This time around, it all starts off with the sound of Hal from 2001 fed on hallucinogens and P-Funk; a call to arms from a space bound Sly Stone conducting a symphony of detuned robots. It ends with the sound of a man stood on the edge of sanity pleading to anyone and everyone "Did I Pass The Acid Test?" Every point in between, constantly moving, constantly evolving, always evocative of tripping out of this world and into some distant uncharted corner of psychedelic space, way out ahead of anyone else. This time around, a couple of years on since our last trip with them. This time it's the fourth album by The Chemical Brothers, "Come With Us".
How did we get to here? Why are we on this trip? I'll explain...
Chemical Brothers @ www.contactmusic.com
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons met at Manchester University in1989, both studying Medieval History. Ed was born in 1970 in south London, his music tastes shaped equally by going to the Mud Club aged 14 and hearing hip hop and rare groove played out by DJs alongside the two principal home stereo loves, The Smiths and New Order. Tom was born in 1971, grew up in Henley-Upon-Thames and, musically, progressed through the '80's, taking onboard Two Tone, then early electronica like Kraftwerk & Heaven 17 before moving onto the most iconic bands of the decade, Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Public Enemy. Tom & Ed moved to Manchester at a time when the city's music led the country by the flares. They were inspired during their college years by equal parts Chaucer and Most Excellent. Tom moonlighted in Ariel, who signed to Deconstruction and whose eventual legacy was giving Tom & Ed one of their first remixes ("T Baby"), a record that saw the demise of one band and the birth of another.
In the early '90's, Tom & Ed started DJing under the name The Dust Brothers which was borrowed (unbeknownst to them, temporarily) from the US producers of Beastie Boys' 'lost' classic album "Paul's Boutique". Their first residency was Naked Under Leather, a deranged club night in a room below a grimy Manchester pub. Their sound at the time was unique enough to force them into the studio (Tom's bedroom) to record tracks to play out because there simply weren't enough about - the blueprint sound was a spine cracking beat and a virtual orchestra of sirens. Their self financed white label, "Song To The Siren", was this sound distilled onto 12 inches of vinyl, a record that, although made in 1992, still sounds like it was made by aliens after a ram-raid on Manchester's Eastern Bloc Records. After a DJing visit to Naked Under Leather, Andrew Weatherall picked up on the track and signed it to Junior Boy's Own, remixing it under his Sabres Of Paradise guise.
After graduating from Manchester (two 2:1s) and relocating to London, Tom & Ed became permanent residents at the bar at Weatherall's Sabresonic club night, spending a weekly Friday night in a railway arch under London Bridge station in the company of 500 or so sweat drenched clubbers, a huge bass driven sound system and the world's foremost techno DJs. They repaid their musical debt to the club by playing their first live gig at the back of the hall, a 19 minute pile driver that saw the entire club facing the wrong way trying to make out what was going on. Within a couple of weeks, they headed off to the East Coast of America to play their second gig, cementing the mutual respect card that the States and Tom & Ed have had ever since.
When released in the spring of 1994, The Dust Brothers second single, the "14th Century Sky" EP, and more specifically the lead track "Chemical Beats", blew a huge hole in most people's preconceptions of dance music. With the urgency of techno, the white noise of acid house and the crunch and slam of punk rock, the record suddenly propelled Tom & Ed from little known backroom DJs to the top of most band's wish lists for remixes. Within the space of six months, they had remixed Primal Scream, The Charlatans, Saint Etienne, The Prodigy & Manic Street Preachers and amassed a remix CV that read like a veritable who's who of alternative rock in the mid '90's. Through the summer they recorded their debut album and spent every Sunday night for 14 weeks DJing in another pub basement, this time in central London.
From the first week of August ('94) through to the start of November, The Dust Brothers blew up The Heavenly Sunday Social, playing a mixture of monolithic hip hop beats, pounding Euro techno and hands in the air, tears-rolling-down-the-cheeks rock 'n' roll. As the club came to an end, Tom & Ed finished "Exit Planet Dust", with the help of two Social regulars, Beth Orton and Tim Burgess and a safe knowledge that the tracks had been tried and tested on an audience of 200 rabid, Sunday night hedonists. After a swift name change (the whole world had heard of the Dust Brothers so it figured that the Dust Brothers must have by now…), Dust turned to Chemical and "Leave Home" was released. It gave the band their first UK top 20 single.
