Electronic Music Experimental Indie Rock Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: Ian Brown – Unfinished Monkey Business

Overlooked Classics: Ian Brown – Unfinished Monkey Business

Music journalists writing about Ian Brown’s solo debut in ’98 made a huge deal about two points. First, they waxed lyrical about the acrimonious bitterness between Brown & Stone Roses guitarist John Squire. Many of the snarkier, angrier lyrics were assumed to be about him. One of the track titles, Ice Cold Cube, was said to be a nickname Stone Roses drummer Reni had for Squire. Secondly, all of the reviews mentioned the Lo-Fi production of the album. Recorded & produced by Brown with just a handful of collaborators, Brown recorded the majority of it at home, playing most of the instruments himself, learning to play each instrument as & when he needed to for the production.

The Lo-Fi production is, in my opinion, one of the albums key strengths, after the excellent songwriting. Placing Unfinished Monkey Business in context, we see that, around the time it was released, unconventional & experimental music was taking British subculture by storm. Radio One’s Breezeblock, hosted by Mary Anne Hobbes was promoting & breaking everything from the sampled smorgasbord of breakbeats & funk of the Lo Fidelity Allstars, the proto-Post Rock of early Mogwai & the frazzled alt-country of artists like Scott 4. In a year in which The Beta Band could release a song like Inner Meet Me, Unfinished Monkey Business fit in just fine.

The broken drum machine sound collage of the opening track Under The Paving Stones: The Beach, with its distorted toy noise & allusions to the Situationist International slogans, it was a perfect fit in the contemporary morass of underground experimental music. Its segue into the sampled sitar & Sci-Fi shenanigans of lead single My Star is truly thrilling. Psychedelic soundscapes fused with solid, low frequency rhythm section which owes as much to Dub as it does to Indie. Can’t See Me is a leftover Stone Roses tune (they played it live in their later shows) in the same vein as the funk-enthused singles like Fools Gold or One Love. Stone Roses rhythmists Reni & Mani guest on this, lending the album feeling of continuity with his precious band. Ice Cold Cube is Psychedelic, Sergeant Peppers stomp with snarky lyrics taking aim at John Squire. Sunshine is a kind of Psychedelic folk strum along, likened in the ’98 NME review to ‘60’s hippy troubadour Donovan. Lions, employing the vocal talents of Denise Johnson (of Screamadelica fame), is rough & raw Synth Pop with distorted noise bursts & jagged edges which a “professional” producer would have probably smoothed out.

Corpses In Their Mouths is slow burning Psychedelic Pop with guitars that morph between rhythmic & ambient, rock steady Dub rhythms & atmospheric harmonica blasts. Its title is another reference to Situationists International sloganeering. What Happened To Ya Part 1 is upbeat Folk Pop while Part 2 is the kind of Funk-infused, Psyche guitar jam that John Squire should have been making. Nah Nah is fuzzy Folk with handclaps, melodic lead guitars & echoing handclaps. One of the most memorable choruses of the ‘90’s too. Not sure why it wasn’t released as a single. They’d still be playing it on daytime radio today. Deep Pile Dreams is the most blatant of the anti-Squire tunes here. Its caustic lyrics attacking his alleged drug issues (“I only ever wanted the one with the flag/all you ever wanted was a $60 bag”) over a downtempo, Lo-Fi drum machine & synth soundscape. The closing track, Unfinished Money Business, is the deepest into Dub territory that the album dares to go. Bold, heavy drum machine patterns, subterranean bass lines & echoey analogue synths create a moody & atmospheric sonic terrain.

I found that these videos of Top Of The Pops appearances were charming & help to place the Unfinished Monkey Business into temporal context, so give them a watch. I especially like the guy “playing” eggs in the My Star performance.

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Experimental Folk Hip Hop Indie Rock Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: Beck – Mellow Gold

I’ve just found out that today is Beck’s 50th birthday. Happy Birthday to one of the greatest & most innovative musical artists of the last 30 years. By way of celebrating the great mans birthday, we’ll take a look at his debut studio album, the incredible Mellow Gold.

