The Contino Sessions Turns 20
“Seeing light out of darkness…if you can see, like, beauty in a dark situation it’s kind of…it’s what tickles your boat really, isn’t it?”
Encountering a familiar question — “Do you think Death In Vegas like to play around with a lot of dark, iconic imagery?” — backstage at a Polish music festival in 2012, Death In Vegas mainman Richard Fearless gave an answer that was a touch edgy, a touch cliched, and a touch cross-wired and tongue-in-cheek. The “dark” theme had come up regularly in interviews and articles about Fearless’ music, going back more than a dozen years to The Contino Sessions, Death In Vegas’ second album. The Contino Sessions is at times a touch edgy, a touch cliched, and a touch cross-wired and tongue-in-cheek, and it remains all the more intruiging for it.
Is it harder to predict the outlier record that will eventually find widespread acclaim, or the record that is very much of its time that will remain relevant twenty years on? From the omnivorous sampling of their salad days to the strong-jawed, sharp-toothed electro-rock of The Contino Sessions, Death In Vegas were era-attuned through the 1990s. Fearless, real name Richard Maguire, began DJing in the early 1990s, spinning at some of the same London clubs as the Chemical Brothers. This was the period when Maguire got his nickname, though he explained in 2000 that it wasn’t intended to be serious. “Someone came up with it and put it on a flyer for the first club where I was a DJ,” he told London’s Daily Mirror. “Unfortunately, it stuck. I never thought eight years later I’d have to pick up airline tickets in the name of Fearless…”
Death In Vegas was conceived by Fearless with producer Steve Hellier. Their breakout single was “Dirt” in 1996. “Dirt” was unabashed in its big beat affinity, riding crunchy guitars and hyped vocal loops that would have felt familiar to anyone in possession of a copy of Exit Planet Dust. The sample over the song’s introduction was a curious choice for a future-minded electronic act: the famous “It’s a free concert from now on” announcement made by John Morris at Woodstock in 1969. “But the one major thing you have to remember tonight…” the sample continues, “is that the man next to you is your brother, and you damn well better treat each other that way because if you don’t then we blow the whole thing, but we’ve got it right there.” A cheer goes up from the crowd, cue the hard kick and echoing snare.
Dead Elvis, their 1997 debut album (Death In Vegas were originally named Dead Elvis), unfurled with a kind of free spirit, if not a faithful hippie vibe. Instead of coming out with guns blazing, it meanders in with “All That Glitters,” six circling minutes of upright bass and loose drums. A few jams and reggae flows precede “Dirt,” which doesn’t arrive until five tracks in. The eclecticism and conscious de-emphasizing of their big beat connection is understandable, even admirable, but the lingering impression is a lack of focus. Fearless had film and visual art pursuits in addition to music, and Dead Elvis veers with a mild case of polymath scatterbrain. That didn’t stand in the way of Death In Vegas garnering a good critical reception and going on a US tour with the Chemical Brothers that crucial year that electronica broke.
On the cusp of the new millennium, the leading lights of that scene were determined to grow, breaking habits and shaking things up. At the same time the Chem Bros were blowing open their sound with Surrender, Death In Vegas were reining theirs in. Fearless was now working with a new partner, Tim Holmes, whose resume included production work with modern-minded experimental groups like Sabres Of Paradise and Red Snapper. Many of the biggest names in British electronic music from that time worked in pairs. There were the aforementioned brothers in name, and actual brothers like Phil and Paul Hartnoll of Orbital. Then there was Underworld, who came from the core duo of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, but were completed by the addition of Darren Emerson, who had an ability to shape the less quantifiable, big-picture elements of their music.
The partnership of Fearless and Holmes bore some resemblance to Underworld’s dynamic of engine and vision, except where Emerson, ten years younger than Hyde and Smith, was there to inject the intuition of the new generation, Holmes had a decade on Fearless and could impart some been-there-done-that wisdom to help focus Fearless’ diverging enthusiasms. Also like Hyde and Smith, who were part of the London-based art and design collective Tomato, Fearless kept up his work in art and visual production. He did so, in fact, in the same building, his Contino Rooms studio that gave the album its name.
“Half our studio’s a music studio and half of it’s a graphic studio with a glass divider,” Fearless explained to the Los Angeles Times in late 1999. “I’ve always got films playing, by people like Kenneth Anger to Harry Smith to Stooges documentaries to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard…and there are all my photographs I’ve taken all around on the walls, and all the art reference books. There’s so much visual stuff in the studio, and it’s just so inspiring.” Given that picture of days and nights spent swiveling all over the shop at the Contino Rooms, another Dead Elvis probably should have been inevitable.
The Contino Sessions, however, is a much different beast. Underneath an aura of unhurried confidence is a clear focus. Instead of twelve wandering tunes, the tracklist is pared down to a mean nine. There is no room for filler; each song is an important connection to the next. The structure is tight and the sequencing is impeccable, which one has good reason to assume was an intentional accomplishment made to distinguish it from their previous album.
The Contino Sessions gives up some of Dead Elvis’ stylistic diversity but more than makes up for it with its sonic narrative thrust. It unfolds across three distinct but linked arcs. The first is within the opening song itself, “Dirge.” The second is the incrementally aggressive rise of the four songs that follow, peaking smack in the middle of the album with “Aisha,” the thematic, energetic and literal centerpiece. The final quartet of tracks comprise a comedown with an altogether gentler momentum, rebuilding after the cathartic release of “Aisha” until Death In Vegas are back on their feet again with the uncharacteristically sunny closer “Neptune City.”
