Album Reviews

The list of ingredients reads like some techno nerd's record collection run amok. But the whole thing roars like the Massed Turntables of the Apocalypse: a high-stepping bass and drop-kick beats that sound like a speed-and-ecstasy spin on Sly and the Family Stone's wicked '69 jam "Sex Machine"; the reverb-and-percussion voodoo of reggae-dub wizard Lee Perry; a death-throe synth that howls like Jimi Hendrix's Strat in feedback purgatory; drum breaks that crack like Public Enemy DJ Terminator X doing a Buddy Rich at the decks; a call to party – "Back with another one of those block-rockin' beats!" – sampled from the 1989 track "Gucci Again," by the original gangsta rapper, Schoolly D.

And that's just the opening track on this album. You can dance to it until your limbs turn to tapioca or just sit, listen and have your mind blown inside out. Either way, "Block Rockin' Beats" will fry you alive. And along with the rest of Dig Your Own Hole, the genuinely explosive second LP by the British DJ and remix duo the Chemical Brothers, it burns the whole rock vs. techno argument into a fine, white ash.

This is a big season for taking sides. David Bowie cops some drum-and-bass licks for his latest album; U2 renounce ringing-guitar splendor for futuristic disco cheese; Prodigy rake in the long green from Madonna's record label. But don't believe the hype: Rock is not dead, and the DJ-generated, machine-driven aesthetic in late-'90s dance-floor culture is not the One True Bridge to the 21st century. Rock & roll, at its best and most basic, is dance music. And the greatest dance music, of any epoch or stripe, always rocks. A wild beauty of a record that thoroughly eclipses even the heavy-beats magic of Exit Planet Dust, the Chemicals' '95 full-length debut, Dig Your Own Hole rocks, rolls and surges without factionalist prejudice or fear of genre. Fuck tribalism and party to this.

The Chemicals – Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons – don't work with especially complex materials. With its robotic tempo and repetitive, yawning bass line, "Dig Your Own Hole" is maniacal in its relentless simplicity. In "It Doesn't Matter," Rowlands and Simons walk a perilously thin line between hypnotic and numbing, cranking up a Studio 54-style disco beat and freezing it in place with Kraftwerk-ian rigidity. At one point, the track drops down to nothing more than the rhythm, some bass hum and burbling electronics that sound like a coffee maker going postal.

But what the Chemicals may lack in variety of beats they make up for in textural and physical intensity. (Rowlands and Simons didn't call their '96 EP Loops of Fury for nothing.) "Elektro Bank" is fat, literally to the point of bursting, with hyperdrive beats, an air-raid-siren keyboard effect stuck on repeat and a sample of rapper Keith Murray breathlessly chanting, "Who is this doin' this type o' alpha-beta-psychedelic funkin'?" At times the interplay between sampled and synthesized effects – like the wild-style drums, choked wah-wah guitar and hovering ring of feedback in "Dig Your Own Hole" – feels like the real-time dynamics of a live, mad-dog funk band.

Two DJs do not make a band, conventionally speaking. And the Chemical Brothers aren't songwriters per se. They devise rhythm schemes, build tracks, generate atmospheres. But in a field dominated by solitary bedroom-studio auteurs and turntable cowboys content to cop licks from old jazz-funk and Moog-synthesizer records, Rowlands and Simons have a rare, empathic gift for picking collaborators, particularly vocalists, and wringing strange drama out of them.

In "Where Do I Begin?" the Chemicals gently tweak the stoic, mantralike singing of Beth Orton (who was also featured on Exit Planet Dust) so that her voice sounds like it's ringing around inside her head. "Setting Sun," written and recorded by the Chemicals with Noel Gallagher of Oasis, was the best single of 1996, hands down, and it appears on Dig Your Own Hole slightly remixed but with its Beatles-in-a-blender majesty intact. The acid-noir turbulence (garbled sitar, divebombing guitars) that buffets Gallagher's John Lennon-esque yelp is absolutely stunning – and just on the right side of overkill.

You also have to admire a DJ-remix act that isn't afraid of being remixed itself. "The Private Psychedelic Reel" is a Chemicals piece that Rowlands and Simons handed over to the brilliant American freak-rock band Mercury Rev for some instrumental garnish. The result is one long chord change – supercharged with sunrise guitars, exuberant drumming and whooping keyboards – that doesn't actually go anywhere melodically but ebbs and flows in its own prescribed place with irresistible force.

The track is definitely not techno music – there are too many guitars, and the beat is too weird. And it's not quite rock & roll – "The Private Psychedelic Reel" sounds more like Phil Spector conducting the Steve Reich Ensemble. But it is music for dancing, like everything else on Dig Your Own Hole. Put it on, turn it up and let yourself be moved.


(Posted: Apr 3, 1997)


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