Super Furry Animals - Radiator
THINKING BACK on it now, the tank was a clue. The fact that Super Furry Animals chose a fluorescent purple armoured assault vehicle as last summer's mode of transport hinted at the existence of a sinister side to these immaculately stoned satirists and their surreal rock-techno collusion.
Just because they told tall tales, sang airy sonnets to hometown unicorns and alien abductees and hung around with a world-famous dope smuggler, didn't necessarily mean the Super Furries -; cuddly name, cuddly guys -; fitted the acceptable face of anarcho-hippy-hedonism, a Merry Pranksters for the '90s, with Howard Marks their Ken Kesey figure. For ultimately, the Merry Pranksters drove around in a bus. And whichever way you look at it, a bus is not a tank. The tank is gone but it's not forgotten. Veils of disquiet, even anger, shroud the second SFA album. Amidst much "na-na-na-nahing" and "do-do-de-doing", the ostensibly larksome recent single 'The International Language Of Screaming' contained one very pointed couplet: "Every time I look around me everything seems so stationary/It just sends me the impulse to become reactionary."
Gruff Rhys sounds frustrated, and who can blame him? His band cut one of the most audaciously far-sighted debut albums of the decade, couching rock'n'roll past in terms of its future (with genius tunes to boot), and the masses vote with their clog-clad plates of meat for lumpen crock like Kula Shaker. The Super Furries respond by releasing 'The Man Don't Give A F-;-;', an, erm, explicit rant against the cultural and political status quo. You know the rest by now, but suffice to say it wasn't Cian Ciaran and his Acid Casual mates sipping Chardonnay with the PM recently.
So the Super Furry Animals take stock, execute a tactical realignment, and produce a mad masterpiece of a follow-up. Musically fractured and dense where its predecessor was cohesive and blatant, 'Radiator' is nothing less than the paranoid comedown to 'Fuzzy Logic'. Instead of 'Something For The Weekend' ("First time I did it for the hell of it/Stuck it on the back of my tongue and then swallowed it"), we get 'Down A Different River': "Stuffed to the gills with God knows what/You're a conversational hazard". There's less straight-ahead Badfinger-clickin' pop and more of absolutely everything else: gorgeous bucolic psychedelia, desolate balladry, exultant vocal harmonies and such a skinful of refried electronica that it suggests Cian's errant youthful instincts were severely restrained before, but now there's no place for propriety in the SFA bunker.
Crucially, however, they've had the grace to maintain that tune hardline. So after the beatific instrumental prologue of 'Furryvisionª', we're seduced in a sly sorta way by 'Placid Casual', basically Burt Bacharach's 'Trains And Boats And Planes' as orchestrated by 'Here Come The Warm Jets'-vintage Brian Eno armed with an antique beatbox. Meanwhile, Gruff is singing about a ruck in Sierra Leone. It's great, and not least because the album's simultaneously laid-back-and-wound-up aesthetic is laid bare in its first song.
In this context, 'Hermann *'s Pauline' makes a lot more sense than in single isolation (though it still seems partly derived from at least two Madness songs), its neurotic momentum crowned by Gruff's exhortative "WHY DO YOU DO WHAT THEY TELL YOU?!" 'Hermann...' serves as the fulcrum of a mid-album song sequence that lends angst the sunniest demeanour imaginable. 'She's Got Spies' -; "And they're looking out for me" -; twirls on a trad stop-start construct and revels in glitzy riffola redolent of 'Ziggy'-period Bowie. Both 'Play It Cool' and 'Torra Fy Ngwallt Yn Hir' confirm that the Furries' grasp on the suggestive sonic qualities of arcane early-'70s rock is now so instinctive as to be beyond reproach, while it's surely ironic (at the very least) that the latter should be both the album's most blatant pop song and its only Welsh language selection.
The recurring motifs may be fear and anti-Establishmentarianism, but 'Radiator' demonstrates that dark needn't automatically mean monochrome. It attempts to drown the listener in a welter of seemingly random FX, and a mighty closing triad reveals a band working as close to the edge of sanity as is advisable in the trivial realm of pop. 'Down A Different River' moves from weary depictions of chemical excess to envisioning an escape to a cleaner (headed) future. 'Download' is a stunningly mournful duet between Gruff and Cian, lamenting the dumbed-down imperatives of modern life: "There are people who lie/And others who cry/And the people who lie are the ones that get by/In the corporate rush to devour the new/We'll be losing our friends, who will number but few".
This rheumy-eyed journey reaches some sort of resolution with the remarkable 'Mountain People', where country-rock de-evolves into some prehistoric techno rabble. Curiously, its eponymous tribe, removed from the corruption of mainstream life, evokes the rock-goes-to- anthropology-school aspirations of Neil Young, another maverick campaigner against convention and the first super furry animal of them all.
With most tracks segued together, 'Radiator' is very obviously designed to be digested as a whole, not sampled randomly. This, as well as its scattergun attack and reluctance to rest in the one place for any length of time, may well deter day-trippers. Yet for those who like their rock'n'roll arty and hummable, and who believe this crusty old beast can have a future as well as a past, Super Furry Animals have delivered a most eloquent vindication.