When people talk about Primal Scream, conversation immediately (and understandably) turns to Screamadelica, an album which forged deathless rock’n’roll thrills with the dominant house music culture in Britain at the turn of the Nineties to make one of the greatest stylistic hybrids of all time. As a high-water mark for experimentation, it’s one of the most dazzling achievements in history, an album that’s as fun to listen to as it is to simply marvel at, whose vision is exceeded by its execution. But this analysis often unfairly obscures XTRMNTR, an album they released a full nine years later in 2000 and which rivals Screamadelica, both in terms of its sonic savagery and the boldness of its vision for where popular music should be going, arriving after a decade in which pop music had seemingly abandoned futurism and experimentation in favour of navel-gazing nostalgia with Britpop.
Scream // ‘Screamadelica’ at 25 years old
inspection of the Scream’s back catalogue shows them to have had one of the
strangest career arcs in recent pop history. The after-effect of their most populist
moments often allowed them to act as a Trojan horse for some of the most
avant-garde music ever to grace the UK Singles Chart. So it was that they were
able to smuggle a single as resolutely unmelodic and challenging as ‘Kowalski’
into the Top Ten. If you were going to be unkind to them, you would simply
dismiss Primal Scream as only being as good as whichever producer they happen
to be working with at the time. The likes of Andrew Weatherall and Kevin Shields
wrought great performances out of them to forge some of the most sonically
extreme records of the Nineties and Noughties, for sure, but they had a bar-room
blues default setting similar to that of The Rolling Stones’ mid-Seventies
output when left to their own devices. But that ignores the band’s natural
skill at interpreting classic influences and bringing out their most
transcendental qualities – even on slightly schlocky tracks like ‘Rocks’ or the
preposterous ‘Country Girl’.
XTRMNTR has a pretty much equal claim to
being Primal Scream’s finest hour, however. Released at the end of January
2000, mere days into the new millennium whose arrival had been marked by a
moment of national optimism, XTRMNTR presented a nightmare vision of Britain
as a soulless, profit-driven dystopia, in which individuality, protest and
counter-culture were not crushed by outright oppression but rendered pointless
by the lumpen indifference of populist thought. A nation of garish malls and
fast food chains, of cynical politicians and unaccountable power wielded by massive,
unchained global business. This was Johnny Rotten’s snarl of “no future” blown
up to an album-length canvas, then updated with contemporary production techniques
courtesy of a small army of star names such as Kevin Shields, David Holmes,
Adrian Sherwood and The Chemical Brothers.
READ MORE: Primal Scream // ‘Vanishing Point’ at 20 years old
foundational stones for its sound were established with 1997’s fine Vanishing
Point album, another immensely inventive Scream album that goes
overlooked, the key point on the graph building towards XTRMNTR was the
February 1998 EP If
They Move Kill ‘Em. Not only did it house Kevin Shields’ face-melting
remix of the title track – dubbed the ‘MBV Arkestra mix’ and included on XTRMNTR
as well – but it coincided with the My Bloody Valentine genius becoming a
temporary touring member of Primal Scream themselves, a state of affairs that
lasted until the middle of the Noughties and which made the band a fearsome
live prospect. XTRMNTR’s sound was a broad collage of counter-cultural
influences, ranging from dub and krautrock to punk and hip-hop. Written almost entirely
by Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes at their studio in London, the group
mixed traditional live playing with percussion loops and layering samples on
top of each other to create colossal, cinematic soundscapes.
was a day-glo utopia of mutual love and understanding, XTRMNTR was
in many ways its polar opposite. Where their 1991 album’s artwork was a riot of
primary colours, XTRMNTR was a collage of war imagery, rusty stark
orange and gun-metal grey conjuring up an Orwellian word cloud of repression
and monotony. While Screamadelica had been a statement of forward-thinking
optimism for the decade going forwards, this was a blistering condemnation of
pop culture’s failure in the Nineties to build upon it, as White Rabbit’s Lee
Brackstone has recently
written in The Quietus.
opening with the blistering assault of ‘Kill All Hippies’, a soundtrack
to coke-addled paranoia and misanthropy bedecked with all manner of panic-station
screeches and whines on top of a murderously distorted bassline, the listener
arrives at the spirit of XTRMNTR is contained in the album’s second
track through to its fourth. The sheer joyfulness of the savage volume and
transgression of ‘Accelerator’,
with Gillespie yelling to be heard above Kevin Shields’ raging guitars, is
something to behold. Selected as the album’s final single in September 2000, it
also had the esteemed honour of being the last-ever release on Creation, sending
one of Britain’s most significant independent labels out with a serious bang.
