Death In Vegas – The Contino Sessions

It begins with a tremulously strummed guitar. It ends with a supercharged riff. There are many guitars throughout the songs in between: echoing, shimmering, feedback guitar; gently twanging feelgood guitar; overloaded metallic ruffery guitar. There seems to be a theme here…

If it isn’t obvious by now, let me state explicitly that Richard Fearless (now with the official Big Beat engineer Tim Holmes in tow) has returned to the music world with what is unequivocally, defiantly, a rock record. And what’s more, a guitar rock record. By a dance group. And, just to clarify, this isn’t the kind of instant-gratification surf guitar one finds inside yer Fatboy Slim cd cases. Death In Vegas employ dark, heavy, brooding guitars, and a lot of them. A dark trance-rock record then, from a Big Beat group. What is the world coming to?

Of course, in our (and Fearless’) haste to disown the drunken frat-boy hooliganism of current, Fatboy Slim inspired Big Beat, it is very easy to forget that Death In Vegas’ first outing, Dead Elvis, was hardly a cheery collection. Apart from the whimsical opener “All That Glitters”, the dub-u-like of “GBH” and “Rematerialised” and the glorious Woodstock hi-jinx “Dirt”, the record was at best rather muted, and at worst downright glum. “Rocco”, “Amber” and “Sly” in particular evoke a feeling of abstract queasiness rather distinct from the all-or-nothing camps which Big Beat specialists inevitably fall into: The (’97 model) Chemical Brothers’ exultant furore, The Lo-Fidelity All-Stars’ apocalyptic visions and Fatboy Slim’s mindless hedonism are all fantastic in their own way, but the one-dimensional finality of attitude each exudes automatically labels them, for better or worse, as Big Beat.

So it was inevitable that Richard Fearless, once he had discovered subtlety, was going to cling on tightly to it. The results can be heard on “Dirge”, the brilliant opening track to the new album. Starting with a simple guitar line, the band work a single riff over and over, transforming it into a maelstrom of feedback-drenched guitar-noise, screaming organs, spooky sci-fi effects and one mutha of a groovy bass line, all overlaid with Dot Allison’s nonchalant coo, “Dirge”, despite its bombast, is a thesis on restraint. The guitars exist for texture rather than melody, choruses are dispensed with and the layers are simply piled on; by the time “Dirge” grinds to a shuddering halt, the mix sounds like its going to collapse under its own weight, but nothing remotely resembling release ever arrives. The entire track resembles more the unresolved motifs of Wu Tang Clan and their compatriots than any conventional rock song. The trick is, of course, that it is played on rock instruments, with only the precise drum machine beat a concession to studio technology.

Richard Fearless describes the album as a rock album, but influenced by dance music. Certainly the evidence of Richard’s past crops up all over the album, most notably in the rejection of the climax-release methodology of conventional rock in favour of dance music’s plateaus of intensity. There’s also a fondness for certain guitar sounds which resemble electronic instruments: “Flying”, the album’s seven minute centrepiece, features the same clipped-but-echoey strum style as Ride and Slowdive, but opens with guitars that mimic the 303 acid onslaught of The Chemical Brothers or Liberator-style filthy acid techno, only slowed down. “Neptune City”, the album’s “up” closer, is basically “The Private Psychedelic Reel” with the dance elements excised.

Furthermore, despite the gruffness of some of the music, there’s an element of the scientific construction of techno in its execution. Both “Soul Auctioneer” and “Death Threat” use scary guitar effects (on the former they mimic the death throes of seagulls) which sound like they’ve been triggered by samplers. On both songs there’s evidence of the duo’s knowledge of how the different aspects of the music fit together artificially, matching up the drum track with the bass, playing the guitars, keyboards and samples off against each other. Such a perfectionist approach lends “Death Threat” in particular a certain politeness, a sort of prissyness (sorry, Ned), which is ironic considering that it’s the album’s most blatantly Gothic and aggressive song. Not for no reason is there a human brain on the inside sleeve. It would be interesting to see how the band attempted to render these songs live. I imagine it would be difficult.

Perhaps the band were aware of this problem, because they go to great effort to give the tracks an authentic feel. “Soul Auctioneer” has a woozy, disoriented bass line, crackling synthesisers and a (typically) lazy vocal from Bobby Gillespie. I could talk about that, I suppose, but I imagine we can all just wait for the new Primal Scream album. Suffice to say, he’s charting the same paranoid whacked-out zone that he did on both “Kowalski” and “Swastika Eyes”, but is slightly less obvious than both (does anyone notice how “Swastika Eyes” is basically a redux of “Open Up”?). As usual it all sounds better than it would look on paper, and I find the repetition of “you’ve broken your wings, you’ve lost your dinner” strangely affecting. (I think it’s ‘demon’ but I might be wrong – Ed.)

