Imagine the sound inside a person’s head. Let’s say those electronic impulses and blips were well wired up and mic’d up all over the place. Then it was all pumped out through huge, wall-sized speakers. Got it? Ok, now go listen to Exit Planet Dust by The Chemical Brothers.
If you’re like me, it seems like they sound pretty much the same. What James Joyce did for literature, electronica big guns like The Chemical Bros. did for for music. It’s kind of interesting now. But 20 years ago, when Exit Planet Dust was released it was very, very exciting.
Let’s clear one thing up. They Are Not Really Brothers! And neither of them is named Something Chemical! I know, shock horror etc. The Chem Bros. are actually Ed Simons and Tom Rowland, two lads from London. They started out DJ’ing in the capital, which seemed a career for a couple of hitherto unremarkable chaps looking for kicks in John Major’s torpid Britain. And with Tony Blair’s New Labour and Cool Britannia just around the corner, they timed things just right.
But, it was actually Manchester that provided the platform for the elemental brethren. With Beckham and Man. Utd winning everything in the world, and with bands like the Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and The Happy Mondays providing the soundtrack, it was the place to be. Madchester happily gave birth to two chemically motivated twins.
As a debut, Exit set the Chem. Bros. on a stellar path. It also had a hand in introducing a whole new genre of electro-funk music. If Exit is the soundtrack to the world inside someone’s head, then that hapless soul may well have a headache. The Chem Bros’ signature sound is Big Beat, which means that drum loops and bass lines are cranked up and tend to run the show. Each track throbs like a faulty blood vessel and the beat more or less reaches out and punches you on the dial.
Take this album on to the dance floor, add strobe lights, some wide-eyed patrons and a few drops of acid and you have the recipe for many a ’90s event. Those thrumming beats would animate the dead and when played loud and among swaths of sweaty flesh, the combination was some kind of combination of electric and primordial. There are presumably numerous young men and women (aged, say in their late teens or early 20s) who owe their life to a meeting in such an environment.
It’s hard to talk about songs or tracks on Exit as they don’t entirely exist. Moving through the album is like wandering along a street full of night clubs, and each song is simply heard standing outside a given club. But all connected in the clubby landscape created by the Bros.
The album is effectively a continuum of driving beats, each distinguished by its metre or tone, but all unstoppably hurtling along like an F1 on avgas. Beats rise and fall on various pistons of sound, blaps and wiggles emerging from the lads’ synths. Lyrics tend to be repeated and tranced — “The brothers gonna work it out” for instance on an interminable loop on the opening track Leave Home, or some kind of pained conversation, repeated, as in Chico’s Groove.
The Chem.Bros’ intense layering style recalls the fugues of the 17th Century. Generally starting with a hook line, something to reel the punters in, each number is built on until it looms large, a skyscraper against the midday sun, reaching for the heavens and emitting a sense of power and majesty. It evokes abandonment and movement.
One exception is the final track Alive Alone. A gentler build is threaded with the plaintive and distinctive voice of English singer Beth Orton. Singing seemingly about a broken romance, Orton croons that “And I’m alive / And I’m alone / And I never wanted to be either of those.” It shows a nice line in experiential lyrics and a good sense of pathos, something for which techno or electronica is perhaps not usually known.
The Chem. Bros. were among the first techno acts to fill stadiums as they toured this album and their subsequent efforts. Often characterised as geeky and blippy and a bit robotic, techno, through Big Beat acts like The Chem. Bros and The Prodigy, was bounced into the big time world of full arenas and massive light shows, of band branding and cool technology.
But, perhaps more importantly, Big Beat gave electronica a heart beat. With each pulse, life was breathed into a form that may have foundered on the limitations of mechanised music. Even foundation techno bands like Kraftwerk sought to humanise electronically derived music by connecting the beats to recognisable human things, as in their break-through 1974 album Autobahn. But, all that robotic imagery and, dare I say, those Aryan blank stares, didn’t really help to humanise the form and the link wasn’t really made until decades later when bands like The Chem Bros. infused the binary codes with a blood stream. Listen to Kraftwerk’s Elektro Kardiogramm from their 2003 collection Tour de France to hear the influence it had even on them, some 30+ years into their career.
Techno and electronica that worked as a form of mass consumable chart music largely arrived with oeuvres like Exit Planet Dust. The presence of acts like Kraftwerk attest to the fact that the genre had deep roots. But, the form remained largely in the nerdy corner, wearing too-big sneakers and taped up specs. It took a trip inside the heads of Big Beat brain boxes to alert us all to the majesty inside our own brain bubbles. Being inside The Chem. Bros. thriving head space remains as liberating now as it was then