"Exit Planet Dust" was the collision point between the dance culture and rock 'n' roll that their music had always been gearing up towards. Listening to the album now, it stands as the perfect companion piece to Oasis' debut "Definitely Maybe", the point where ecstasy culture, the energy of the dancefloor was redefined for kids who'd grown up listening to everything from the Beatles to the Pistols, Public Enemy to Hardfloor. From the opening surge of "Leave Home" to the dying moments of hyper space ballad "Alive: Alone" (their first collaboration with Beth Orton), "Exit..." slips easily between being a dancefloor record and a headphones record, defining the genre that would become known later as Big Beat. Within a year, Tom & Ed had redefined their sound and pushed their own boundaries to the point that it was nearly impossible to pigeon hole them stylistically. At the same time, they graduated in the live arena, having gone from playing clubs and supporting the likes of Underworld and The Prodigy to packing out their own headline shows.
At the start of 1996 and after a low-key EP release ("Loops Of Fury" , their second top 20 single), The Chemical Brothers set about recording their second album. The at-the-time-omnipresent Noel Gallagher accosted Tom & Ed at Glastonbury, demanded to know why Tim Burgess had been on their previous record ("Life Is Sweet") and he hadn't. The responsive record, "Setting Sun", was recorded as an instrumental to which Noel recorded vocals in one take before buggering off from the studio to the pub, to leave Tom & Ed to mix. The result, released in October '96, gave The Chemicals first number 1 single, featuring Noel's vocals over a backing track that resurrected the spirit of "Tomorrow Never Knows", before taking it off onto a fantastic voyage that appeared to feature sitars being trampled by herds of elephants. Although "Setting Sun" was a number 1 single, Tom & Ed retained their underground status as Chris Evans famously removed the record from the decks on his morning show, proclaiming that "we don't like that". Surely job done?
By the start of 1997, the Chemicals had completed work on their second album, "Dig Your Own Hole". Preceded by "Block Rockin' Beats", their second number 1, driven by a bass line inspired by 23 Skidoo and a vocal refrain so simple that even the most out there dance floor casualties could grasp it's deep meanings, the album was their first UK number one, universally praised by everyone from broadsheet papers to style magazines to club kids. The record saw them move further towards a more widescreen vision, presenting a blend of dancefloor chaos and wonder that now took onboard the sounds of pummelling techno (Detroit and German varieties) whilst pointing forwards to a new psych'd out future ("The Private Psychedelic Reel"). The success of "Dig Your Own Hole" established The Chemical Brothers as the biggest band in their field both globally and domestically. The album saw Tom & Ed inviting more people to the studio, first off with Noel, then a Beth Orton returning ("Where Do I Begin") and the missing in action (at the time) Mercury Rev front man Jonathon Donahue (providing the massive wall of noise over the album's closing track "The Private Psychedelic Reel"). The album has since gone platinum in the UK and, helped by extensive, backbreaking touring, has sold the best part of a million copies in the US, eventually seeing them win Best Rock Instrumental at the American Grammy Awards for "Block Rockin' Beats". In the summer of '97, The Chemical Brothers played their first major British festival gig, going on to tens of thousands as night fell at the Armageddon-like mud bath that was Glastonbury.
The Chemical Brothers only release during 1998 was to release a DJ mix album, "Brothers Gonna Work It Out". Unlike their previous DJ set, 1996's head-in-the-bass-bins "Live At The Social Volume 1", the album showcased a broad cross section of Tom & Ed's musical styles, moving from psychedelic soul to strung out mixes of their own music (the Micronauts mix of "Block Rockin' Beats") through Dubtribe and Renegade Soundwave before ending up with two of their finest remixes, Manic Street Preachers' "Everything Must Go" & Spiritualized's "I Think I'm In Love". Apart from the odd DJ set, Tom & Ed spent the rest of '98 in the studio.