The other vocal tracks are similarly interesting. “Broken Little Sister” features Jim Reid from The Jesus & Mary Chain, and consequently is pretty much a tough shoegazer number, with lots of harrowing feedback and absolutely no tune to speak of. Jim’s vocals are as weedy and desiccated as usual, proving once again that Death In Vegas have a great talent in making guest vocalists sound exactly like they always do. While I like the song, it suggests that what Death In Vegas have really become is a fantastic backing band, with their own style, image and technique, lacking only a steady vocalist to transform them into a real rock outfit. Perhaps if the band did have just one singer, or had provoked more intriguing performances from its guests, it would have resulted in a more cohesive and believable album, rather than one that seems to be earnestly saying “We’re misanthropic, honest!”

“Aisha”, the much hyped collaboration with Iggy Pop, is basically a Stooges tribute track. The most bouncy and straightforward song on the album, it actually has a sort of punk-motorik feel to its drum-bass groove, although more subtly than, say, Trans Am. It chugs along in a rather admirable two-note riff fashion with all sorts of guitar squawks in the mix. Iggy intones solemnly on the top, with a story perfectly suited to the album: Iggy’s telling his girl how he became a murderer after the serial killer in the poster on his wall “got out”. This captures the feel of the album, particularly in contrast to Dead Elvis: the sense of malice seeping out from some hidden place that was always there but never seen. Unfortunately the band’s sense of restraint and preciseness prevails even here, and despite a glorious (if incongruous) organ solo at the end, this never quite achieves the release of an actual Stooges track. Iggy seems to acknowledge this, and apart from a solitary shout and some dog-being-drowned noises at the end, he maintains a presence of calm malevolence throughout the song.

In this way the album almost falls between two chairs, sharing the same affliction as math-rock: too clever to capture the simple release of conventional rock music, but not faceless enough to achieve the escapist hedonism of dance music. The Chemical Brothers actually claim that The Contino Sessions is a millennial update of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, but Death In Vegas never achieve that immersion into pure sound, that dissolution of identity through which My Bloody Valentine made music that appeals purely to the listener’s senses rather than to their sensibilities. The Contino Sessions is just too dark and threatening by half for that sort of thing. Perhaps, though its not that the album deviates too far from the group’s dance origins, but rather that it didn’t quite go far enough. If Death In Vegas really let themselves go and went crazy like Spiritualised occasionally do, it might make their gothic overtones and their “attitude” more meaningful to the listener. On Aladdin’s Story, a rather pretty amalgam of gospel and soul influences, the vocalist boasts that “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”, but it all sounds rather deliberate. Unlike Jason Pierce’s pain-wracked devotions to love and drugs, Death In Vegas never attempt to create even a false impression that this comes from the heart rather than the head. And while I’m no advocate for authenticity in this area, it’s nice when the music at least sounds like it means what it’s saying.

Sandwiched in between the two is “Lever Street”, the only moment on the album where the duo drop all the pretensions and just make something absolutely lovely. A simple combination of mournful guitar and sighing organs, it stunningly demonstrates the duo’s talents at straightforward composition, and suggests a longevity to the group’s work regardless of which pose they choose to strike, or scene they associate themselves with. It’s also the only song on the album that doesn’t hold the listener at arm’s length, seeking not to impress but rather just to connect. “Flying” comes close though, achieving the mastery of pure sound which the My Bloody Valentine comparison would suggest. Actually, in its droning-but-beautiful guitar lines and sedate drum-bass sway it really reminds me of The Kitchens of Distinction at the most epic and expansive. The band bring in a whole barrage of effects, whether it be in the whooping, whining guitar sounds, or the spiralling keyboards or the brilliant use of muffled voices, but unlike on the darker moments it sounds natural and organic – a work of wholly conceived genius rather than a juxtaposition of quality parts. I almost get the feeling that it works because its not dark.

Perhaps the intentional darkness of the album is its main hindrance as well as success, because it gives the album an implied attitude that the band aren’t prepared to deliver on. Richard and Tim Holmes aren’t Jason Pierce (let alone Robert Smith or Andrew Eldritch), but they shouldn’t have to be. They’re just fantastic musicians – which is acceptable in the dance world but often doesn’t make the cut in rock. Hopefully next time the duo won’t feel like they need to prove themselves to either camps. If I feel at all disappointed by this album, it’s because it is so damn promising, and just falls short of delivering for reasons which seem to exist only in my head rather than in the music. But this album feels like a challenge; the sound of the (rock) gauntlet hitting the floor. Now that they’ve gotten that behind them, Richard and Tim should just get down to creating their masterpiece.

Tim Finney