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Chemical Brothers push deeper into the groove

By Alex Pappademas

JULY 5, 1999:  There was a telling Chemical Brothers anecdote in the March 1999 issue of Britain's club-culture monthly the Face. That issue's installment of "Objects of Affectation," a column about club memorabilia of years past, was about amyl nitrate, or "poppers," a drug that dilates blood vessels, increasing skin sensitivity and inducing a brief but powerful head rush. A long-time staple of the gay club scene, amyl -- inhaled from a capsule, or in liquid form through a soaked cigarette -- became the drug of choice at London's fierce Sunday Social Club, where the Chemical Brothers did a career-making residency in the summer and fall of 1994.

They were still spinning as the Dust Brothers then, borrowing the name -- without permission -- from LA hip-hop producers Mike Simpson and John King. But their signature style was already in evidence. As Gareth Grundy noted in "Objects of Affectation," amyl's one-minute rush "dictated the music policy. The more belligerent the track . . . the louder the response. 'Sabotage' by the Beastie Boys and the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows' worked best."

That's early Chemical Brothers, nutshelled -- a soundtrack for a fleeting high. From their 1992 single "Song to the Siren" on up to 1997's Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks), it was all about peaks and climaxes, with every sample advancing the payoff, driving straight to the hoop. You can ID the elements of a signature smackdown like "Block Rockin' Beats" as they stack up -- a thumb-wars bass riff, a Schooly D boast, funk-factory percussion, fire alarms crying disco inferno, the "Woo!" from Frankie Cutlass's (1994 boriqua spot-rocker) "Puerto Rico," and on and on. But the individual pieces don't really matter. "Block Rockin' " was an exercise in cumulative thrills; the Brothers took the rules of hip-hop break-extension (essentially, bite the section of the record that really rocks the bells, rinse, repeat) and got positively fanatical with them, piling peaks upon peaks.

Back in the day, those same principles of construction allowed pioneering hip-hop break miners to redeem countless artists -- from Billy Cobham to Billy Squier to Billy Joel -- whose works appeared hopelessly undope to the untrained ear. Let's take Joel as an example: the Piano Man's "Stiletto" is wack. But after '89, when Marley Marl hooked up a drum loop from "Stiletto" on Kool G. Rap's "Road to the Riches," Joel -- or, more accurately, a few transitory seconds of his back catalogue -- became de facto cool. (Now unscrupulous hip-hop shops even charge new-wax prices for thrift-store copies of 52nd Street.)

The Chemicals just applied this black-rockin' approach to acid house and late-'80s British indie rock. The end result was a run on hip-hop's infinite jackpots potent enough to zap even guitar-music loyalists with the bop gun. They may not have been the first DJs to stumble on it, but epiphanous shit is epiphanous shit, and in spreading the gospel first to London clubland and then to the world, the Brothers -- formerly Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, dweeby Manchester University history majors -- became as money as Billy Joel.

Last year, the Brothers released a mix CD, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Astralwerks). Like Prodigy mix maestro Liam Howlett's more recent Dirtchamber Sessions (XL Recordings), the disc was a tip of the cans to old-school hip-hop, mixing Chemical rarities with old Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez and Jimmy Castor joints. But Work It Out also saw the Brothers getting back in touch with their house-music roots, shuffling in vintage Chicago acid tracks and growing all misty over epoch-defining nightspots like Manchester's Hacienda.

With their third full-length, Surrender (Astralwerks), the Brothers push deeper into the same groove. There's an occasional nod to hip-hop -- the Daft Punk-y "Music: Response" quotes part of Nicole's Timbaland-produced hit "Make It Hot," and "Hey Boy Hey Girl" abstracts a piece of Rockmaster Scott and the Dynamic Three's "The Roof Is on Fire." But the dominant black beat on the album is house's resolute 4/4, and most of the "dance" tracks are robo like Kraftwerk, and disco like 14-carat coke spoons.

