Primal Scream’s “XTRMNTR” and the age of inequality


Primal Scream once entitled a song “Bomb the Pentagon,” before 9/11 happened. By 2002, it had morphed into a mediocre stomper called “Rise,” and the legendary Scottish band was never the same.

See, from 1999 to 2001, Primal Scream were angry and politically prescient. That’s a rare combination, a glass of ice water in a hell of Rage Against the Machines.

Plus, despite their name, The Primal Scream (as they were dubbed on records from this period) weren’t/aren’t always a noisy band. Prior to the 2000s, they were most famous for an LP called Screamadelica, which was chock-full of gospel rockers and slight synth plinking. I never got into it, but it was a seminal record in the UK house scene and it set the stage for Britpop’s subtle mixture of rock and dance. The group followed it up with a terrible, Stones-y album of boogie rock with the Confederate battle flag on the cover (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up).

XTRMNTR was the anti-Screamdelica. Just look at that opener – “Kill All Hippies.” The moment when the synths finally kick in after the sample dialogue intro is one of those Album Moments (like the first drums on Nevermind, or the opening notes of “Come Together” on Abbey Road) when you know that something good is underway. It’s loud, it’s ballsy, and it sounds good, without the excessive dynamic range compression that makes so much music unbearable.

I got XTRMNTR in the mail on a rainy day in early 2003, when I came home from school after vomiting in the hallway outside history class. So I got listen to Bobby Gillespie shout “sick, sick, fuck” at the end of “Pills” for the first time while actually sick. This album will always be with me, having engrained itself so vividly into my mind and my body on that January day.

11 years later, what sticks with me about XTRMNTR is how it manages to be both catchy as hell and, improbably, a proper assimilation of jazz (one that’s not stuffy or rambling at all). “Swastika Eyes” has a melody and bassline that cannot be forgotten (and that production! Jagz Kooner pulls his best saber of paradise for this cut) – try going around humming it some day and see what kinds of reactions you get (it’s an anti-fascist song, but easily misunderstood out of context). It’s only minutes separated from “Blood Money,” which is just about as good as a rock band can do in getting to 1970s Miles Davis. Then there’s MBV Arkestra, a jazzed-up remake of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” from 1997’s Vanishing Point.

What kind of band could make “autosuggestion psychology/elimination policy” a hummable couplet with first-rate musical backing? One with a first-rate cast. In addition to the core members, Primal Scream assembled a who’s who of 80s and 90s rock and electronica – Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Gary Mounfield (The Stone Roses), The Chemical Brothers, half of the Two Lone Swordsmen (Keith Tenniswood).

XTRMNTR has its foot on the pedal the whole way through, except for the peaceful respite “Keep Your Dreams,” which is easily the most gorgeous song they’ve come up with. It’s anger, but versatile anger – in addition to the aforementioned edgy jazz, there’s scuzzy distortion rock (“Accelerator”), bass-driven nightmares (“Exterminator,” “Insect Royalty”), angry faux hip-hop (“Pills”) and something that defies all categorization (the awesomely futuristic “Shoot Speed Kill Light”).

Even though I’m a writer by trade, I often give lyrics a pass when I review music. But here, Primal Scream does real work with its words. Look at “Exterminator”:

Gun metal skies
Broken eyes
Claustrophobic concrete
English high-rise

Exterminate the underclass
Exterminate the telepaths
No civil disobedience

This album came out at the height of the U.S. dot-com boom (early 2000) and on the eve of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and its lyric sheet can be read as a compelling document signifying that the blissful 1990s were finally over in the West.

I didn’t place it in that context since I didn’t listen to it at all until 2003, but looking at it now I can see it as not only a commentary on the violent currents running beneath the peace and prosperity of the 90s, but as a predictor of the recent age of inequality. “Exterminate the underclass” has been the implicit goal of years of policy on both sides of the Atlantic, while “no civil disobedience” is the unwritten slogan of an era in which politics are brushed under the rug of  subtly normative concepts like “innovation,” “solutions,” and “disruption.” Even the seemingly throwaway “English high-rise” has economic undertones, plus added weight in light of the growing movement for Scottish independence.

Later in 2000, fellow Britons (for now) Radiohead released Kid A, which topped numerous best of the 00s albums lists and was heralded as the Last Real Album (I think this claim is hard to quantify). I didn’t hear Kid A until after I had spun XTRMNTR countless times, and Radiohead’s “masterpiece” sounded so slight in comparison.

It wasn’t just the sound quality and production and songwriting, either – it was the entire approach. Kid A has been lauded for its commentary on pre-millennial angst and the vague “computer age” (picking up the torch from 1997’s OK Computer), but it’s basically a blank canvas that isn’t political in any discernible fashion. XTRMNTR isn’t specific enough to seem dated, yet still not so generalist that it ends up meaning all things to all people. If we’re discussing the scarier implications of an age of robots, automation, surveillance, advanced AI, and big data, it’s worth it to look at them as political creations, with human authors seeking fame and money, rather than immutable forces that just materialized out of the ether.

Primal Scream did that in a way that Radiohead didn’t. But that’s the least of XTRMNTR‘s merits. Listening to it again yesterday for the first time in years, it seemed fresh, and angry in an evergreen way that so much angry music – which is almost always exhausting – isn’t. Keeping the dream (alive), indeed.

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