Last week, I looked back at a Fatboy Slim greatest hits comp, which was a bit like revisiting an old friend that you don’t have so much in common with anymore. It was fun, but ultimately I don’t know when I’m going to get the urge to ever hear this stuff again. The 90’s produced a lot of great electronic records, notably stuff by Underworld, Orbital, and Denki Groove (among many many others), but the names I remember from the time were the Big Beat generation – Fatboy, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, and The Crystal Method mostly, though there were a lot of smaller names that found success as well. Of course these are the ones that haven’t held up as much, as Big Beat is mostly seen as a fad, and worse, it’s the one 90’s fad that hasn’t made a comeback in this decade. By the time Americans started getting into electronic music it was almost too late; we never quite embraced rave culture, and the proggier stuff like Orbital didn’t really fit into our scene so well.
Enter the Chemical Brothers, a pair of seasoned DJs who mixed electronic music with good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll. Not that it was necessarily odd to hear guitar on an electronic album but you didn’t hear it like this, exactly. I mean, a lot of industrial techno was trying to capture the aggressiveness of rock music in its own way (“Satan”), so the Chems just took it one step further, adding real riffs and John Bonham style drums to the mix. Their debut album Exit Planet Dust had “Leave Home” and “In Dust We Trust”, both of which proved mighty influential (see: Fatboy Slim’s “Going Out of my Head” and “Michael Jackson”, respectively). So that set them up to release the seminal Big Beat CD, and boy did they ever. Dig Your Own Hole came a couple years later, and between that and The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land, 1997 became the year of the Big Dumb Electronic album; dumb in this case not really being a pejorative, but rather an idea that maybe electronic music didn’t have to be all epics and ecstasy. Both of these discs sold well, and the critics generally liked them, but this was the year of OK Computer, F#A# Infinity, Homogenic, The Lonesome Crowded West, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space…some really artistic and unique albums that were both adventurous and successful, leaving an album like Dig Your Own Hole sounding like some kind of gimmick. “Oh, you listen to techno…”, a mere cheap thrill compared to the melancholy and thoughtful music of Elliott Smith or Portishead…”It doesn’t even have words…”
Indeed, at this point the Chemical Brothers were all about the block rockin’ beats – the single’s cover art pictured a hand grenade, which is appropriate. They were known for being loud, not because they simply turned all the knobs up, but rather because they used a lot of really loud noises. Explosions, sirens, ray gun effects, drums that went off like fireworks, and the occasional burst of distortion; the first three tracks here have all that and more. It would all sound hokey or gimmicky if the Chems didn’t know how to construct a tune, but thankfully they do more than just loop things. All these tracks have an A part and a B part, and sometimes even a C part, which make the album sound a hell of a lot more dynamic than the bag o’ hooks that was You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.
The other thing is that the Chemical Brothers knew how to blow things up, in a big way. “Setting Sun” is pure cacophony; buzzsaw guitars, industrial drums, loud, piercing sirens, and a vocal by Noel Gallagher that’s driven over the top. It’s a tune that would rock hard if it weren’t so unsettling. “The Private Psychedelic Reel” goes even further than that, looping a ringing sitar line over all means of texture and distortion – it sounds like no less than the Earth being ripped apart by aliens, and it features perhaps the greatest “guest flautist” spot of all time. It is something like “I Am the Resurrection” as done by My Bloody Valentine. Then you’ve got “Where Do I Begin?”, a second collaboration with Beth Orton, as achingly pretty and understated the first one, except this time the Chems decide to fire the missiles and turn the coda into a big loud thrash of drums and vacuum cleaner noises.
Otherwise, it’s full of the same kind of stuff that the Chemical Brothers would put on all their albums. There are some house-oriented tracks that were intended for DJ use (“It Doesn’t Matter” and “Don’t Stop the Rock”, the first two entries in their “Electronic Battle Weapon” series), a cut-n-scratch jam (“Piku”), and one psychedelically-angled chill out tune (“Lost in the K-Hole”). All of it is good, almost to the point where this now sounds like a greatest hits disc to me, as I remember all of these tracks so well. The Chems always seemed to put a lot of thought into their albums – though Dig Your Own Hole feels as dated as anything released in 1997 possibly could (with “Big Beat” now standing next to “New Swing” in the pantheon of failed 90’s musical trends), it still sounds good today, every bit the “classic electronic album” many music journalists were claiming it to be when it was released. As you probably know, the Chemical Brothers jumped the Big Beat ship soon after, which I remember being kind of a big deal. Looking back, that’s really a testament to Dig – it was so good that it managed to trick a lot of people into thinking that Big Beat still had a lot of life left.