Fueled by ecstasy and acid house, Britain's 1989 Summer of Love was itself a retro phenomenon -- the music came from gay clubs and warehouse parties in New York and the American Northeast, but the scene lifted imagery, ideals, and fashion tips straight from the 1960s. Accordingly, the Brothers' field trip to rave's ground zero quickly veers into swirling psychedelia. Surrender time-tunnels back to the '80s to dig for beats, but like Austin Powers, it looks to the '60s for its mojo. A song title like "The Sunshine Underground" says it all. Or check the first single -- the infectiously derivative "Let Forever Be" throws a shimmying bass line and some DJ Shadow-ish snare-drum cartwheels under a Noel Gallagher vocal and a droning melody line that could be Mellotron cello or Jimmy Page sawing ax. Orchestral-pop eccentrics Jonathan Donahue and Mercury Rev played on Dig's prescient closer, "The Private Psychedelic Reel"; here, Donahue does a tender duet with a battle droid on "Dream On," and hazy synth sounds pour down around him like purple rain.

The loveliest analog instrument on Surrender is the voice of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, who sings on "Asleep from Day." For a minute, the freakin' and peakin' gives way to a tranquil, chiming folkscape, full of fake plastic trees and little fluffy clouds. The drum machine lays out until halfway through, and Sandoval gets all elliptical, murmuring about the moon, and her friends, and their beautiful eyes. She's subbing for Beth Orton, who acted as chill-out chanteuse on the first two Chemicals records before striking out on her own. But Sandoval's style, at once hair-raisingly intimate and somnambulantly detached, actually serves the Brothers' smoked-out sound better -- whereas Orton was always waking up with a hangover, Sandoval has yet to touch ground.

All this swirling trip rock rubs up against tracks like "Got Glint?" and "Influenced," some of the danciest music this "dance" act has ever made. The juxtaposition speaks to the Brothers' uncertainty about the future of the funk and their place in it. Maybe they should be worried. Fatboy Slim's got more hooks than Sam Jackson has Kangols, and his own rave-nostalgia trip, "Praise You," has already done more business than Surrender's ever gonna do.

Meanwhile, a clutch of less inspired beat-flunkies have jacked the Brothers' sound wholesale, turning it into something its originators would undoubtedly prefer to leave behind. But frogs like Daft Punk and the Respect posse do this nu-house-cum-disco thing far better. So do Underworld -- their Beaucoup Fish (JBO/V2) is the best British dance record of '99, a Daydream Nation for ravers coming down in a planetarium and governed by almost tantric cycles of suspension and gratification. It savors thrills the Chems' dust-ups barely even save.

And though it's obvious by now that punching up the Mantronix-on-steroids roar of Big Beat is Column A/Column B cake to the Brothers, their departures from that formula feel a little familiar too. Most of Surrender's psychedelic reels are rethreads: Gallagher and Donahue again, Sandoval filling in for Orton. "Let Forever" is such a ripoff of the Brothers' own "Setting Sun," they should jump back and sue themselves.

Besides, the wayback-machine music that rules Surrender can be only a temporary refuge -- you can't go house again. Club life is a young man's game, dropping out a young person's pursuit. Surrender dwells, ambivalently, in that space where losing your mind/finding yourself in a field at midnight gives way to harsh dawn, to a reality that goes day-to-day and not beat-to-beat, to getting a job and ordering a "Beat Any Drug Test!" kit from the back of Rolling Stone.

It's all there in Michel Gondry's eye-popping, space-bending video for "Let Forever Be," in which a make-up-counter salesgirl hoofs back and forth between real life and the surreal variety-show set of her dreams, where she's just another clone in the chorus line. The clip's acid-flashback subtext might as well be spelled out in subtitles, but it neatly encapsulates Surrender; like their bewildered video stand-in, the Brothers are between worlds. As Trouble Funk once commanded, they've dropped the bomb on the white boy. But now they're at a loss for a deft segue to the next kick. It's like Beth Orton sang at the end of Dig Your Own Hole -- where do they go from here?


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