A synthesised orchestra bursts into life. And I mean bursts. If this were in a Disney movie and meant to signify the first buds of spring in some fantasy netherworld ruled by a giant and intimidatingly amiable field mouse, you’d still ask them to tone it down a bit. The orchestra repeats itself for a few bars, as if sweeping its arms across the landscape. Isn’t it beautiful?, it says, this world you believe to know? Isn’t life just idiotically charming when you don’t know any better?? Then, the orchestra stops, to be replaced by a single foreboding organ while the sounds behind it seem to be dripping out the last of their good will. Drip. Drip. Drop. Drip. The droplets seem to both become sparer and start to resemble a ticking clock, winding down to some unknown but anxiety inducing conclusion. The same music that had previously swept its hands in overt astonishment as the landscape that is now starting to melt away, now grabs you roughly by the collar and pulls you forward. It opens a hand to you containing a red pill and a blue pill. Before throwing them both in rage at the still deforming landscape.
“Nah, fuck that”, they say. “That trope has been done to death to such a point where it now somehow represents Men’s Right Activism. There aren’t just two routes anyway, there are an infinite ways to comprehend reality, let me show you them all“.
They then clasp you up in their arms so hard and so enthusiastically that you find it difficult to breathe as you leave your feet. The music stops for a second, leaving you both hanging in the air as the landscape melts away completely, leaving you with simply that dripping sound and one shivering note of apprehension. Then, the drums kick in.
DUM, da-dum-da-dum, KICK, da-dum-da-dum-dum, DUM, da-dum-da-dum-KICK…
The synthesised orchestra and the organ creep back into life again, building up behind the drums until they once again burst into full tumescence once again, peaking into full bloom once again behind the militant and combative drumming .The breathtaking landscape has been reconstructed, only now it seems strange and ominous, pieces look like they’ve been returned upside down, or back to front. The corners look rickety and improperly place and… is that… a hand…? Trying to… push its way out… through the cracks…? Just when you’re starting to question the existence of everything that’s building up around you, a voice makes you jump, a furious and obnoxious clarion call that seems to pull all of the surrounding madness together, at once making it all suddenly make complete sense yet also revealing that nothing makes sense at all.
Look deep into the heart of Green’s new songs
The sweet disciple sing-along’s
The Christmas twinkle tinsel hangs
Upon my cracked and greasy grimy handsCross My Heart
And so begins the greatest British debut album of the 90s. Possibly of the 20th century. Possibly of all time.
1999 was a weird year in music. Everyone seemed gripped by premillennial (or even pre-Willennium, as Smith’s second album wouldn’t arrive until November) tension, rushing around to agree on what should be the chief musical style going into the 21st Century – we didn’t want all those futuristic robot people to look back at us in the rear view mirrors of their flying cars and scoff at us still listening to Santana (which, ridiculously, we were. Eight Grammy awards) – and ended up not landing on anything. Pop music was still reeling from 1998’s release of Hit Me Baby One More Time and in the process of rearranging all its pieces to ensure all music would sound like it was made by some late 20s Swedish guy, and in the confusion we allowed the pop charts to be dominated by gross bro rock by Blink 182 and The Bloodhound Gang. In the UK, we just gave up on pop entirely and ended up curling up in the dull strains of Westlife and giving number one singles to puppets that looked like they were found laying on the bedroom floor of a former ventriloquist after he died of heroin overdose. Remember Flat Eric? He was from an advert, wasn’t he? I honestly can’t remember which one. The last instrumental UK number one #FACT. A 34 year old Dr Dre became by far the biggest name in hip-hop again, and for some reason used his power to introduce the world to Eminem, at the same time as the world was still in its ‘Whatever Song Will Smith Records for His New Film‘ era of hip-hop evolution. Oh, and The Vengaboys. Plenty of Vengaboys.
Rock music was in perhaps the most confused space. Everyone realised that 1997’s ‘OK Computer’ meant something, but no idea how to respond to it. Most ‘rock’ acts were still only just getting round to attempting to ape Radiohead’s 1995 Jeff Buckley indebted ‘The Bends’, or perhaps following the bizarre Offspring gross bro rock revival. The Offspring had a number 1 single in the UK!! Nobody cared about The Offspring in this country! It was, like, the main thing I was proud of my country for! There was no agreed upon shared focus for rock music until The Strokes and Nu-Metal emerged/belched onto the scene in 2001. Until then, in those confusing days between Britpop and Hard to Explain, nobody had any idea what was going to stick, so money was even thrown at completely bizarre and commercially unfeasible bands like Ultrasound.
Ultrasound were a band of misfits fronted by a thirty five year old guy – Andrew ‘Tiny’ Woods. It’s a joke, see? Because he really wasn’t – the size and weight of all five members of The Strokes put together. Tiny had been making music since 1980 and met all the other (younger) bandmates at Yorkshire and Newcastle universities, and after pottering around in other unsuccessful bands with ridiculous names like Possession, Step-TLV, Sleepy People and Pop-A-Cat-A-Petal (Jesus, I’ll give you ‘Possession’, that’s quite cool, but after that… eeesh…) before forming Ultrasound in 1996 and… pottering around unsuccessfully a little more. However, in 1997 they released Same Band, an insane and blistering mix of prog rock and glam metal, on the ‘independent’ label Fierce Panda, which actually led to a bidding war between record companies – back in the days when companies would actually pay money for artists – in the off chance that this would be the new sound that would connect the masses, this group might be the next Oasis, the next Radiohead, the next fucking Vengaboys. They would sign to Nude records, releasing two singles (the pretty flat Best Wishes and the revelatory Stay Young, that latter song reaching no.30 on the singles chart and being the point at which young Alex jumped aboard) and then began recording their debut. Upon which the band just went fucking nuts.
‘Everything Picture’ was insane. It was a two hour long prog-rock double album with an unholy and fucking loud emphasis on the ‘progressive’ part. That original single Same Band was the only track permitted to finish anywhere near the four minute mark, almost every other song would pass six, seven, eight and – in the case of the spectacular ending title track – twenty one minutes (actually thirty nine minutes on the original CD with the inclusion of a hidden track). It was unashamed, it made no compromises, it was the least signe des temps music imaginable. Nobody sounded like this, nobody would ever sound like this, no other artist had the freaking 大胆子 to make this record, no other artist could even conceive of art on this scale!! I was barely in my teenage years, and it was the most outstanding thing I’d ever heard.
Of course, it couldn’t last – listen to this fucking record! How is this possibly sustainable!?- the band would break up in late 1999, and ‘Everything Picture’ disappeared from the Earth like it was all some sort of crazed fever dream. The band would reform in 2010 and make a few more, less insanely ambitious records (y’know, because they didn’t have any money), but ‘Everything Picture’ would remain lost. Not on Spotify or YouTube, and I had even lost one of the CDs of the double album. Did this really happen?? Did an album this perfect ever really exist…?
In 2021, it was re-released. It really did happen, and it was just as life affirming as it was the first time around. I went to see them live for the first time, as when ‘Everything Picture’ was first released I was too young to go to gigs. I spent £65 on the vinyl boxset even though I don’t have a record player, I just wanted to throw as much money at this band as I could. This record was important to me, and they played a major part in my growing up. The original, 11 track album would easily be the best of this year, but I’ve chosen to rank it as the four hour, thirty eight track behemoth that is the reissue. And it’s still top five. It’s one of the greatest and most astounding records ever made, and now it’s on Spotify there’s no excuse for not joining in. ‘Everything Picture’ is an experience, it needs o be a central part of your life. Gary Glitter references and all.
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