XTRMNTR Turns 20

XTRMNTR Turns 20

Three days into the new year, the top trending topics on Twitter were Coachella and World War III — a combination that perfectly sums up what it means to be alive and online in 2020, where we dissect pop-cultural minutiae (like festival-poster font sizes) and macro maladies (like the impending end of civilization as we know it) with equal degrees of all-caps outrage. But then, you couldn’t ask for more perfect conditions to revisit Primal Scream’s caps-lock classic XTRMNTR, a record that, 20 years ago this month, likewise heralded the dawn of a new decade with an equally jolting dose of cognitive dissonance, by pitching itself halfway between the dance tent and the battlefield.

By that point, the Scottish group had developed a reputation as both the most committed and promiscuous band in rock, one that could become fully absorbed in a particular aesthetic, only to dramatically change it on a whim. After spending the late ’80s doffing their polka-dot shirts for leather pants, the Primals — with the help of DJ/producer Andrew Weatherall — party-crashed the UK zeitgeist with 1991’s epochal acid-house opus Screamadelica. The Top 10 success of that record not only ensured that every rock CD-single you bought in the ‘90s came appended with a DJ remix, it inspired Primal Scream to treat the band itself like a remixable unit, one where members could be added and subtracted like levers sliding up and down a console, and where instrumental roles could change with the flip of a switch. (Even frontman Bobby Gillespie — the official face of the band and its only constant member — was game to cede lead-vocal duties to guests, or drop out altogether for extended instrumentals.)

Primal Scream at once project the last-gang-in-town attitude and bacchanalian decadence of an old-school rock ‘n’ roll band, while completely dismantling the auteurist ideology that’s the cornerstone of classic rock, by regularly allowing their sound to be manipulated and morphed by a revolving cast of outside producers and collaborators. Alas, it’s an ethos that can yield wildly varying results — fitting for a band that could position an ecstasy-spiked club jam like “Loaded” next to a sobering hangover ballad like “Damaged,” Primal Scream’s post-Screamadelica discography has amounted to a roller-coaster series of staggering highs and dispiriting nadirs (the latter epitomized by the indulgent Memphis-soul mimicry of Screamadelica’s much-reviled follow-up, Give Out But Don’t Give Up).

However, the period bookended by 1997’s dub-noir excursion Vanishing Point and 2002’s electro-punk blazer Evil Heat constitutes a rare period of consistency — both in terms of personnel and high quality—for this notoriously volatile band, thanks to the solidified rhythm section of drummer Darrin Mooney and bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield (liberated from the then-floundering Stone Roses). And in the middle came XTRMNTR, which stands not only as the peak moment of this creative renaissance, but of the Scream’s entire four-decade existence.

Sure, the universally celebrated Screamadelica was a generation-defining milestone, but as such, it feels inseparable from its date of origin. While it’s still an undeniably immersive and blissful experience, it sounds very much the product of an idyllic bygone era that can never truly be captured again. (Also, the game-changing impact of its rock/tronica fusion is harder to appreciate now that indie/dance crossovers are par for the course.) XTRMNTR, on the other hand, still feels as bold and bracing as it did 20 years ago because its defining quality isn’t a merger of once-fashionable sounds, but a crude and cathartic expression of discontent that’s perfectly in tune with today’s climate of Twitter-amplified anxiety and antagonism.

Following a brief sigh of relief that our computers didn’t trigger a global meltdown on January 1, 2000, XTRMNTR was the siren-blaring wake-up call informing us that the dystopia we feared had already been brewing for years. (Coincidentally, the album also turned out to be the final release on Alan McGee’s legendary Creation Records imprint, the 10-megaton atomic bomb that wiped the last vestiges of Britpop off the map.) We’ve all heard the wishful thinking that punk rock thrives under conservative governments, but XTRMNTR was born in the era of Clinton and Blair — politicians who sold themselves as hip liberals through savvy photo ops, but whose track records strongly suggested a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” By mounting a rave-against-the-machine offensive on American imperalism, British classism, institutional racism, and pretty much every other -ism you can imagine, XTRMNTR makes a convincing case that the most politically enraged rock album of the 21st century actually came out before 9/11.

