Sometimes I can’t believe Super Furry Animals were real. How could there have ever been a band simultaneously so down-the-middle catchy and so gleefully, aggressively odd? Origins in Cardiff notwithstanding, where did all these impeccable, unpredictable records come from? Given their relative obscurity in America, it’s especially hard for me to comprehend that for many years you could go see this ensemble live in concert, even as someone who actually did catch an SFA show myself once. (They were touring with Grandaddy in 2003. I rode in the backseat from Athens, Ohio to Louisville with my headphones on, experiencing The Meadowlands for the first time. Great night all around.) Everything about them seems too good — and too weird — to be true. But Super Furry Animals were real, and 20 years ago today they released the album that would clue many of us in to that fact.
Those of us who got on board in 2001 had some catching up to do. Super Furry Animals had spent their career up to this point infusing Britpop-adjacent Beach Boys worship with boundless enthusiasm, endless curiosity, and no shortage of left turns. Their playful spirit came through loud and clear on their records, but the band amplified this wild-card reputation with stunts, political messaging, and promo endeavors every bit as colorful as the songs. Brent DiCrescenzo’s Pitchfork review of Rings began by recapping these antics:
To date, the Super Furry Animals have driven a blue, techno-blaring tank to gigs before selling it to Don Henley, broken the record for saying “fuck” in a charting, Steely Dan-sampling pop single, constructed a Macy’s Day-sized balloon of a soda-slurping raccoon, subjected themselves to alien abduction in an ILM-created music video, recorded the highest-selling Welsh-language album ever, and remixed the Beatles for a Grammy-nominated record. To say the least, they’ve kept audiences on their toes with their audacity and playfulness.
Rings Around The World was buoyed by further fascinating context. It was the Super Furry Animals’ first album for Epic following three LPs for the legendary UK label Creation Records and a fourth, 2000’s Mwng, sung entirely in Welsh and released on the band’s own Placid Casual label. It was touted as the first album by any artist to be simultaneously released on CD and DVD, with music videos for every song and remixes by artists like Kid606 and the High Llamas. The main album had cameos by SFA’s psych-pop predecessor Paul McCartney, who reprised his celery chewing from the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables,” and their forebear among world-renowned Welsh musicians, John Cale, who played piano on one track. At year’s end, it would top Mojo‘s list of 2001’s best albums.
All of those factors contribute to the sense of sprawl and hyperactive energy around the record, that feeling of stepping into a busy universe of ideas nudged into choreography by a mostly benevolent prankster deity. But you don’t have to know any such trivia to understand the grandeur of Rings Around The World. Like any Super Furry Animals album up to that point, it’s replete with transcendent hooks, majestic arrangements, jarring surprises, and thought-provoking lyrics. The idea was to lean into extravagance, be it horn and string arrangements worthy of the most indulgent ’70s soft rock or electronic bombast straight out of the ’90s rave culture. Rather than overwhelm, more than any SFA record, it lowered the barrier to entry into their immersive world of sound. This was the most immaculate manifestation of the band’s ethos so far, a deeply approachable album that nonetheless led to some very strange places.
It emerged from a strange place, after all. Just as Wales remains a mysterious, oft-forgotten corner of the United Kingdom, bands like SFA and Manic Street Preachers existed just to the left of Britpop. As Ian King put it in his retrospective on 1999’s wonderfully batshit Guerilla, “Mischief and mysticism came intertwined with Super Furry Animals, without purposefully overindulging in out-there-ness.” In his book American Interior, Furries frontman Gruff Rhys talks about how the Welsh people’s need to travel from an “almost island” without many resources led to “imaginative thinking, with otherworldly results,” so maybe such creativity is hardwired into the populace. On the other hand, the Welsh “Cool Cymru” movement that emerged in the wake of “Cool Brittania” also gave us M.O.R. fare like Stereophonics and Catatonia, so perhaps not all of the Furries’ pecularities can be chalked up to geography.
