Exile On High Street – Primal Scream's More Light



Reviewed by Andrew Tanner

Crammed into The Palace at the Primal Scream show last year, my gig buddy commented that an essential part of Bobby Gillespie’s appeal was his full blooded – if idiosyncratic – embrace of rock’n’roll posturing, without the faintest trace of irony. ‘He’s not afraid’ says my sage friend ‘to appear ridiculous’.

That strikes me as fair comment on much of Primal Scream’s back catalogue, up to and including their latest release More Light. Cycling through the band’s ten album legacy is like a tour through alt-rock’s key movements – a blast of garage rock here, some Suicide-like electro punk there, a little Madchester bagginess over in the corner. If it smacks of the diletantte on paper, mostly the performances override scepticism – they mean it, man. While many of their contemporaries have burnt out or faded into the nether world of post punk nostalgia, the Scream are maintaining the rage – and their new album is rebel rock writ large.

More Light is a big, rambling sprawl of an album, with DJ/producer David Holmes at the helm and guest appearances by Robert Plant, Kevin Shields and the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart. The deluxe edition boasts 21 tracks (count ‘em, 21!) all over the shop stylistically, but loosely linked thematically as a love you/hate you letter to Gillespie’s London home.

Having experienced a head spinning couple of years of street riots, an Olympian marketing campaign, the Occupy movement, the panic of terrorism and the savage bite of a Euro financial meltdown, he finds plenty of material to explore. Album opener ‘2013’ is a clarion call, it’s honking saxes riding atop a glam-rocking rhythm section. It sounds like Roxy Music circa 1972 and is none the less exciting for it. Mind you, Bryan Ferry never politicked with a lyric like ‘What happened to the voices of dissent? Getting rich I guess’.

Other rabble rousing rockers join the chorus – ‘Culturecide’ features Stewart in a tortured vocal cameo, the lyric delivering a posthumous backhander to a Tory icon: ‘like Maggie Thatcher said there’s no such thing as society’. ‘Tenement Kid’ laments the depressing generational loop of sub-working class life, bypassing punk blast for a melancholic electro waltz, all squirting, swooshing synths and fuzzed out bass. The angst gets personal in ‘Elimination Blues’, a sparse pulsing blues workout featuring Plant’s restrained backing vocal.

One of the album’s standouts is ‘River Of Pain’, which opens with a cyclical acoustic guitar riff reminiscent of Richie Havens. It slowly evolves into a narcotic boat ride – a long lost track from Apocalypse Now – as Gillespie details an abusive domestic scenario producing ‘damaged daughters, damaged sons’. The trip gets ever darker and weirder as the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra hijack the song halfway, mutating it into a free jazz workout that is equal parts beautiful and unsettling. Despite the lyrical content, the end effect is unforgettable psychedelic bliss.

It’s not all wrist slashing doom. Angular rocker ‘Invisible City’ finds beauty in the gutter, listing modern urban evils (‘CCTV on every street’ and ‘stressed out faces like a Bacon painting’) before declaiming ‘I love this city, such a beautiful city’. The album’s single release ‘It’s Alright, It’s OK’ is Screamadelica’s ‘Movin’ On Up’ redux, although the vacuous lyric never reaches the transcendent heights of the earlier, superior version.

A cinematic ear has always been Gillespie’s card up the sleeve. On this record, aided by a producer who’s racked up a celebrated back catalogue of film scores, the band references sparse Paris, Texas soundscapes (‘Theme from More Light’), noir-ish cabaret (‘Goodbye Johnny’) and avant garde European film (the instrumental ‘Requiem For the Russian Tea Rooms’). If all that sounds like a mixed bag of uppers, downers & psychedelics, you’re getting the picture.

‘More light’ (or more accurately ‘mehr licht’) were famously the last words of German philosopher Johann Goethe. On their tenth record Primal Scream deliver a bracing reminder that after 3 decades and counting they’re not intending to go down quietly. And God bless ‘em for that.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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