Gillespie, however, claims the impetus for the record was much more personal, an extension of the generational malaise that informed the much moodier Vanishing Point. As he told Vice in 2016, “If you actually look at the work, then it is really about what we were embroiled in at the time — which was UK drug culture. It was about how we’d bought into outsider drug culture as rebels, being anti-authoritarian, but really we got into it so deep we were just mutilating our lives. There were people, friends of mine, at the beginning of the ’90s who had shown real creative promise — great guitarists, artists, writers, or whatever they set out to do. And by the end of the ’90s there was nothing. They were all addicted to heroin. I was continuing to document that spiral … Weirdly, people always say that XTRMNTR is political, but I don’t know why the fuck they say that.”

Well, it could be the militaristic cover art, or the fact the album is framed by two different versions of the brutally unsubtle banger “Swastika Eyes,” or that Gillespie effectively calls for the lethal-injection execution of corrupt cops on the marauding “Exterminator.” But mainly it’s because every song here sounds like a declaration of war. XTRMNTR is essentially Screamadelica’s evil twin. Their molecular structures are similar — both feature an 11-song/hour-long format, track reprises, revisions of past material, and a comedown ballad tucked into the middle of the sequence. But the DNA has changed from ’60s psych-pop, gospel, house, and ambient to the Stooges, the Bomb Squad, industrial techno, and Miles Davis’ On The Corner.

Where Screamadelica opened with the wide-eyed spiritual “Movin’ On Up,” XTRMNTR seems to disavow Primal Scream’s PLUR-preaching past with “Kill All Hippies,” a fierce funk salvo the distills the class warfare of Pulp’s “Common People” into a sneering falsettoed slogan: “You got the money/ I got the soul.” XTRMNTR is the sound of Primal Scream realizing that achieving the utopia they envisioned on Screamadelica would require more aggressive tactics than peace signs, love beads, and bongos. And whether you view XTRMNTR through a purely political lens or ascribe to Gillespie’s more personal take, the underlying message is the same: apathy — or, as the title track puts it, “no civil disobedience” — is an insidious disease that facilitates the concentration of power and wealth in society.

Accordingly, Primal Scream selected collaborators as if assembling an all-star mercenary army for some guerrilla mission. The Krautrockin’ closer “Shoot Speed Kill Light” is powered by Bernard Sumner’s most savage guitar-playing since his Warsaw days. The disorienting dub-jazz instrumental “Blood Money” bears the dusty-grooved imprimatur of soundtrack savant David Holmes (whose excellent Bow Down To The Exit Sign album — released later that year and featuring two great Gillespie cameos — makes for the perfect after-hours aperitif following an XTRMNTR session). And on “Pills,” future Gorillaz beatmaster Dan The Automator helps transform what could’ve been a cringe-worthy rap exercise into a nightmarish glimpse inside Gillespie’s paranoid psyche, all queasy gothic strings and overlapping self-loathing diatribes.

But if there’s an MVP on XTRMNTR, it’s My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, then in year eight of the 22-year gap between Loveless and mbv. Taking a rare break from his role as the J.D. Salinger of shoegaze, Shields seemingly uses his XTRMNTR contributions as a pressure-release valve to unleash all the wildest sonic ideas he couldn’t put to use in his own stagnant band. Primal Scream’s love of Detroit proto-punk was well documented, but Shields’ mix on “Accelerator” renders it as a terrifying, apocalyptic squall. “Into the future! Into the future!” Gillespie screams, and Shields responds to the order by pushing the distortion to such sadistic redlining limits, it threatens to blow a hole in the space-time continuum. “MBV Arkestra,” meanwhile, continues a tradition that began with Screamadelica’s signature “Loaded” — i.e. taking an old song from a previous record and utterly disemboweling it into something unrecognizable. In this case, the raw material is sourced from the Vanishing Point blaxploitation funk workout “If They Move Kill ‘Em,” which Shields reformulates into a psychedelic cyclone of fluttering flutes, oceanic wah-wahed guitars, and panic-attack-inducing brass blasts that ring like air-raid horns in the final moments before the missiles strike.

