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The Chemical Brothers

It’s probably safe to say The CHEMICAL BROTHERS duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons could walk any street of the globe without getting recognised – but that was the genius of faceless fusion dance-floor techno-rock-hip hop, and it suited the pair just fine. Late starters to gate-crash the post-Madchester party of house ravers (DJ’s PAUL OAKENFOLD, Mike Pickering et al, were already established), the breakneck Balearic big beat of The CHEMICAL BROTHERS have now clocked up several chart-topping albums, featuring an array of big name guests.
Inspired by everyone from KRAFTWERK and NEW ORDER to CABARET VOLTAIRE and PUBLIC ENEMY, London-born lads Tom and Ed discovered they’d similar tastes while attending Manchester University; the Hacienda night club was only a few block rockin’ beats away. From 1989 to 1993, Rowlands was also behind singles act, Ariel (alongside fellow Londoners Brendan Melck and M. Berry), who released a handful of 12-inch 45s, `Sea Of Beats’ and `Rollercoaster’ among them, before adding Sally Anne Marsh for their one and only minor hit, `Let It Slide’; Tom would remain in Manchester, where he and Ed had created their own Hacienda-like venue, Naked Under Leather.
The logical step forward was for Tom and Ed to cut their own records, and with a previously-issued `Song To The Siren’ (from autumn ’92), The DUST BROTHERS – as they were then monikered – successfully blended their myriad of influences into an abrasive chunk of freak-beat techno; it sampled briefly THIS MORTAL COIL. Wildly impressed, Junior Boys Own maestro Andy Weatherall released the 12-inch in early ’93; the more discerning underground DJ’s of the time caning the track at club nights across the country. The DUST BROTHERS subsequently revealed a second 12-inch, `Fourteenth Century Sky’, an EP issued in January ’94 which included the definitive `Chemical Beats’.
`My Mercury Mouth’ (from the 1994 EP of the same name) was equally impressive, and by this juncture The DUST BROTHERS had become one of the hippest name-drops among the dance cognoscenti. Their seminal re-working of SAINT ETIENNE’s `Like A Motorway’, together with a DJ spot on PRIMAL SCREAM’s tour further increased their profile and it wasn’t long before the major record labels came sniffing around. The duo were now trading under the moniker of The CHEMICAL BROTHERS, following objections from Americans The Dust Brothers (Mike Simpson and John King), a highly rated hip hop production team responsible for the BEASTIE BOYS classic, Paul’s Boutique.
Signing to Virgin Records (Astralwerks in the States), The CHEMICAL BROTHERS pushed out the envelope with `Leave Home’, a KRAFTWERK-sampled Top 20 hit and opening gambit from the duo’s debut album, EXIT PLANET DUST (1995) {*8}. For the most part, the Top 10 record was an unrelenting, exhilarating, rollercoaster ride of breakbeat techno, only letting up on `Alive Alone’ (featuring a BETH ORTON vocal) and the Tim Burgess (of CHARLATANS fame) collaboration `Life Is Sweet’. Note that the added vocal sample to a live re-worked `Song To The Siren’ reversed a DEAD CAN DANCE piece `Song Of Sophia’. On the back of the aforementioned `Life Is Sweet’ cracking the Top 30, the Top 20 `Loops Of Fury’ EP (issued the following January) was as uncompromising as the title suggested.
As collaborations go, the almost fantastical fantasy super-league combination of The CHEMICAL BROTHERS and NOEL GALLAGHER for predictable chart-topper `Setting Sun’, was just the ticket to rail in fans from both fan clubs. The track itself featured a “Tomorrow Never Knows”-styled rhythm pattern, while the follow-up `Block Rockin’ Beats’ ploughed a similar path to the top of the charts, much like its parent sophomore set, DIG YOUR OWN HOLE (1997) {*9}. Similarly riff-tastic in its reach and using samples from 60s Theremin pioneers LOTHAR AND THE HAND PEOPLE (and featuring a guest spot from MERCURY REV’s Jonathan Donahue on funky futuristic finale, `The Private Psychedelic Reel’), the eclectic breakbeat album was more thrillingly diverse than its predecessor. With a mind-bending live show, universal critical acclaim and even a burgeoning Stateside career, tracks such as `Elektrobank’ and the BETH ORTON-enhanced `Where Do I Begin’, The CHEMICAL BROTHERS could do no wrong.
After initiating their own record label, Freestyle Dust (which released DJ-styled set, “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out”), Rowlands and Simons were back on top with their third album, SURRENDER (1999) {*8}. Previewed by the duo’s Top 3 signature tune, `Hey Boy Hey Girl’ (sampling Rock Master Scott & The Dynamic Three’s “The Roof Is On Fire”), The CHEMICAL BROTHERS had engineered a formula that encompassed “rock” – in a broad sense of the term – and body-popping dance-floor pop; examples `Music: Response’ and `The Sunshine Underground’ (“PPR Part 2”). Showcasing guest vocals once again by that same GALLAGHER brother (for Top 10 smash `Let Forever Be’), plus NEW ORDER’s Bernard Sumner (and PRIMAL SCREAM’s Bobby Gillespie for `Out Of Control’), MAZZY STAR’s Hope Sandoval (for `Asleep From Day’) and a returning Donahue (for end piece `Dream On’), the record gate-crashed the top spot once again, and even cracked America’s Top 40.