Mellow Gold is a glorious, ugly mess of Lo-Fi country, Hip-Hop, psychedelia & surrealistic lyrics. This visionary mash up of sounds, samples, textures & its schizoid sound palate are held together by great songwriting. This is a Pop album that you can play to Lo-Fi fans, a Hip-Hop album you can play to Country fans, an avant-garde noise experiment you can play to Hip-Hop heads. It’s incredibly ambitious, & even though it may not quite hit what it’s aiming for, it’s still one of my favourite albums of all time. A Discogs article describes it, dismissively, as sounding “like Beavis and Butt-Head cacophonously flipping through channels”. The tone of the whole piece is quite dismissive actually, also describing it as “a charred coda to “Loser,” leaving the innards of that song on the operating table for all to see”. As if thats a bad thing. Some of us actually love the eccentric, junkyard aesthetic.

The whole concept of Mellow Gold is that it’s like a satanic K-Tel record that’s been found in a trash dumpster. A few people have molested it and slept with it and half-swallowed it before spitting it out. Someone played poker with it, someone tried to smoke it. Then the record was taken to Morocco and covered with hummus and tabouli.

Beck on Mellow Gold, Rolling Stone, 1994

Nowhere else could you hear a song like Beck’s MTV takeover mega hit, Loser, but on Mellow Gold. A YouTube commenter described it as like Kurt Cobain if he’d been on LSD instead of Heroin. It’s based around a sampled drum break, a looped sample of Beck playing slide guitar & a live sitar track (played by producer Karl Stephenson). Into this, at the time, previously unheard of sonic architecture Beck performed some nonsensical rapping & a chorus which, he later explained, was referring to how terrible he was at rapping. “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me”. Despite this being a throwaway line, it somehow evolved into a kind of ethos for the music of the ’90’s. The anthemic “battlecry” of what became known as Slacker culture (I guess).

Elsewhere we have songs like Pay No Mind (Snoozer), a tape-hiss filled Lo-Fi folk song with bizarre lyrics about “shopping malls coming out of the walls” & “a giant dildo crushing the sun.” All over a Hip-Hop inspired drumloop. Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997 is a morose sound collage, mixing spoken word sections with harmonic “ahh ahh” vocals. Steal My Body Home & Blackhole add a touch of psychedelic ’60’s atmosphere to the morose Folk formula, utilising sitars (sampled or otherwise) to great effect. The former feels like a tie-died throw gently laid over a slow drum machine pattern.

There’s plenty of Loser-esque Slacker Hip-Hop here to keep the casual listeners happy too. Soul Suckin’ Jerk & Beercan being the most obvious fit into this formula. Truck Driving Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Street) sees darker, sinister overtones added to this formula. It’s opening sample a glorious call of “come on motherfucker, put your clothes on, c’mon.” Nitemare Hippy Girl is Syd Barrett-style Psyche Pop, but married to desolate, heartbroken melodies & mock horror movie lyrics. Mutherfucker is an incendiary blast of Grungey Noise Rock with pitch shifted vocals all over the register. It’s quite cathartic & a bit of a shame that Beck never really experimented with this style again (except, maybe, for the much less aggro Minus, on Odelay).

After the morbid opiated psychedelia of the aforementioned Blackhole, Beck dives head first into avant-garde noise territory with the short but oh-so-sweet Analogue Odyssey. A blast of delayed, decaying, pitch shifting synth noise. If you close your eyes, you can still see the image of Beck hunched over an analogue synth, generating terrifying walls of mangled noise, burned onto the back of your eyelids. After all my effort trying to describe Analogue Odyssey, the Beck fansite Whiskeyclone described it like this: “Whatever, it’s just some electronic whines and noises.”

Check out this hilariously clip of Beck being interviewed by Thurston Moore at around the time of Mellow Gold on MTV’s 120 minutes.

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Indie Rock Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: The Delgados – Peloton

After listening to Peloton, you’re left with impressions of tweeness & Pop sensibilities which seem to overshadow, in your mind, the actual record.

There is, in actuality, a fair bit of heavyweight, distorted guitar riffing on Peloton. Take for instance the Post-Rock influenced, Yo La Tengo-esque Grunge thrash of Repeat Failure. Its blistering noise is, nevertheless, infused with melodic pleasantness. Or the quiet/loud dynamics of the New Wave tinged College Rock of Russian Orthodox. Even gentler tracks tend to have sections of excitable stompbox shredding to propel them along.

