Primal Scream - Vanishing Point
GROUND CONTROL to Major Bob. You seem to have stalled on the cosmic motorway. We are sending rock'n'roll reinforcements. Do not leave your vehicle. Repeat: do not leave your vehicle...
Oh yes, keen observers of the neo-psychedelic-classic-rock-disco-mod scene might reasonably have expected to hear a somewhat chastened Primal Scream on this, their fifth album. After the leaden flirtation with deep-fried retro-boogie on 1994's 'Give Out But Don't Give Up', word was that the Scream had returned to the formula which shaped their groundbreaking 1991 masterpiece, 'Screamadelica': to current trends in drugs, rhythms and dancefloor fashion. A return, in other words, to the cutting edge.
But 'Vanishing Point' doesn't follow quite such an obvious route. Are Bobby Gillespie's rock voyagers chastened? Perhaps, but wiser and wilier with it. And are these vaguely cinematic moodscapes truly the epicentre of cool? Well, there is the odd scuffed-up chemical beat here, and ersatz soundtracks have become somewhat modish recently -; but such incidental details hardly encapsulate this magnificently incongruous sprawl of an album. Because 'Vanishing Point' is actually more space rock than anything else, more Hawkwind and Can than Mick'n'Keef. This is not the tasteful trip-hop of other film-inspired works, more like a vast celestial sound gallery of frazzled dub, future jazz and lunar blues. Nor is it ashamed to be heroically unfashionable or wilfully obtuse: there's a cover of Lemmy's 'Motrhead', after all, plus a pre-Mani bass cameo by ex-Pistol Glen Matlock.
In this respect, 'Vanishing Point' is a landmark for Primal Scream. It finds them all but abandoning their classic-rock shtick and discovering what Gillespie described in NME recently as the band's real voice. Bobby is a less vocal presence here than on any previous Scream opus, while those plastic pastiches of past pop greats have been swapped for a fuzzy, warm, lived-in production courtesy of Weller stalwart, Brendan Lynch. The Scream have finally stopped gassing away about soul and got loose enough to sound truly soulful.
The album emerges, blinking and bleary, from the churning murk of 'Burning Wheel'. This slithering, elusive confessional takes an age to find its feet in a heavy fog of rippling dub and atmospheric interference. But this in itself is significant when you recall how both 'Screamadelica' and 'Give Out But Don't Give Up' snapped into focus from the first note. The implicit message seems to be: sit back, relax, we know where we're going.
The same quietly buoyant confidence carries through into 'Get Duffy', a smooth shuffle of late-nite jazzy ambience and a wry homage to John Barry's majestic Get Carter theme, notably in the eerie piano motif at its gently funky core. And so a loose soundtrack theme is established, later picked up by the impeccably flared retro-funk of 'If They Move, Kill 'Em' with its bonkers sitar break; plus, of course, the loose-limbed shimmy of 'Trainspotting', which wafts through the closing stages of the album with understated, haunting, appropriately blissed-out cool.
So much for the mist, now for the mountain. Because don't get the impression 'Vanishing Point' is some kind of shapeless ambient symphony or armchair cinema snoozathon. There's all the sexual friction and emotional electricity of classic rock'n'roll in here too, it just comes at you from sideways angles. Former single 'Kowalski', for example: another soundtrack of sorts, albeit one written in belated tribute to the trippy, nihilistic 1971 road movie which lends the album its title. And if obliteration is on the agenda, this armour-plated, techno-dub behemoth is perfectly qualified. Sure, it only managed Number Eight, but its rough-edged grooves make far more sense when heard in context of the album proper. And come on, Number Eight is f-;-;ing good going for a burly bastard of belligerent robo-rock with few discernible lyrics.
As we're stoked up and rocking by now, it may be cogent to mention the hip-shaking boogie of 'Medication'. This is essentially 'Rocks 2', an unlikely hybrid of 'Jumping Jack Flash' with the snarling riff from Joy Division's 'Interzone' and a shameless, smacked-out paean to chemical dependency. Bobby's lapsing back into a nasty habit here: namely that of paying karaoke tribute to his rock'n'roll heroes. But let's give the Scream the benefit of the doubt -; maybe they needed one romping new crowd-pleaser for the live show. Ho hum. Now let's move hastily on...
Ironically, their 'Motrhead' cover is free from such retro reverence, opting instead for punked-up disco-metal kitsch'n'sink overkill which actually provides pleasing proof that the Scream don't take their sacred record collections too seriously after all. It is also far closer in spirit to Lemmy's Hawkwind original than the one-dimensional thrash version he later aired with Motrhead, thus slotting comfortably into the album's free-form space-rock undertow.
The same is true of 'Stuka', a spooked, loop-heavy industrial dub huddled around ominous robotic chants about untimely death and original sin. Or 'Out Of The Void' and 'Long Life', which revisit the more introspective edges of 'Screamadelica', only this time with more hesitant, downbeat sentiments at their heart. Where once they acted like immortal rock deities, the Scream now sound wary, vulnerable, humble even.
And never more so than on current single 'Star', a sublime hymn to everyday human resilience carried aloft on angel's wings. At one point Gillespie opines that, "The Queen of England, there's no greater anarchist/ One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist": thus demonstrating the jaw-dropping banality of most pop star statements on politics. And yet, so winning is Bobby's bruised choirboy whisper, and so soothing Augustus Pablo's wispy harmonica riff, that you find yourself nestling up to the track and stroking its sleepy little head all the same.
Though not entirely flawless, 'Vanishing Point' finds the Scream straying far enough away from their own myth to make a truly surprising, sometimes even magical, record; one which bravely trashes their classic-rock fixation by sending it careering the wrong way down the cosmic motorway. 'Screamadelica 2' it isn't, true, but that is probably for the best: Major Bob can be a real bore when he tries to relive past glory.
This, then, is the sound of a progressive rock band circa 1997; not 1967, 1977 or 2007. Primal Scream are dead -; long live Primal Scream. A mighty fine disappearing act.