Although Britpop began to bloat and wane not long after SFA’s debut Fuzzy Logic arrived in 1996, the band had plenty of ties to that scene in their early days. They were label-mates with Oasis on Creation, and their first single for the label was chosen by Pulp for spotlight treatment in NME. They most obviously resembled Blur; both bands had a maniacally quirky approach to classic pop songwriting and, in Rhys and Damon Albarn, densely textured vocalists who could just as easily convey gravitas or whimsy. Rhys sounded more like a living cartoon character than future Gorillaz leader Albarn ever did, though, and the Furries’ worldview had at least as much in common with post-Britpop experimentalists like the Beta Band, whose fantastic mood piece Hot Shots II dropped a week before Rings Around The World, or the Flaming Lips, who mirrored their knack for sneaking heartrending vulnerability into a psychedelic circus.
Anything could happen on an SFA album, a fact that remained true on Rings despite the record presenting the least chaotic version of the band to that point. Less was left to chance; for instance, per co-producer Chris Shaw’s advice, the band worked out their vocal harmonies in advance for the first time rather than figuring it out in the studio. Still, the way a dust cloud follows Pigpen, an unhinged art project swirls around these meticulously crafted songs. You never know when something like the harmonica-blasted “Receptacle For The Respectable” — a power-pop tune worthy of the New Pornographers, incorporating both handclaps and McCartney’s chewing into its percussion arsenal — will take a turn into death metal. Post-CSNY folk-rocker “No Sympathy” explodes into falsetto screams of “You deserve to die!” and is ultimately consumed by a noise-bombed jungle beat. When they sang “Let’s get juxtaposed” on the lead single — a luxuriant ’70s soul pastiche tinged with Auto-Tune — they were clearly not fucking around.
Zany mixtures are threaded throughout Rings Around The World as usual, yet the album plays less like a tug of war between harsh and poppy than a convergence of past and future. There’s quite a bit of forward-thinking writing and production: Opener “Alternate Route To Vulcan Street” is a gliding space ballet, while the throbbing, flickering instrumental “[A] Touch Sensitive” could just as easily be one of Radiohead’s Amnesiac B-sides. It’s thrilling to hear jolts of noise and skittering beats descend upon the fuzzed-out Brian Wilson homage “Sidewalk Serfer Girl,” like Rivers Cuomo got his finger stuck in a wall socket. It wouldn’t be the Furries if they weren’t tweaking their most accessible impulses like that. Still, many of the finest moments are when their love for the classics shines through without much subversion.
Title track “(Drawing) Rings Around The World” barrages you with melody and power chords for three and a half minutes. Much of the back half of the tracklist comprises lush ballads like “Presidential Suite” and “Shoot Doris Day” that prove the band’s abilities were not dependent on their idiosyncrasies. Country-rock epic “Run! Christian, Run!” is like OK Computer gone “Free Bird,” building ever skyward toward a gargantuan climax. And they’ve never sounded better than on the gracefully swaying, joyously melancholy “It’s Not The End Of The World?” — “a romantic song about growing old” that suggests maybe this planet would be better off without people on it. It’s one of many songs on the record that grapples with humanity’s stubborn insistence on hate and destruction as an obstacle toward Utopian ideals. You could be forgiven, though, for not thinking much about what the band is communicating because you’re too focused on all the musical fireworks.
Super Furry Animals would never soar quite so high again after Rings Around The World. Over four more albums throughout the ensuing decade, the band kept exploring and evolving but gradually lost the inspired spark that made their records feel so revelatory and unpredictable — that familiar descent from great to good. There’s lots to love on those latter-day SFA records, yet by the time they went on hiatus in 2010 following swan song Dark Days/Light Years, the Furries no longer felt like the essential livewire presence they’d been in their first decade. Whether they peaked with Rings Around The World is a subject we could debate in circles — Super Furry Animals’ catalog is far too accomplished to single out one definitive masterpiece — but two decades later, I’d argue this album remains the best way to enter this incredible band’s orbit.