the dystopian, industrial funk and grind of ‘Exterminator’, which plunges
us into the political heart of the album. Gillespie’s lyrical style is a
cut-up, Burroughs-esque sequence of phrases that seem like non-sequiturs (“incubating
ultraviolence, psychic distortion / slow death injectable, narcosis terminal /
damaged receptors, fractured speech”) but together paint a chilling picture
of alienation and state violence. This intelligent use of fractured language
reflects one of XTRMNTR’s key themes, that of words, theoretically a civilising
force, actually being a means of control. Playing around with it, then,
represented a seizure of the means of communication. Not for nothing was the
band’s name stylised in consonants only as ‘PRML SCRM’ on the artwork for the album
and its associated singles – Gillespie amusingly explained in a promotional
interview that “vowels are capitalist”. Even if you don’t go for this kind of
thing, ‘Exterminator’ is an out-and-out banger, impossible to sit still while
listening to. All the way through XTRMNTR, in fact, Gillespie’s lyrics
are brutally terse and compact, preferring big-picture over detail, but the dead-eyed,
malevolent way in which he spits them out is the key to their impact on the
that is the first of two appearances for ‘Swastika Eyes’ on XTRMNTR. The
slightly friendlier and more conventional mix from the Chemical Brothers was
released as the album’s lead single in late 1999, and crops up as the
penultimate track, but it’s the Jagz
Kooner mix that’s the main attraction. A raging storm of pummeling beats and
stinging electro that saw Bobby Gillespie raining down condemnation on U.S.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for America’s freewheeling foreign
interventionism (“your soul don’t burn / you dark the sun / rain down fire on
everyone”). Released between two key foreign interventions (Kosovo and
Sierra Leone) that represented a new, neo-liberal trend in Western foreign
policy, ‘Swastika Eyes’ was arguably prescient of the kind of muddle that the U.S.
and UK would find themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq.
breathtaking sequence, which acts almost as a precis of the late 20th
century’s most significant counter-cultural sonic influences from the Bomb
Squad to the noise-terrorism of Atari Teenage Riot, XTRMNTR opts to
explore texture rather than continue with splenetic noise. This results in the
odd mis-step in the middle of the record: the lurching, skeletal rap of ‘Pills’ and the stark,
robotic ‘Insect Royalty’ sounding
occasionally like ideas in search of a proper execution, notwithstanding
Gillespie’s tremendous “sick, sick, fuck, sick, fuck” rant at the end of
the former, which somehow acts as a key signifier of XTRMNTR’s anger
spraying in all directions at a hopelessly corrupted world.
successes, however, far outweigh these wobbles. Instrumental epic ‘Blood Money’ sounds like some
lost ‘70s noir-movie soundtrack, a clattering, insistent rhythm with dissonant
horns interrupted by icy, claustrophobic stabs of piano. Offering emotional
respite from the album’s sonic storm, ‘Keep Your Dreams’ is an
expertly timed centerpiece to XTRMNTR, written by recently recruited former
Stone Roses bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield, is blissfully warm and inviting with
its washes of synth and lullaby-esque xylophone chimes. Gillespie offers you an
escape hatch solution to the world, crooning “I’m going down to the
underground / As deep as I can go”.
Kevin Shields’ barnstorming and
astonishingly loud remix of ‘If They Move Kill ‘Em’, an enduring marvel of his
production values and ear for detail, and the aforementioned Chemical Brothers reprise
of ‘Swastika Eyes’ lead to XTRMNTR’s breathtaking closer ‘Shoot Speed / Kill Light’, arguably
the greatest individual Primal Scream track ever. A behemoth of throbbing
krautrock rhythms, drone-rock production and a killer riff courtesy of New Order’s
Bernard Sumner, its utter viciousness derives from how controlled and remorseless
it sounds, an alternative to the off-the-chain punk noise of ‘Accelerator’.
Just as Screamadelica had presented British music with a refreshing vision at the start of the Nineties, XTRMNTR was the first great rock’n’roll album of the new millennium. Usually, when politics and rock music mix, it winds up sounding gratuitous, either overly aggressive or overly simplistic. In Primal Scream’s hands, a band who’ve always understood that the power of politically-orientated rock is not in riffing but in rhythm, it was both righteous and ridiculous fun. Twenty years on from its release, it’s unnerving to think how on-the-money XTRMNTR was, and how it feels like a chillingly appropriate soundtrack to our 24-hour news cycle of war, disease, unsustainable consumerism and global debt set against a backdrop of dripping wealth and often obscene inequality.
While their output since has been varied in both style and quality, ranging from the back-to-basics rock nadir of 2006’s Riot City Blues to 2013’s impressively intricate More Light, few bands can claim to have recorded even one masterpiece in their careers. Primal Scream, for all their obvious inconsistencies and faults, have two. While they may now seem content with their position as a legacy act, touring their singles compilations for the last year, XTRMNTR is a thrilling reminder that they were once a band that had something to fucking say.
Listen to XTRMNTR by Primal Scream here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Influenced: The Knife, Kasabian, Death From Above 1979, Crystal Castles, HEALTH, Sleigh Bells, Yvette, Death Grips
Influenced by: The Stooges, MC5, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Adrian Sherwood, David Bowie, Can, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Suicide, The Clash, New Order, The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Public Enemy, Fugazi, Atari Teenage Riot, The Chemical Brothers
Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, Adrian Sherwood, Andrew Innes, Bernard Sumner, Bobby Gillespie, Brendan Lynch, Creation, cult '00s, Darrin Mooney, Duncan Mackay, Ed Biggs, Gary Mounfield, Kevin Shields, Martin Duffy, Primal Scream, Robert Young, XTRMNTR
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