There are also touches of less abrasive psychedelia like the madcap antics of Blackpool. Moody Post Rock bass lines amble alongside Syd Barrett style Psych rhythms. There’s a sound collage feel to it too, which feels alien on an otherwise very organic sounding album.

One key impression that Peloton gives is one of dreaminess. They sit sonically somewhere between fellow Scots Belle and Sebastian & Shoegaze/Dream Pop heavyweights Slowdive. This is especially prominent in some of the pleasant harmonising between singers Alan Woodward & Emma Pollock, like on the transcendent Twee Popper Pull The Wires From The Wall or superb opener Everything Goes Around The Water.

Melodically, Peloton sits in a unique place. Off-kilter, almost childlike, Pop melodies which seem to draw liberally from both of the key influences I’ve mentioned, Slowdives Dream Pop & the Twee Pop of Belle and Sebastian. There are echoes of what many know as Britpop here. The daytime Radio One vibes of And So The Talking Stopped or the Shine Compilation swagger of stellar closer, The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger.

You can probably tell from the song titles that I’ve mentioned so far that they love a good long title, especially for a band whose album titles are typically brief: Peloton & Hate, for example. I think it was probably these long winded, verbally clever titles which first drew me to the band. I’m sure The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger was the first song of theirs I heard (on a free magazine CD or Tape) & encouraged me to buy this excellent album.

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Music Overlooked Classics Rock Synth Pop

Overlooked Classics: David Bowie – Earthling

David Bowie’s 1997 album Earthling was the first new Bowie record I was aware of as a teenager. I already knew songs like Space Oddity & Ashes To Ashes, & even liked what I knew, but Earthling was essentially my generation’s Bowie album.

Bowie, finger ever on the pulse of the zeitgeist, was inspired by emergent genres like Drum & Bass, IDM & Breakbeat. Earthling was written & produced with these influences at the fore. Everything could have gone so horribly wrong. Many other classic artists who embrace genres of younger generations fail miserably (in my opinion), take Neil Youngs synthetic experiments in the ’80’s for example.

Luckily, Bowie was able to understand & appreciate what it was about these genres that made them special & unique. Instead of bending the technology & techniques used to create Drum & Bass to match his songwriting, he bent his songwriting to match the technology.

Album opener & lead single, Little Wonder, is a great example of this. A thumping, Junglist, Drum & Bass beat underpins trademark. His incredible vocal melodies floating above the hard, Junglist beats. In line with a key influence at for Bowie at the time, The Prodigy, Little Wonder’s skittering breakbeat manglement gives way to headbanging, anthemic hard rock sections.

Elsewhere, other influences come to the fore. Looking For Satellites is heavy downtempo breakbeats, somewhere between Hip Hop & Trip Hop (Meat Beat Manifesto?), but with rhythmic vocal melodies that wouldn’t be out of place on a Talking Heads record.

Prodigy vibes abound on Battle For Britain (The Letter). Crunchy, digitally harsh guitar chords juxtaposed against similar Junglist rhythms to Little Wonder. Bowies trademark melodic melancholia & a space rock glueing the whole thing together. Free jazz piano segments notwithstanding.

Seven Years In Tibet brings us more downtempo drum machine shenanigans, with heavy, metallic guitar riffing. This is more in Nine Inch Nails’ sonic territory than Prodigy though.

Dead Man Walking sees modem noise distorted guitars over thumping four-to-the-floor beats. Techno synth arpeggios & harmonic vocal loops give this a distinctly ’90’s vibe to it. Perhaps reminds me a little of Björk’s Hyper-Ballad. I could easily imagine a successful mix of the two songs in the hands of a competent DJ.

Telling Lies sees the return of the Drum & Bass rhythms. Lowkey baritone Bowie vocals & incoherent moaning help to build an oppressive sonic atmosphere.

The Last Thing You Should Do is upbeat, cut-&-Paste breakbeat with melancholic, subdued verses & explosive, distorted choruses. Like The Chemical Brothers with a more experimental sensibility. Grunge dynamics feel strangely at home here.

