After making Screamadelica, one of the defining rock-dance crossover albums of the Madchester era, Primal Scream lost their way on their follow-up release, Give Out But Don’t Give Up. Rendered sloppy and uninspired by the heroin that had replaced ecstasy as the band’s drug of choice and hugely indebted to the more formulaic aspects of the Rolling Stones back catalogue, the Scream’s latest reinvention felt like a huge anti-climax. The band’s chameleon-like ability to reinvent not only themselves but also the musical landscape around them seemed to have been misplaced at their local dealers. Two years later, with Stone Roses bassist Mani joining the line-up, Primal Scream’s rehabilitation began with Vanishing Point, a rumbling sonic road trip which bucked the Britpop trend of the time. Vanishing Point was a brave move considering the guitar-driven, retro-fitted über-popularity of the Scream’s peers. Rather than being seen as an anomaly, the album gained widespread acclaim from critics who hailed it as a return to form. But the band’s full artistic recovery (and in light of subsequent releases, their post-Screamadelica zenith) came three years later in 2000 with the release of XTRMNTR. Even long-term fans who had gotten used to adjusting their perceptions and re-learning how to love the band every few years were taken aback by the album. Relentless, dark, savage in places, XTRMNTR left many stunned. Those looking for the lilting, soaring vocals and the addictive guitar hooks and melodies of the past were beaten back into reality by an art-punk onslaught. Gone were the dreamy paeans to lost love and the head-in-the-clouds romanticism of old; aided and abetted by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and the Chemical Brothers among others in the production booth, XTRMNTR would become one of the defining pre-millennium angst albums, summing up the climate of anxiety in which the world lurched irrevocably towards a new age. Its warnings of reptilian usurpers, Illuminati conspiracy theories and anti-corporate calls for anarchic revolution weren’t the ramblings of a paranoid and drug-addled mind, but poetical-political messages from a freshly coherent artist set to the sound of carpet bombing. Bobby Gillespie had woken up from his mid-90s torpor with the knowledge that Primal Scream had to right some wrongs and that any call to arms had to be accompanied by the rumbling drums of war. Combining apocalyptic codas with seismic bass, screaming horns and shredding riffs, Gillespie and his crew brought the 20th Century to a close not with a bang but with an atomic blast. It was – and still is – the band’s best work of the last 20 years.
“Subvert normality…kill all hippies…” So XTRMNTR begins. A frantic phone rings, a creepy keyboard refrain seethes, a child’s voice exhorts the extermination of the flower power generation. It’s immediately obvious from the first few bars that you’re entering a dark, new world. Mani’s bass begins to roll and thunder over screeching electronic feedback as an inappropriately soulful Bobby Gillespie starts to croon over the building chaos like a malevolent Curtis Mayfield: “You got the money, I got the soul…can’t be bought, can’t be owned.” ‘Kill All Hippies’ slithers through dirty, blood-stained alleyways, shiftily looking for victims. It’s an unsettling precursor to ‘Accelerator’ which crashes into your head on fuzz-boxed punk riffs and screaming vocals. It’s a distorted mash-up of rave and metal with Gillespie snarling through a megaphone at the head of a baying mob. “Here we come, we’re coming fast…out the upside, into the past…forced to screaming in my head, into the future.” It’s an adrenaline rush from start to finish; a thrilling thrash. ‘Exterminator’ then bleeps into life, an R2D2 intro which then slides into squashy sequencers and monotone vocals, slipping in and out as if intoned from the windows of passing cars. Gillespie robotically laments about civilisation’s slide into slavery – “no civil disobedience” – in a world of techno control and chemical manipulation. “Insecticide shots for criminal cops…all jails are concentration camps, all judges are bought…Everyone’s a prostitute.” Despite it’s doomsday narrative, it’s a chugging, low-fi dance tune carrying the Scream’s trademark skill of delivering killer hooks amid a maelstrom of noise. The rave vibe returns with ‘Swastika Eyes’, perhaps the stand-out track on the album. Distorted sirens wail in among electronic beeps and a frantic yet groovy bassline supported by sequenced drums which clatter and click. It harks back to the bug-eyed, sweat-drenched warehouse parties which the Scream soundtracked in the early 90s, only instead of lyrics about being higher than the sun, we have warnings of the shadow government’s “elimination policy” and the “military industrial illusion of democracy.” At over 7 relentless, addictive minutes, ‘Swastika Eyes’ threatens the listener with dehydration and with a six-minute Chemical Brothers refrain coming later in the album, there is a danger that the song’s many qualities might start to suffer from overload. Thankfully, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons mix it up enough to present it as a worthwhile addition. ‘Pills’ chimes in in its wake with a trancey keyboard coda and Gregorian chants, suggesting we adjourn to the chill-out room…but Bobby’s not finished with us yet. Oh no. Just as you’re ready for a sit down, Gillespie starts hurling insults in a pseudo-rap: “I’m gonna tell the truth, the truth about you, you’ve never been true, you’re nothing, you’ve got nothing to say, shine a light on you, you fade away.” Then his mates join in. They start bludgeoning you with a fierce dance beat and whipping you with sampled violins as Gillespie shouts over your inevitable demise.