After the best part of a year out of the limelight, The Chemical Brothers re-entered orbit with "Hey Boy, Hey Girl". The single, released in spring 1999, was the band's most obvious crossover record to date, a staple of daytime radio and late night venues alike, a record seemingly sired at Gatecrasher (after a visit by Tom & Ed during a visit to Sheffield in 1998) whose vocal line ("Superstar DJs, here we go…") has become a set of overused bywords for anyone playing records in a club who has had a Mixmag feature in the last two years. The album from which it was taken, "Surrender", was a towering wigged out gang show of a record, featuring the ultimate guest list of performers - previous graduates Noel Gallagher & Jonathan Donahue alongside a handful of first timers - Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, Manc legend Bernard Sumner & Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. The result was a consistently brilliant mixture of machine driven funk, other worldly laments and pulsing electro, each contributor bringing their own unique style, only to be blended into a seamless, timeless, beautiful psychedelic masterpiece.
"Surrender" saw The Chemicals head off on another huge worldwide tour, this time starting in South America, onto playing a series of British club gigs, peaking with a joint headline gig at the legendary Red Rocks stadium in Colorado with long time admirer Fatboy Slim, both acts playing to a sold out crowd of 10,000 US kids a couple of thousand feet above sea level. After the single releases of the Gallagher fronted "Let Forever Be" & the Sumner/Gillespie track "Out Of Control", 1999 ended with the release of Tom & Ed's remix of Primal Scream's "Swastika Eyes", taking the original, early New Order style disco punk record and twisting it into a throbbing Moroder-style trance number, perfect for their Millennium Eve gig at the 20,000 capacity Gatecrasher gig in Sheffield.
The Chemical Brothers all but disappeared from view after headlining the main stage at Glastonbury, drawing one of the biggest crowds ever seen at the festival in its 30 plus years. Apart from a couple of low key DJ gigs out of London, their most visible moments were spent in the company of a couple of hundred likeminded souls at their near legendary Glint nights. Named in tribute to the "Surrender" track "Got Glint" and eluding to the state of mind of most of the punters present, the nights were held sporadically at a tiny underground bar in West London, the kind of venue that would lend the nights the feel of an acid house speakeasy. As word spread, the nights were put on hold, the venue's capacity unable to cope with the demand.
2001 passed without much noise from The Chemical Brothers. After 18 months spent locked in a south London studio, emerging occasionally to test out new tracks on unsuspecting club audiences both here and abroad, Tom & Ed offered up a low-key single, "It Began In Afrika". The record was a thunderous tribal techno workout, an obnoxious hurricane of beats and bleeps that entered the Top 10 like some kind of demented uninvited guest. Although "…Afrika" was the precursor to "Come With Us" (working title "Chemical Four"), it gave very little indication of what was to come...
Due for release in January 2002, "Come With Us" seems more of a statement of intent than ever, a gauntlet thrown down to all those following in their footsteps, relying less on collaborations and guest appearances and more on warping psychedelic cinemascope music. First single proper, "Star Guitar" comes on like a modernist take on many a bygone Balearic anthem, treading in the footsteps of the likes "Sueno Latino" and TC1992's "Funky Guitar", its sunshine bleached guitar lines twisting around an insistent pulsating rhythm track; "Pioneer Skies" starts as a 21st century take on late '60's British psych sound before ending up sounding like all Pete Townshend & Keith Moon shoehorned into Jason Pierce's spacesuit. Elsewhere, "Denmark" is a furious mutant disco workout while "Hoops" is a glorious melting pot of West Coast harmonies, guitar scales and pulsing electro beats, the perfect pop record if I-Macs and X-Box's compiled the charts. The whole thing climaxes with "The Test", where Richard Ashcroft stares into the void and rails against a soaring squall of beats and swelling noise, the words and music of men possessed.
At points, "Come With Us" features a sound akin to psychedelic folk, at others it sounds like one of the most futuristic albums ever made, an optimistic, brave new world circumnavigated in just under an hour of music. The Chemical Brothers most confident work yet, it sees them pushing further out there, alone in space, way out ahead the pack, programming '2001' sized super computers in the language of Sly and his kin.