I’m Afraid Of Americans is more downtempo, industrial influenced darkness. Wears it’s Nine Inch Nails influence proudly on its sleeve. Doubly so on the various Nine Inch Nails Remixes which were also made, Trent Reznor’s unique production style bringing out Bowie’s darkest artistic impulses. You’ve got to hand it to Reznor. Not only did he do a great job of this, but he did it from the position of being completely starstruck & in awe of Bowie.

Finale, Law (Earthlings On Fire) is another dive into the sonic textures of Techno. Four-to-the-floor drums, bubbling, sidechained bass lines & stabs of distorted noise. Vocals mimic the rhythms brilliantly, acting as just another instrument in the soundscape.

I forgot how much I loved this album & I’m glad I was reminded of it by a post on Facebook earlier this week. One of Bowies darkest, & most sonically adventurous, albums, Earthling still sounds incredibly contemporary today, 23 years after its release.

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Indie Rock Music Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: Mercury Rev – Yerself Is Steam

Someone in a Facebook group asked today for recommendations of artists & albums a little like The Flaming Lips. I suggested Mercury Rev as I feel that they have material which is similar in style & intensity to each phase of The Flaming Lips discography. I think the poster was more interested in the more melancholic, Psyche Pop of the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots-era but thought they may be interested to hear two songs which almost serve as polar opposites within the Mercury Rev discography: Chasing A Bee & Goddess On A HiWay.

Another reason I thought it would be interesting to suggest Mercury Rev to this Facebook user is that the two bands are very closely linked, sharing personnel at various parts of their careers. Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue played guitar with The Flaming Lips for around two years, appearing on the albums In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head.

Chasing A Bee is the opening track from Mercury Rev’s gnarly, noisy debut album, Yerself Is Steam. It’s maybe not fair to refer to it as ‘overlooked’ per se, but I definitely feel that it deserves a higher place in the pantheon of great Indie Rock albums which we revere to this day. On one level, Chasing A Bee is a chaotic & furious assault of brutal guitar noise but, on another level, it is melodic Psyche Pop based around the hypnotically childlike melodies you’d expect from Syd Barrett or Ringo Starr. The juxtaposition between these elements is a surprisingly apt way of musically charting the experience of Psychedelic drugs. There are moments of elation & moments of horror. There are segues between the melodic Pop & harsh noise that feel like that moment when a bad trip turns into a good trip.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe the music of bands like Mercury Rev & The Flaming Lips in terms of psychedelic drug experiences. The Flaming Lips named one of their own compilations Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. I think the title of this Flaming Lips compilation is an excellent description of the early Mercury Rev sound.

From Chasing A Bee, Yerself Is Steam wonders into faster, upbeat territory with Syringe Mouth, a terrifying Glam Punk stomper with shrieking backing vocals & twisted gnarly guitar patterns & feedback snaking between breakneck mechanical rhythms. This is very similar to very early Flaming Lips.

Coney Island Cyclone tones down the speed, emphasises the melodies & keeps the feedback & amp noise levels very high. This is the kind of thing which could’ve seen some chart success if it was marketed properly (& the abrupt fade out at the end was less abrupt).

Blue And Black starts with David Baker’s sinister monotone vocals following narcotically deranged nursery rhyme melodies & technicolour self harmonies. The music remains restrained for much of the first half, but you can feel the simmering menace of the creepy melodies & building noisescape. Something like a revving chainsaw appears around the 3-minute mark, threatening to send the song tumbling into a violent noise storm which it never quite does. The implicit threat of chaotic noise is almost Lovecraftian. The evil glimpsed in the shadows, or just missed, is far more psychologically terrifying than even the most well rendered CGI monsters.

Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’ Th’ Center Of Yer Heart is another epic Psych Rock noise fest in the vein of Chasing A Bee. This one however, is built around Johnathan Donahue’s falsetto melodies & almost Prog-ilike percussion elements. This is cinematic in scale in a way that much of their later music doesn’t quite reach. With it’s repetitive explorations of chord structures & explosions of guitar noise this could well be seen as a foundation stone, alongside Kentucky weirdos Slint, of the genre which would eventually become known as Post Rock.

