The Anniversary

Up In Flames Turns 20

The Leaf Label/Domino
The Leaf Label/Domino

Back then he was going by Manitoba. I have lots of love and respect for the music Dan Snaith has released as Caribou, and I can refer to the likes of Swim and Suddenly as Caribou records without cognitive dissonance. But I refuse to recognize Up In Flames, the project’s breakthrough sophomore LP, as a Caribou release. Every glorious sound on the album — and every gorgeous pixel of its perfectly matched cover art — screams “Manitoba!” to me. The impact was too profound to retrofit this music with a separate moniker, disgruntled punk pioneers be damned.

Few could have expected an album like this when Snaith released Up In Flames 20 years ago this Friday. Manitoba’s 2001 debut Start Breaking My Heart had fallen squarely within the parameters of “IDM,” the skittering electronic subgenre that was more suitable for donning headphones in front of a computer screen than setting your body loose on a dance floor. Snaith developed an especially warm and emotive version of the style, a vibrant sonic landscape strewn with glowing raw materials waiting to be sculpted into new forms. It’s a beautiful record filled with peculiar nooks and crannies to be explored, but listening back now, Start Breaking My Heart feels both plaintive and primordial, like an artist still waking up to a world of possibility, stretching and yawning and getting his bearings.

It started to sound prehistoric in that way as soon as Up In Flames entered the world. Before comparing the album’s overwhelming sonic barrage to both the Beach Boys and Boredoms, this is how Mark Richardson began his breathless Pitchfork review:

Something must have happened to Manitoba’s Dan Snaith. His 2001 debut for the Leaf label, Start Breaking My Heart, was blissed-out pastoral IDM that warranted Boards of Canada comparisons. Then he went off and made some clubby tracks that dabbled in UK garage. And now, with his second full-length Up In Flames, he’s chucked the laptop, dug the analog gear out of the dumpster, and recorded a 60s-worshiping indie pop record, complete with sun-kissed harmonies, layered acoustic guitars, Farfisa organ drones and glockenspiel. You have to admire the chutzpah. Seriously, I can’t remember hearing this stark a contrast between consecutive albums in a long time, maybe ever.

Part of the staggering appeal of Up In Flames is that it keeps one foot in each of those worlds, merging “pastoral IDM” with ’60s psych-pop in ways that feel both gentle and cataclysmic at times. It’s music every bit as vivid as that cover art, full of euphoric samples, surreal vocals, dumbfounding organ and keyboard drones, and thunderous live drums from the Flaming Lips school of sonic bombardment. Though critics cited maximalist forebears like My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream, no one reference point captures the scope of the sound Snaith landed on with Up In Flames. The album disintegrates the distinctions between electric and organic, pop and experimental, micro and macro, past and future. Listening is like visiting a fantasy world and feeling completely at home there. It inspires hyperbole because it sounds like hyperbole, like music beyond your wildest dreams.

If the album evokes visions of color splattered everywhere, it’s partially because it was the result of Snaith letting sounds careen and collide, piling on new layers of gorgeous noise as inspiration struck. “Up in Flames was really psychedelic and I just threw everything in there and left it however it ended up,” Snaith remarked in 2005, comparing the album to its more measured follow-up The Milk Of Human Kindness. In the same Treblezine interview, he confessed that his lyrics at the time were “just garbage usually” — just another means to transport listeners into the record’s revelatory headspace. Like Snaith, I wasn’t making sense of the words on Up In Flames in 2003. Snaith’s voice and that of guest vocalist Koushik Ghosh were just further ingredients in the breathtaking swirl, soft-spoken to the point of intelligibility and processed in a way that added to the music’s vaguely alien feeling.

Up In Flames defies categorization by design. After cooking up Start Breaking My Heart alone from the obscurity of his bedroom in his native Dundas, Ontario, Snaith had since earned some fans, done some touring, and discovered how off-putting the insular world of chin-stroking underground electronic music can be. Having since relocated to London, England to pursue his PhD in mathematics, he again went to work alone at home with fresh perspective. As he explained to Exclaim years ago, something did happen to him between LPs:

The first year or so, I was really confused and frustrated. I couldn’t figure out the sound that I wanted. The one conscious thing I did decide about this album was that I was so bored of really minimal, small but pretty electronic music. I wanted to do something bigger that held a wider palette of sounds.

The thing that struck me while touring around, especially in Europe, is that a lot of people choose only listen to electronic music recorded between specific periods — say 1998 to 2000 — on such and such labels. It just blew my mind, like, “If these are the people that are really, really into my album, I’ve done something wrong. This isn’t me at all. I couldn’t listen to more of a variety of music.”

Up In Flames sometimes sounds like all of Snaith’s influences playing at once, but even at its most chaotic, the album never feels like a mess and never ceases to be exhilarating. A large chunk of the album’s tracks — the headblown opener “I’ve Lived On A Dirt Road All My Life,” the noisy and off-kilter “Skunks,” the percussive regal procession “Bijoux,” the holographic boom-bap float “Kid You’ll Move Mountains,” the triumphant conclusion “Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday” — send you soaring over imaginary landscapes, flight simulators without the need for IMAX screens or VR goggles. Lead single “Jacknuggeted” begins as peaceful chamber-folk before unfolding into widescreen splendor. Even the primitivist pop of “Crayon” spins off into a dream.

Snaith reinvented Caribou many times over in the ensuing decades, in ways that went far beyond dropping the Manitoba moniker. He spent the rest of the aughts refining and mutating his signature blend of folk, psych, pop, and electronics, honing his songwriting to a sharp point. In the 2010s he steered the music toward the dance floor, blurring the lines between Caribou and his Daphni alter alias, still sounding not quite like anyone else. At this point new Caribou albums only come around once every half a decade or so, and among Snaith’s small but fervent fan base, each one always feels like an event. He’s been so great for so long that it feels disingenuous to pinpoint one particular album as his peak. But the more Snaith’s sonic universe expands, the more Up In Flames feels like his catalog’s awe-inspiring Big Bang.

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