Following in the back-to-basics vein of their appearances at festivals such as Glastonbury and Creamfields (to name but a few), 2002’s COME WITH US {*7} was the sound of the ‘Brothers Chemical stepping off their celebrity podium. Or at least stepping off long enough to concoct the kind of heavy duty science that made them so great in the first place. While the by-now-predictable guest slots from the likes of BETH ORTON (on `The State We’re In’) and RICHARD ASHCROFT (on `The Test’) threatened to dilute the album’s overall impact, the sonic momentum of tracks such as `Galaxy Bounce’, and set previews `It Began In Afrika’ (a No.1) and `Star Guitar’ (a Top 10 entry) carried it off blindingly. More interesting was The FLAMING LIPS Top 10 collaboration (`The Golden Path’), exclusively featured on SINGLES 93-03 (2003) {*8}, a collection which could’ve been more sympathetically curated.
With their fourth No.1 album in succession, PUSH THE BUTTON (2005) {*7}, the ‘Brothers once again proved themselves a twisted nerve centre of contemporary beat-culture, plugging into collaborators as diverse as Q-TIP for the Top 3 hip-hop arabesque of opener `Galvanize’, BLOC PARTY’s Kele Okereke for the storming disco fever and test-transmission pulse of Top 20 hit `Believe’, and TIM BURGESS for the not-so-giant `The Boxer’; up-and-coming stars featured were Anna-Lynne Williams (of Trespassers William) on `Hold Tight London’, Anwar Superstar on `Left Right’ and The MAGIC NUMBERS on `Close Your Eyes’ – it was hardly worth mentioning the pile-driving punk-funk of `The Big Jump’, and only `Come Inside’ relied on the whooshing dynamics of old.
Desperately stuck in a mid-late 90s time-warp, 2007’s WE ARE THE NIGHT {*6} was a slight disappointment for the most part, relying as it did on production values rather than their unique bombastic breakbeats. Identifying tracks by way of guest artist, only the Top 20 hit `Do It Again’ and the noodling `Das Spiegel’ (but not the toke-friendly Fat Lip-addled `The Salmon Dance’ or the WILLY MASON-enhanced `Battle Scars’) had quality control underlined. The indie connection came by way of `All Rights Reserved’ (with KLAXONS and LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION) and the concluding beauty of `The Pills Won’t Help You Now’ (with Tim Smith of MIDLAKE).
On the back of an updated version of their “greatest hits” compilation, BROTHERHOOD (2008) {*7} – featuring two new pieces, `Midnight Madness’ and `Keep My Composure’ – 2010’s FURTHER {*7} was in fact released in various formats which, with its free competition to win an iPad, excluded it from the UK charts. Would it have meant a No.1? Reviews and sales possibly suggested so. It was also the duo’s first set without any collaborative works/guest spots, the ORBITAL-esque 12-minute `Escape Velocity’ or `K+D+B’ taking the ‘Brothers two in an altogether different filmic direction.
This was “further” the case on the duo’s inaugural drift into the world of movie scores via HANNA: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2011) {*6}. Normally a concept chosen to conclude (or even kill off) a career in music, the fact that DAFT PUNK and BASEMENT JAXX (for “Tron” and “Attack The Block” respectively) hadn’t suffered the “block rock” hoodoo, was encouraging. The story of a young girl (played by Saoirse Ronan) trained to fight and become an assassin by her father (Eric Bana), the deflection by The CHEMICAL BROTHERS to play background rather than in-yer-face sound-beats was commendable for a group in high office; fans would have to fast-forward through the noodles to find best snippets: `The Sandman’ (very eerie), `Hanna Vs Marissa’ and the spooky `The Devil In The Detail’.
One guessed one had to be there at the Fiji Rock Festival in 2011 to describe the atmosphere of DON’T THINK (2012) {*7}, but in the DVD/CD package, the technicolour visuals helped to bring to life what a fantastic live show The Chems could create; one remembers vaguely how it was back in the day when the these diamond geezers just scratched at the decks like some fantasy dish-washing contest – aided by a backdrop of tripped-out videos.
Not since “We Are The Night” had The CHEMICAL BROTHERS put together a formulaic, by-the-book set of songs. Their return to the top of the charts (Top 75 in the States), BORN IN THE ECHOES (2015) {*8} was, thankfully, one that old and fresh fans could salivate over; just check out the mind-altering `I’ll See You There’, complete with seagull-like sampling. The inclusion of BECK on finale, `Wide Open’, was masterful, while ladies of the moment ST. VINCENT (here as Annie Clark) on `Under Neon Lights’ and CATE LE BON on the title track, gave the set star appeal; the dance element was restored on `EML Ritual’ (showcasing Ali Love) and `Go’ featuring the pair’s old mucker Q-TIP.
2019’s NO GEOGRAPHY {*8} was significant for two reasons: that it was the first studio set (notwithstanding the aforementioned “Further”) to reach the No.1 slot since their 1995 debut; the second that it didn’t even register a staple Top 200 place in the US. Nonetheless, the sample-delic soul-to-sonic-soul set was as focused as anything they achieved; Scandic singer AURORA Aksnes playing her part on opening cuts, `Eve Of Destruction’ and `Bango’, plus the crescendo-inducing contender for psych-single of the year, `The Universe Sent Me’. The dance-floor was always the Chem Bros domain, so in the talk-over title track, throbbing glycyl `Got To Keep On’ and the highly-strung “We’ve Got To Try’ (sourcing the Hallelujah Chorus’ `I’ve Got To Find A Way’). And if robots could boogie on down, `MAH’ (borrowing from El Coco) and `Free Yourself’ (interpolating Diane di Prima’s `Revolutionary Letter 49’), would be their body-poppin’ coming of age. Too soon?
© MC Strong 1996-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2015-Jun2019

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