Frittering, another long, cinematic jam, fades in over some clean, acoustic guitars that sound completely alien in the sonic landscape this album has painted thus far. Reverb-soaked vocals sound like they’re coming from miles away & melodic lead guitars start to appear like anarchic butterflies (or bees) frittering around the psychedelic landscape. There’s a big payoff at around 2:30, when the percussion drops in & the noisier guitars overtake the pleasant acoustic strumming in volume. From that point on, the melodic vocals are buried in a shoegazey mess of pedal noise & amp feedback. Different melodic elements surface occasionally through the melancholic murk.

Continuous Trucks And Thunder Under A Mothers Smile is a noisy skit. A blast of semaphoric bleeping, distorted radio chatter & furious guitar riffing. At 44 seconds, it’s over before you’ve properly heard it & we’re into the epic 12 minute finale.

Very Sleepy Rivers is doomy, sinister noise track. Built around hypnotically simple rhythms & melodies, it’s said to be about a serial killer, the rivers a metaphor for the calm of a serial killer & their tendency to snap, on a moments notice, into brutal, bloody violence. There’s an ebb & flow quality to Very Sleepy Rivers, which plays beautifully into the thematic imagery of rivers.

The band released a single, Car Wash Hair, which didn’t appear on the original release of this album. It was included on later reissues & on a second disc that was bundled with international releases, entitled Lego My Ego (which is available as a separate album on Spotify etc.). I’m going to include the video for Car Wash Hair here, as I feel it acts as a kind of “missing link” between the noisy, art Rock of Yerself Is Steam & the cinematic, Psyche Pop of later albums like Deserters Songs.

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Indie Rock Music Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: Two Dollar Guitar – Weak Beats And Lame-Ass Rhymes

I think Spotify has recommended Two Dollar Guitar for me because Steve Shelley, drummer from Sonic Youth, is their drummer. I’m not 100% sure how their recommendation algorithms work, but it has previously recommended another act to me, Spectre Folk, which also features Steve Shelley. Of course it could be due to the genre too. Two Dollar Guitar are a lo-fi Indie Rock band with a melancholic, poetic vibe. Very much my cup of tea.

Weak Beats And Lame-Ass Rhymes has a gloomy, faded glamour to it. Country -Rock singer-songwriter vibes juxtaposed with urban, New York decay. Nels Cline, ambient experimental guitar guru & Wilco member, guests on opening track, Solitaire. Other tracks, like Kilroy, have an upbeat bounciness to them, emanating from the superb rhythm section consisting of the aforementioned Steve Shelley & ex-Cell bassist David Motamed. Singer Tim Foljhan’s romantically depressed drawl over these bouncy, upbeat rhythms calls to mind something like People by Silver Jews. In fact the Silver Jews comparisons are quite apt for much of the album. Especially the more melancholic, Country-tinged tracks.

Guest female vocalists Janet Wygal, Christina Rosenvinge & Carla Bozulich add a sweeter, softer atmosphere which takes the edge off of the existential angst apparent on several of the songs, including the Berman-esque Green Room.

Personal highlight for me is 7-minute sad slacker ballad Wilding. It opens with the sound of drizzly, urban rain & a slow, plodding bass line. Foljhan’s vice sounds absolutely crushed & depressed. A bleak & mournful monotone which I find strangely comforting. A spoken word section only heightens the menacing vibes. The song fades out to the same drizzly rain effects but with the sounds of distant thunder creeping in.

If you’re able to withstand a healthy dose of melancholia or, better still, find it as comforting as I do, then you should definitely check out Weak Beats And Lame-Ass Rhymes. The excellent musicianship also makes this essential listening for most Indie Rock fans.

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Indie Rock Overlooked Classics Punk

Overlooked Classics: Comets On Fire – Blue Cathedral

Image by Gary Smith

During my blogpost about Sub Pop’s Patient Zero sampler a few days ago, I discovered that I really enjoyed the track Antlers Of The Midnight Sun by Comets On Fire more than any of the other tracks. Strangely I had little memory of this track from when I used to listen to this compilation regularly in 2004/5-ish. As a result of my love of that track, I have since been checking out their catalogue. Blue Cathedral is the album which Antlers Of The Midnight Sun is taken from, so I thought that would be a good place to begin.