The influence of Mani on XTRMNTR cannot be overstated. The former Stone Rose has full co-credits on XTRMNTR, his first full Scream album, after joining in 1997 when Vanishing Point had already been written. His presence is most keenly felt on the instrumental ‘Blood Money’, which – intentionally or not – opens with a drum beat reminiscient of the intro to the Stone Roses epic ‘I am the Resurrection’. Mani’s bass then strikes up an ominous lead guitar line which is part horror movie tension-builder, part chase scene. Chemically compromised Blaxploitation funk horns scream in and a jagged, almost crystal piano refrain begins to stab its way into the composition. But this is Mani’s domain and the clearest indication yet that the Scream will be a much different proposition with him in their ranks. ‘Keep Your Dreams’ is a surprising change of pace within the context of what hangs around it, with restrained trip hop beats, suppressed melotron runs and electric bells chiming throughout. It’s the closest to the heaven-staring balladry of the early albums and is a jarring, yet beautiful shift to a more sensitive side amongst the chaos and oppresiveness.
After this moment of calm, the whirlwind begins to gather pace again with ‘Insect Royalty’, a discordant slab of electronica splattered with car horn trumpets and Gillespie’s stream of distorted consciousness, followed by the Kevin Shields-controlled ‘MBV Arkestra (If They Move Kill ‘Em)’, a mystical opus of speed-freak psychedelia built on wah-wah guitars, sampled sitars and tribal drums. The album finally returns to fever pitch with ‘Shoot Speed/Kill Light’ with Mani again to the fore on what is effectively Krautrock legends Can on amphetamines. It’s a nonsense; a message-free blast of repetitive bass, electronic screeches, sampled sighs and Gillespie repeating the song title ad nauseum. And it’s great! An upbeat conclusion to a thunderously dark and apocalyptic journey. It promotes the feeling that the new millennium is coming whether we like it or not so put the pedal to the metal and go in with all guns blazing.
Bobby Gillespie says in the Creation Records documentary Upside Down that XTRMNTR is Primal Scream’s best album. He doesn’t add the caveat “…after Screamadelica” which would be the response of many people. It’s hard to disagree with him when placing XTRMNTR up against all the albums the Scream made after it. XTRMNTR is certainly a more proficient , expansive and challenging album than Screamadelica but whether it had as much cultural impact remains debatable. Regardless of where one stands on the argument, there is no doubt however that XTRMNTR is one of the two definitive Primal Scream albums.
Despite Gillespie’s complaint that Creation bosses Alan McGee and Dick Green “fucked us over” by shutting the label just as XTRMNTR was released, depriving it – in the singer’s opinion – of any kind of support or marketing, the record still went to number 3 in the UK album charts and eventually went gold. Its follow-up, Evil Heat, continued in the same vein but with softer, dub-tinged edges. Primal Scream would then abandon the electronica of XTRMNTR to return to a more traditional guitar-driven style with mostly mediocre results. XTRMNTR therefore remains the band’s creative, artistic – and most abrasive – high water mark.