But for all its confrontational qualities, XTRMNTR still scanned as a rock record –punishing and exhilarating in equal measure, with enough fist-pumpability to muscle its way to #3 on the UK album charts. By year’s end, it would lodge itself in the upper reaches of several critics’ lists on both sides of the pond, and would eventually go on to crack a few best-of-decade round-ups, too. However, XTRMNTR’s legacy today pales in comparison to that of another record released in 2000 by a Britpop-adjacent band who’d also embraced weird electronics and dystopian themes. Maybe it’s because, in Radiohead’s case, Kid A heralded a fascinating new phase for the band that’s still ongoing, whereas Primal Scream’s agit-rock campaign proved to be much more fleeting. It also doesn’t help that XTRMNTR is among the few Primal Scream albums currently not available on Spotify (UPDATE: Hey, looks like it returned to Spotify sometime this month!). But it’s possible Primal Scream didn’t so much choose this fate as had it forced upon them.

While touring XTRMNTR in August 2001, Primal Scream debuted “Bomb The Pentagon,” a pulverizing new song that pushed XTRMNTR’s ideological fervor to even more indignant extremes… and which, naturally, had zero chance of being released after 9/11, when tunes as innocuous as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move” were being pulled from the American airwaves due to heightened sensitivites.

“Bomb The Pentagon” would appear in far less inflammatory form as “Rise” on Evil Heat, an album that was sonically of a piece with XTRMNTR, but which dialed down the political rhetoric considerably for more typically hedonistic concerns. (To wit: In sharp contrast to the blunt anti-fascist invective of “Swastika Eyes,” Evil Heat’s “Miss Lucifer” treats its leathered subject’s “Nazi hat” as a taboo turn-on.) And ever since their brand of electro-shocked adventurism got overtaken in the public imagination by the more straight-forward retro-rock of the Strokes and White Stripes, Primal Scream have largely favored more compact, pop-oriented statements, delivering their social commentary in more playful settings and shiny packaging (though 2013’s desert-storming psych odyssey More Light was a notable exception). With 2016’s Chaosmosis, they made their most concerted commercial bid to date, soliciting features from modern-day phenoms like Haim and Sky Ferreira.

But if Primal Scream’s recent track record suggests they’ve evolved into a vastly different band than the one that made XTRMNTR, one can only hope their scheduled summer 2020 tour dates will double as a 20th-anniversary retrospective for the record, much like the Screamadelica celebrations of 2011. These times all but demand it — XTRMNTR doesn’t just mirror the chaotic mood of today in the abstract; its lyrics speak to our current condition with disarming specificity.

“Swastika Eyes” is no longer a provocative metaphor for hawkish politicans like Madeleine Albright, but an accurate, evidence-supported description of the current White House’s methodology, its “miltary-industrial illusion of democracy” becoming evermore apparent with each blatant attempt at gerrymandering and voter suppression. On “Exterminator,” the image of a “claustrophobic concrete English highrise” as a means to “exterminate the underclass” has acquired an especially grim resonance in the wake of Grenfell. And the graphic depictions of addiction-induced psychosis and physical decay on “Pills” and “Insect Royalty” feel all too real at a time when opioid dependency has reached epidemic levels.

When XTRMNTR was first serviced to press in late 1999, it included an extra track tucked into side-two sequence between “MBV Arkestra” and the Chemical Brothers-mixed reprise of “Swastika Eyes,” a tweaking, digi-funk cover of the Third Bardo’s ’60s-garage nugget “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time,” which had become a staple of Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point-era setlists. Perhaps the song didn’t make the final cut because its acidic swagger and boastful promise of psychedelic transcendence were thematically at odds with XTRMNTR’s harsh social realism. But two decades on, Primal Scream’s rationale for withholding “I’m Five Years Ahead Of My Time” is much more clear: They would’ve been short-changing themselves by a good 15 years.

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