Blue Cathedral runs the gamut from psychedelic ’60’s Garage Rock to punishing Sludge Punk & takes in all manner of other genres in between. Think The Stooges or the MC5 temporally displaced into the mid-’80’s US Indie Underground.

Comets On Fire are well known for their use of the Echoplex tape delay. All of the tracks use it fairly liberally on singer, Ethan Miller’s vocals, which helps to turn his Iggy Pop-esque primal screams into thrilling & surprisingly deep sonic structures. Opening track, The Bee And The Cracking Egg has dub-siren-like delayed synth tones embedded deep in it’s psychedelic noise jams. A feature which resurfaces several times throughout the album, & which is as fun as it is chaotic.

Echoplex, image from wikipedia

Whiskey River & the short instrumental jam, Organs have that ’60’s Garage feel encoded deep in their DNA, the latter due to the heavily delayed Hammond Organ patterns. The former employs what sounds like (and I’m sure actually is) dial-up modem tones, distorted & mangled through their trademark Echoplex. Strangely enough, this ’90’s & early ’00’s specific sound doesn’t sound out of place among the screeching guitars & pounding rhythms of the otherwise retro sounds.

Antlers Of The Midnight Sun is the oddball Indie thrash-a-long I wrote about in the Patient Zero article &, if anything, sounds bigger & more exciting in the context of an album of similarly sonically structured songs. The heavily distorted lead guitars sound almost as if they are threading in and out of the crunchy rhythm guitar patterns.

Brotherhood Of The Harvest takes off with an extended noise jam of screeching guitar noise, clattering drums & early-Pink Floyd style organ drones which break down into a downtempo, Organ centred Psyche Rock jam. Definite Pink Floyd or Procol Harum vibes to the lead guitar parts & chord structures too.

Wild Whiskey features acoustic guitars & unusual percussion embedded in a wash of feedback-drenched guitar drones. It has an upbeat, spaghetti-western feel to it that I kind of wish they’d utilised a bit more on the album. It’s similarly off kilter to the Floydian previous track.

Epic 10minute closer, Blue Tomb begins with sludgy guitar drones which give way into downbeat Garage Rock drumming. There’s an improvisational looseness to the guitar playing which fits the lethargic rhythms beautifully. As well as the perceived looseness there is an almost hypnotic feel to the repetitive (in a good way) rhythms which propel the song forward through it’s noisy psychedelia & Echoplex-soaked vocals. Towards the end the Echoplex is truly put through it’s paces with some incredible delayed siren sounds which scream out dub.

On a tangentially related note, I had the opportunity to use a similar machine to the Echoplex while in the studio with my band, Nauseous Skies, & I can confirm that it is incredibly fun to use. It is also addictive & I can understand the temptation to record almost every instrument & sound effect through it.

Tape Delay used in my band’s recording sessions, photo by me

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Indie Rock Music Overlooked Classics

Overlooked Classics: The Drum – Diskin

When Pop-Punk goes bad.

I can’t begin to guess what a happened to Nottingham Pop-Punk band, China Drum, between their 1997 album Self Made Maniac & their 2000 album (after name change to The Drum) Diskin. Before the release of this gnarled & twisted album, they were probably best known for their excellent Pop-Punk cover of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.

The influences on this record are much more diverse & interesting than the Pop-Punk by numbers of their previous albums. They seem to have been listening to a lot of Grunge & Alternative Rock music. This and more experimental music, perhaps Radiohead’s OK Computer.

The alien song structures, analogue synth warbling & delayed electronic textures rub up quite well against the neo-Grunge guitar riffing & Diskin seems to arrive at something completely new & original. Even now, 20 years on, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it. Highlights for me include downtempo tracks like Horns Front & The Beast (which seem to carry a fair Placebo influence), as well as the more abarsive noise jams of opener HK & Hold This Thought While I Lose My Head (apparently renamed as Head on Spotify?).

As I said above, Diskin is very unique & if you haven’t heard it before then you should definitely give it a listen.

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