stopper here is, of course, 'Setting Sun', a psychedelic techno-rocker which cleverly builds upon the legacy of the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (heck, in a way, it is 'Tomorrow Never Knows' - just listen to that Ringo beat!) and then adds guest vocalist Noel Gallagher for comfort - what, they thought the spirit of John Lennon still lives on in the Gallagher brothers? What assholes... :) Never mind, because at least Noel Gallagher can sing. In fact, he can sing better than his brother. Come to think of it, they both sing alike. They're brothers, after all. Like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney.

The other very obvious highlight is the sprawling nine-minute monster of 'The Private Psychedelic Reel', which is even "artsier" in nature than 'Setting Sun'. It's all built upon repetition: they take a single simple musical phrase, played with a sitar, no less, or at least something sitar-sounding, and loop it for eternity, all the while piling up rhythms, noises, samples, and whatnot around it. Come to think of it, it makes sense that they're using something sitarsome: it's like their take on the Indian drone, all dressed up for the "modern age". And it doesn't seem one bit gimmicky or pretentious; instead, it slowly grows and grows until you're ready to accept it as the new anthem for your country because it is a fuckin' anthem. It's loud, proud, epic, uplifting... well, I guess the astral noises will be a little hard to sing along to, but there are no lyrics anyway. Maybe we can ask Bob Seger to lend a hand.

Apart from that, it's all rip-roar from start to finish. But it's intelligent rip-roar; at one point I even noticed myself paying attention to the music and carefully observing all the little changes introduced into the basic bodies of the grooves every fifteen/twenty seconds or so. I mean, what can you do when compositions like 'Electrobank' demand your attention so badly they don't even stop before imitating a series of nuclear blasts as the music swirls by? Granted, that only happens after you've been very, very slowly led towards that climax for five or six minutes, but the coolest thing is, you really cannot predict what's gonna happen in the nearest fifteen seconds anyway. The Brothers have little patience for grooves that do not display dynamics: 'Electrobank' starts out with just a basic drum loop, then adds muffled spoken vocals, then adds the bass, then adds distorted guitar, then adds a second, much louder bass, then grows louder, then - "all right, check this out!" - becomes VERY loud and full, then adds sirens, then adds extra percussion, then quiets down, then gets back to loud with added whirling synth loops, then adds the astral noises, then... well, you get the drift.

I'm not implying nobody ever did the dynamically evolving techno groove before; I'm only implying that the Bros really do it very, very well, and with great respect to their rock influences. The title track almost made me play some air guitar, while the first forty or so seconds of the intentionally lo-fi 'Piku' are done in - yep - boogie tempo, or something very close to boogie tempo, before they make the transition to a more basic trip-hop beat. The only real example of "generic" fast techno on here is 'It Doesn't Matter', with little detectable rock/funk influence, but it's still loud and energizing all the same. At the same time, 'Lost In The K-Hole' almost comes close to friggin' blues-rock, albeit discoified.

Of course, when Beth Orton arrives in the middle of all this mayhem with her perfectly innocent, endearing folksy little vocal melody in the finest traditions of Joni Mitchell, it totally falls out of the basic scheme, but when the melody is so pretty, I always have me thumbs up 'n' ready for this kind of "strikebreaking" tunes. I have no idea if she just sings it or if she actually wrote it, but if it's Tom and Ed who are responsible, hey guys, we want this kind of stuff more often.

If there's a flaw on this album, it's an obvious one - the Bros are, as always, being held back by the formula of the genre they're working in, willingly or unwillingly, I have no idea. The album is too long, and as much as that can appeal to people who do the expected thing (dance to it), just as much it does not appeal to those who think that this stuff actually got lotsa creative potential (me; can't speak for the others, as they might not even exist for all I know, but I don't care). Throwing out one or two of the weaker numbers, cutting some of the others by a couple minutes, and maybe adding one or two more lovely thingies like 'Where Do I Begin'... heck, maybe even inviting Noel along for another drunk punch, all these things would make me rate this even higher. But I guess even if they did want to follow my advice, the dance crowds wouldn't let them.

Too bad - the critics didn't fawn all over this record just for nothing. Well, maybe they did overhype it a bit, but it does take not more than just one attentive listen to realize these guys were bursting with creativity while recording it, and even if you hate this kind of music (and you got all the rights to do that - aren't the Brothers at least partially responsible for Scooter?), it's impossible not to at least acknowledge the fact that a lot of imagination, artistism, and hard work went into it. And none of the holier-than-thou attitude, which is important, too. The Brothers are just having their little fun. Digging their own hole, if I might say so.



Year Of Release: 1999

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 9

If their career were the musical equivalent of World War II, this'd be where the firing squad comes in.


Track listing: 1) Music - Response; 2) Under The Influence; 3) Out Of Control; 4) Orange Wedge; 5) Let Forever Be; 6) The Sunshine Underground; 7) Asleep From Day; 8) Got Glint; 9) Hey Boy Hey Girl; 10) Surrender; 11) Dream On.

