As might be obvious from my list of favourite bands through time, I have quite an eclectic taste. More than this, as I made my way through adolescence and young-adulthood, my entire self-conception shifted a few times. This is awkward and annoying, especially when people still regard you as you were, but never mind: the main thing is to grow. For example, at school I was a nerdy good-boy (in Scouts, going to the chess club, having rapt discussions about A Brief History of Time); but I had a few years after graduating where I ran a bit wild. Underground nightclubs, techno, drum n’ bass, jungle, drinking like a bloody fish, smoking pot like it was going out of fashion, ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, all that. Fun, though very very easy to burn yourself out on it.
I did. Big time. Towards the end of 2000 I had an almost catastrophic event – nothing life-threatening, but totally head-frying. It fucked me up so bad that for a few months afterwards I felt like I was always mildly tripping, and the general after-effects of defamiliarisation (everything appeared strange and unfamiliar), depersonalisation (like I was watching myself from within) and what I later found was called “Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder” (half-seeing things out of the corner of my eye, and visual snow) lasted about a year. Longer, in fact, in times of stress or hangover-dom. Obviously this was a enormous kick up the arse, and I haven’t really touched drugs since.
This happened when I was working in some tedious and temporary office job in Edinburgh. There’s a nice bit in the “A Smart Cunt” novella in Irvine Welsh’s collection The Acid House, where the protagonist Euan talks about his girlfriend’s friends – they were always talking about what they wanted to be (painters, writers, actors, etc), obscuring the fact that they were office workers, local government officials, sales staff, etc. That was us, alright: everybody used to talk about the postgrads they were going to study, the bands they were in, the books they were wanting to write (though were never writing), the hip Edinburgh bars they were going to go to (though never did), the goals for the future. There is something awesomely depressing about being a new graduate, especially if you’ve studied the Arts or Humanities. Your knowledge of 19th century socialist parties or French existentialist novels isn’t worth donkey shit. The entire merit system to which you are accustomed and in which you have succeeded is replaced by the imperatives of business. No wonder so many wanted to go to graduate school. I, of course, was totally into getting a Masters in English. Then a PhD! I was so worth it! No matter that I was earning 5 quid an hour and barely had enough money to buy food.
Anyways. Naturally this was all rather depressing. I felt cheated out of the grand future I had so blithely imagined for myself. This fuelled my self-destruction, and I had a bit of a mad weekend etc: cut to the chase, head got fried and I was all fucked up. Worse thing was, the temporary job which we’d been told would last until March turned out to be coming to an end in December. The job agency which had recruited us all pretended that they’d “place” us all in new posts: I got offered two not-even-full weeks either side of Xmas. I conceded defeat at this point and moved back to the parental home.
You can imagine my mood. “Bleak” just don’t capture it. Monsters seemed to lurk under the stairs, ready to pounce. Day-to-day functioning was difficult: I kept thinking I was seeing things, and people looking into my eyes gave me the fear. I was as always listening to music, as I had no job and playing Championship Manager was the only other thing occupying my time. The key album (if you’ll forgive so much back story) was Death In Vegas’ Contino Sessions.
The second album by the Glaswegian electronica band, Contino Sessions was a considerable leap from their first, Dead Elvis. It combined the abrasive guitar and drones of Banana Album-era Velvet Underground with the rumbling beats of Rhythm and Stealth-era Leftfield. Which is to say that it was rocky, had dark rhythms, prominent bass, and this crippling sense of foreboding. The best song, “Death Threat”, encapsulates this: an enormous grinding of vast black thunder clouds producing bolts of sheet lightning, it is brooding, portentous and magnificently atmospheric. The electricity is so rich, you can almost smell the ozone.
The Velvet Underground inspiration is obvious in their recurrent use of drones and repetition. (This obviously is a recurrent technique in electronica, too). This often works well – as with “Dirge”, which creates a powerful tension between the repeated vocal line (and, only ever saying “La, la, la”, its implied dispassion), and the surging, powerful, alternative rock.
Sometimes, though, it just gets dreary and monotonous. “Broken Little Sister” is unrelieved by varieties in texture and tone: and the dirgey, grim atmosphere gets tedious without the creativity to illuminate it (this is why Radiohead’s “The National Anthem“, which is even more bleak, is a fucking masterpiece).
It’s not all bleakness, fortunately. There are some nice changes of atmosphere (if not pace – it’s nearly all mid-paced, gradual-accumulation-of-tension frameworks), such as the instrumental tour-de-force “Flying”. Inspired by The Beatles’ instrumental of the same name? Dunno, but both are atmospheric, visual instrumentals.
The Stooges-y “Aisha”, snarled by The Ig himself, is a setpiece in malevolence, though it always seems like a genre exercise. The postmodern video makes this obvious. It’s pretty juvenile, really.
This was obviously a low point for me, and Contino Sessions fit my mood perfectly. It is a great album, one I really believe is one of the best of the 1990s. But it isn’t something I return to often, now. The atmospheres are too evocative.