Mind-Bending Chemicals

The Chemical Brothers
Dig Your Own Hole
(Astralwerks)

Attention, white boys: You can now, for the first time, bump Schooly D in your ride with subcultural authority. It's the new Chemical Brothers, opening cut, "Block Rockin' Beats," and it goes a little somethin' like this: First, an ominous drone rises from silence, then a snake charmer trills on his flute just as someone strikes a brass gong in the distance. The shimmering reverberations swing like a pendulum between stereo channels (which is phenomenal on headphones), and gradually give way to a percolating, naked bass line. Then Schooly drops in via a sample from his swaggering 1989 track "Gucci Again": Back with another of those block-rockin' beats.

Damn, that was back in the day. Yet Dig Your Own Hole--a new, landmark second major release by the Chemical Brothers--is the musical essence of now. Pop has entered a hyperkinetic state of flux, where Noel Gallagher co-writes and sings on a hit techno single, David Bowie goes native with jungle beats and Moby--Moby!--signs on to produce the next Guns N' Roses album. This all in the last four months. And slouching on a couch in the chill room, craftily watching and (at least partially) orchestrating the whole glorious freakout are British electronica wizards Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, d/b/a (doing beats as) the Chemical Brothers.

Two of the best underground DJs ever to work the tables at a rave, Rowlands and Simons have been high-profile party people since roughly late 1993. Hauling their recordings back and forth across the Atlantic, they played house parties, megaraves and, occasionally, set up their own, temporary underground club spots, one of which was documented in last year's import Live at the Social, Vol. I. The Chemical Brothers released their first original electronic dance single, "Song to the Siren," three years ago, to rave-scene acclaim. A version of that track was included on their fall 1995 debut full-length Exit Planet Dust.

Last November, the duo issued the single "Setting Sun," featuring vocals by Noel Gallagher, on hiatus from Oasis (the pairing actually isn't that odd, considering that Gallagher is an avowed raver known to gobble E tabs like M&Ms). The next month, MTV announced a change in format to include heavy doses of electronic dance music, and the video for "Setting Sun" established a precedent in America by going into Buzz Bin rotation (European and Spanish MTV have featured electronic vids for several years). A tougher, subtly remixed version of "Setting Sun" is included on the new album, with a killer break beat and scrambled sitar intro.

Overall, Dig Your Own Hole is a hard, clean hit of modern electronic dance music. It's not (r)evolutionary--judged against Exit Planet Dust, it's more or less more of the same. Even so, Dig Your Own Hole is a vital album, simply because its timing is so impeccable. Caught off guard by the rapid emergence of electronica, major record labels are simultaneously scouring local underground dance scenes for "the next Chemical Brothers" and unleashing hordes of cheesy, gutless techno compilations in a weak effort to cash in on dawning mainstream consumer intrigue. Just since the new year, Tower Records display cases have become littered with these wretched paint-by-number collections, with their eye-popping "cyber" graphics and giveaway titles like Rave 'Til Dawn, Volume 6.

Point being, electronic dance is in dire need of a wide-release, high-quality standard, and Dig Your Own Hole sets one. It clearly distinguishes between shallow, push-button techno poseurs with scarcely more genius than Wesley Willis, with his damnable Casio keyboard, and true electronica artists, who use sampler technology as a conduit to bring the vivid sonic scapes in their head to a shared reality. In a form that unfortunately lends itself to high-tech fakery, Dig Your Own Hole yanks back the curtain, then demonstrates how it should be done.

Exhibit A: the aforementioned single "Block Rockin' Beats." After Schooly D arrives and repeats himself several times, there's a gunshot transition to the heart of the track--a series of hopped-up synthesizer motifs that repeats over a snappy break beat and bomb-raid bass lines. Like the rest of the album, "Block Rockin' Beats" is dense, intricate and hella tasty. All 11 tracks on Dig Your Own Hole are primo, but especially check out "It Doesn't Matter"--with its vintage computer speech simulator and hard-driving-bass/high-hat beat--and the silky cycles and segues of the epic "Elektro Bank."

Translating the sound of an album like Dig Your Own Hole to writing can be frustrating for everyone involved. Witness senior Rolling Stone writer David Fricke's effort in the new issue, where he relies primarily on torturous Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone comparisons. But here's a stab: Riding atop the rolling drum beats and gaping bass lines are a wild chorus of exotic, synthetic noises that sound like animal cries at nightfall in some abstract, fractal jungle.

See? Better to just shut up and listen.
Or better yet, shut up and dance.

 
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