Umm, what exactly happened? Just how well are the Brothers themselves aware that they're making a conscious retreat into formerly well-explored territory? Obviously they are aware; look at the friggin' ironic album title. Not that this is a bad record; it just doesn't qualify according to the standards they'd set for themselves. This is generic house muzak! For Chrissakes!

Well, maybe not exactly and not always 'generic', but it is a huge disappointment. The Brothers' approach to musicmaking is still obvious here, but the "block rockin' beats" have all but disappeared. Some reviews I've read of this album put forward the proposition that the Brothers were simply disinclined to make another Exit Your Own Hole type record because their formerly innovative sound had been "profanated" so much by mainstream industry. That's a very natural and honest reaction, for sure, but I'm not certain that squeezing themselves into the tight loop of "retro electronica" was quite the right reaction to whatever was happening on the outside.

Because a large chunk of Surrender is simply uninteresting. Granted, it has its moments. The opening number, 'Music/Response', makes an immediate attempt to seduce the listener by choosing a funny (and catchy!) "bleeping" theme as its centerpiece - so that once you get through the original shock of "man, where's the goddamn funky energy?", you can at least console yourself that they're offering some cheesy amusing entertainment instead. However, already the second track, 'Under The Influence', is a totally, completely generic four-minute waste of techno tape. Almost defiantly generic, in fact: four minutes are spent in a cruel, desperate wait that something finally will happen, but all you're getting are the same old familiar background synth loops you've already heard a million times.

The situation gets even more shaky when they get to 'Out Of Control', vocally powered by New Order's Bernard Sumner - and the track does sound not unlike some of New Order's worst dance-oriented material. Except it's a seven-minute non-stop techno wankathon, the likes of which you're liable to hear on ninety nine out of a hundred techno radio stations... you know, dispensable muzak that's pretty good to help you concentrate on your driving when you're sitting at the wheel but doesn't have any actual artistic use otherwise.

It's not all that bad, of course. It's a long record, as usual, and there are traces of old goodness popping up every now and then. But too often, it's more like nostalgic goodness - what a silly word to use considering we're talking nostalgia for a two-year-ago period, but so it is. 'Let Forever Be' is the illegitimate child of 'Setting Sun': another "post-psychedelic" collage with Noel Gallagher once again guesting on the vocals track to impersonate John Paul McLennon. Why they didn't opt to reinterpret some other Beatles song is unclear, but yes, they were able to suck the juices out of 'Tomorrow Never Knows' for a second time to good effect.

I cannot shay for shertain that the Groundhog pronushiashion peculiaritiesh of Hope Shandoval make a meshmerizhing impreshun on me earsh, but at least she is a worthy successor to Beth Orton as she makes her way through yet another "patented Chemical Brothers ballad", 'Asleep From Day', and with its acoustic guitars, orchestration, sitars, chimes, and moderately applied loops it does look like the most carefully elaborated and soulful track on here - nothing the Brothers didn't do earlier, of course, but a good recapturing of past glories. And while you can't really dance too well to the folksy-sounding, almost lullabyeish 'Dream On', it is a decent atmospheric conclusion to the album.

Heck, I can't even say that all of the generic stuff here is bad. 'Hey Boy Hey Girl', for instance, falls into the "so bad it's genius" category - sounding like very very very very bad Scooter turned upside down, almost like a self-parody or something. The idiotic 'there we go!' scream (is that what they're screaming?) gets me every time I hear it. And when you get an eight-minute groove like 'The Sunshine Underground', you can be sure it's not gonna be dismissable from beginning to end; it's got this pretty mandolin (dobro? qin? what the hell is that instrument? my ears seem clogged) loop, for instance, which, unfortunately, gets replaced by a simplistic synth loop carrying the same melody halfway into the song, but while it's still there, it's sounding quite fresh.

But the problem is, there's really not a single tune off this album I'd like to hear again. The Chemical Brothers, on their past albums, have done the impossible - have gotten me to admit that electronic music, when properly criss-crossed with the appropriate rock values, can sound terrific even to the ears of somebody who hasn't been subjugated to a crash course in deejaying. On this album, they are doing the opposite, namely, proving that Dig Your Own Hole was an exception to the old rule rather than the instigation of a new one. And being the cranky old geezer that I am, of course I'm gonna put forward the suggestion that it's all the fault of today's pigeonholing-categorizing-separativist musical attitudes.

What I mean is: could you imagine a situation where the Beatles, the same old Beatles whose song 'Tomorrow Never Knows' that Tom and Ed like so much, after the release of Rubber Soul and Revolver would take another listen to what they'd done, piss their pants, and say stuff like 'hey man, what kind of shit are we putting out? We're supposed to make music that appeals to 14-year old girls, not this pretentious 'experimental' crap! Our true destiny is to end up like Dave Clark Five!'

Hmm, well, come to think of it, I could imagine such a situation - and moreover, I even know some people who would be glad had the Beatles stuck in their "brilliant teen pop" mode to the end of their days. Likewise, I have absolutely no doubt about Surrender winning the sympathies of quite a few people from the 'old' electronica guard. Unfortunately, I don't qualify as one of these people, and moreover, I'm not really writing my reviews for that kind of people either.


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