Death In Vegas were by this point confident enough to write complete songs with specific guest vocalists in mind before even approaching them, and had the profile to land them. The Contino Sessions hosts Jim Reid of the Jesus And Mary Chain, Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, and Iggy Pop. There wasn’t really a backup plan if those guys hadn’t come aboard. “We just hoped they would say yes and didn’t think any further ahead than that,” Fearless confessed to the Irish Times in early 2000. “Thankfully no one turned us down.” (While it may be true that no one said “no,” Fearless had acknowledged in a previous interview that at one point they wanted Jason Pierce from Spiritualized as well, but, “He’s very difficult to get hold of.”)
Another notable guest vocalist on the album is singer Dot Allison, who was in a relationship with Fearless at the time. Allison doesn’t actually say a word on The Contino Sessions, but “Dirge” wouldn’t be the same without her eerie lah lah lahs, which set the techno-gothic tone of everything to come. “Dirge” may not be much more instrumentally layered than anything off Dead Elvis, but it feels doubly dense. The way in which Death In Vegas lay down those layers one at a time until the space is choked for air unveils a significant leap between full-lengths. Without taking any credit away from Fearless, “Dirge” seems to make the arrival of Tim Holmes immediately apparent.
The haunted house ambience then gets dialed up roughly ten notches with “Soul Auctioneer.” One can only imagine what prompts they gave Bobby Gillespie for lyrical inspiration, but he goes all-out and then some. “There are hands in my pockets/ Pulling at my spine/ Eggs bearing insects/ Hatching in my mind/ The stones in my shoes get sharper all the time/ In the soft sick underbelly in the carcass of these times,” he simmers — and that’s just the chorus. “Soul Auctioneer” is sinister to the hilt, cooly pushing unsteady low end and nervous electro-tics. The one-two of “Dirge” leading into “Soul Auctioneer” surely helped cement the notion many had about The Contino Sessions and Death In Vegas being enamored of the dark side, and that reputation followed them into the next decade and beyond.
“There’s nothing wrong with being happy but there’s no depth to it,” Fearless said in the October after the record’s release. “It’s a lot more powerful to make a record that’s sad. There’s something about feeling sad that’s actually very nice.” Fearless delineated where Death In Vegas spilled over emotional lines but stuck to certain creative ones, going on to say, “There’s a close parallel between sadness and euphoria. When we’re feeling down we want to push it. We’re not talking about deaths in the family or anything like that though.”
The Contino Sessions is a moody bastard of an album, but not in the same way as, say, Disintegration. There is an artistic arm’s length soberly at work. Fearless was dedicated to film far beyond just playing movies in the background at the Contino Rooms. For a time in the mid-2000s he moved to the US, where among other pursuits he produced music films for the Rolling Stones. In that regard, The Contino Sessions is inevitably aware of constructing cinematic moments, and no more obviously so than on “Aisha.” (“Aisha,” Death In Vegas’ highest charting single still to date, is also the one song on the album where the liner notes give a writing credit to Hellier, suggesting its origin predates the rest of the record.)
Iggy Pop’s turn comes after the instrumentals “Death Threat” and “Flying,” two heavy doses of big beat on downers fired by Fearless’ brand of confused elation. Suffice it to say that Pop does not disappoint. First Death In Vegas got Gillespie to cook up a graveyard smash, and then with “Aisha” they were handed a slasher flick narrated by the godfather of punk. As guitarist Ian Button saws away and bassist Matt Flint and drummer Simon Hanson start their menacing strut, Pop launches into made-up movie dialogue that shifts perspective from villain to investigator to victim. His delivery escalates scene by scene from cold to unhinged. There is but one true drop in all of The Contino Sessions, and Death In Vegas make it count when it finally comes toward the song’s climax with Pop’s gurgling, strangled scream.
Recovery begins with “Lever Street,” its wavering keys and Sunday morning strum a spare kind of classic rock bedhead. “Aladdin’s Story” goes one better and drops a trio from the London Community Gospel Choir into a swaying tune which Fearless once suggested was a kind of cover interpretation of a bootleg tape of Mick Taylor trying out to be the new guitarist for the Rolling Stones in 1969. (The liner notes attribute the song to Fearless, Holmes, and “unknown.”) The tale Jim Reid tells on the smoldering “Broken Little Sister” isn’t as rich in detail as “Soul Auctioneer” or “Aisha,” but it is no less bleak: “You killed your brother when you blew his brain/ You’re high on money and your lover’s pain.” Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel in “Neptune City,” like the fog of a hangover lifting, the buoyant sitar strings elevating the exit.
“Neptune City” dropped a big hint about where Death In Vegas were heading off to next. “I want to make the next album as different to this one as this was to the last one,” Fearless said in that Los Angeles Times interview. “I’ve got a kind of idea which is pretty different; [I’m] thinking about recording it in India and…making it more of a love ballad album.” Going to India to seek musical reinvention, of course, hadn’t been a “different” idea since the Beatles did it in 1968. Perhaps that was Fearless talking tongue-in-cheek again, but he followed through on the plan and Death In Vegas brought sounds and collaborators back with them for Scorpio Rising in 2002.
Scorpio Rising may not enjoy the same lasting critical regard that The Contino Sessions does, but it did have another killer guest list (Hope Sandoval, Liam Gallagher, and Paul Weller, among others) and it also came with “Girls,” which was immortalized the following year on the Lost In Translation soundtrack, where it sounded more like My Bloody Valentine than Kevin Shields’ contributions. Death In Vegas took risks that didn’t always pay off. When they toured around this time, they took a studio-based project and turned it into a rock band with as many as three guitarists up front, though often without the vocalists (“Death In Vegas’s back catalogue features more singers than a school choir, but their live show features none at all,” grumbled one concert review in the Guardian). Still, the group, and The Contino Sessions, thrived on that spiked mix of surety and flexibility.