Lo-Fidelity Allstars - How To Operate With A Blown Mind
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Of course we know “Battle Flag.”
Of course if we know anything, we know that nothing is original.
Scratch that. Art is theft. Really good art is still theft, and I would say it’s just sneakier theft but actually it’s probably just more blatant theft. Look at Radiohead. Actually, don’t. But you know what I mean.
Six months after it was released and no one’s buying the LCD Soundsystem album anymore, even though it’s pretty good, and, taking the CD with all the old 12” releases on it into account, fantastic value to boot. The Juan MacLean album is pretty good as well, but it’s not going to split the world in two like a giant axe or fission engine or piece of galactic floss either, because nobody cares, because the whole “discopunk” thing, this whole hipper-than-hip scene or whatever, with The Rapture and !!! and Radio 4 and The Killers and Franz Ferdinand (both of whom actually did sell some records, mainly because they weren’t discopunk) and whoever else, is a load of shit, like every other scene ever, and the people (like me) who write for internet magazines or surf messageboards or whatever and who (even if only secretly) consider themselves “taste-makers” (hahaha) and are waiting for “that classic discopunk album” to emerge from all the cooler-than-cool singles, have all failed to realise that the fucking thing came out on a poxy Brighton, England (that’s near Europe) record label run by a fatman who supports a shit football (that’s soccer) team in nineteen-ninety-fucking-EIGHT. And it’s called How To Operate With A Blown Mind.
OK, some facts. Seven guys with really stupid assumed names (A One Man Crowd Called Gentile [something or other], The Wrekked Train [vocals], The Albino Priest [decks/loops/ideas], Sheriff John Stone [bass, possibly], The Slammer [drums, surprisingly], The Many Tentacles [who knows?], The Disco Bison [who cares?]) from the south-east of the UK (which is where London is, and also Brighton), were signed to Skint, the home of Fatboy Slim and various other “amusing” big-beat artistes, and released a debut single called “Kool Roc Bass,” which was cool, groovy, and had bass. The b-sides sounded a bit like Can squeezed through a bad early 90s school disco. The band themselves looked like some bastard crossbreed of The Stone Roses, a Barcelona street gang, Public Enemy and the kind of people who spend all day, everyday, in second-hand record shops looking for “beats”. This is because that’s what they were. The singer had a bad charity-shop leather biker jacket several years before Diesel started selling “designer distressed” versions for 100x what you’d pay at The Red Cross Shop. The Albino Priest had lank hair. If they were ten years younger the others would probably have ASBOs today. They didn’t use the phrase discopunk. Oh no. They used the phrase “punk-paste,” which is even worse.
Surfing the amazon.com user reviews turns up phrases like “How To Operate With A Blown Mind is a sonic bombast of street poetry and corrosive techno beats,” which is unutterably pretentious but also pretty accurate. The sound is complex but the methodology / philosophy behind it is simple; get a beat, loop it, layer some noise over the top, and have the “singer” (I use the term advisedly) witter some vaguely threatening, urban-ennui-drivel over the top. Seems like it should be shit, doesn’t it? But then you listen to it rather than imagine it, and it actually sounds great. Why? Because those beats, those loops, somewhere between house, funk, disco, hip-hop and rock with some Detroit techno and some pure electro thrown in for good measure, are fantastic. Told you it was simple.
To say How To Operate With A Blown Mind is an eclectic ragbag is an understatement. It’s the product of seven men who thanked everyone from Spiritualized to Al Green to Public Enemy to Primal Scream to their mums and dads to their football teams and their dealers in the liner notes. “The Disco Bison loves disco music,” they said. They sampled identifiable and unidentifiable films, made up their own monologues that could be from unidentifiable films, and corrupted their influences, if such things exist, into something messy and amusing and sinister and glorious. Audio psychosis? Very probably. You could call it Big Beat if you liked—certainly plenty of other people did, and it seemed to fit, on the surface, with the drums and excess of The Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim. But there was something else here, in place of Ed and Tom’s sleek professionalism and Norman’s happy-clappy (not quite) lowest-common-denominator appeal. And that something was nihilism.
“Warming Up The Brain Farm” kicks the album off with some portentous, house-y piano rolling in the distance like a gothic rave while The Wrekked Train (real name Dave) drawls and sneers nonsensical non-rhymes about scorpions and brain transplants and neon snakes and sycophants, before they drop in a beat, possibly the best beat ever, and only for about a minute, which amplifies its greatness by making you want more. It tickles you, it licks you, it lets you see an accidental flash of creamy, tempting breast, and then it’s gone, just when you want it to slay you, to ride you like a sleigh until you collapse in a snowy forest and get eaten by polar bears wearing armour. And then “Kool Roc Bass” does its weird groove that shouldn’t work, and then a song named after a chess player batters you some more, and a song called “Blisters On My Brain” that used to be called “Disco Machine Gun” finishes you off, and that’s just the first four tracks.
Of course we know “Battle Flag.” Because it’s been on a dozen movie soundtracks, or something. Of course we know it slays and pummels. But Lo-Fidelity Allstars weren’t a one-trick, bad-joke pun like Fatboy Slim or Bentley Rhythm Ace. No, they were deadly serious in their ludicrousness. They came to slay. But they came to move too, in a different sense. Those amazon.com user reviews are peppered with one-star ratings given by people who liked “Battle Flag” and didn’t bother listening to the rest properly, people who tried to pigeonhole Lo-Fi Allstars as something, who didn’t realise that if you catalogue you also kill because to label is to restrict. The title track is a night-time trip through alcohol and heartbreak and ambience and stream-of-conscious freakery. “I Used To Fall In Love” is a drawn-out 21st century post-Blade Runner, pre-millennial-tension piano elegy with sparsely placed (but still enormous) drums. “Vision Incision” is a ten-minute lesson in viciously eclectic beer-and-amphet-soaked dancefloor fury, but “Nightime Story” is like Portishead for people with proper drug habits instead of proper coffee tables. It’s all about the loops. But not quite all.
As great as the beats and loops were though, it was the opinion-splitting Wrekked Train who either tied How To Operate With A Blown Mind together or else made it unlistenable. To some his voice was an unnecessary intrusion, an ugly, conceited and affected snarl that made Shaun Ryder sound like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; but for me it worked, somehow, a sublime / ridiculous adjunct to both the music behind it and the (often bizarrely poetic) words it was used to deliver, a slurred Lahndahn underground brogue that implied football hooliganism, drug use and the worst kind of inverted ennui. But I could understand why some would take umbrage with it.
Shortly after How To Operate With A Blown Mind was released, while the band were on tour, Wrekked Train left, or was fired, or walked out mid-gig, or something, and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars looked to be over. But they weren’t. Almost four years later, Don’t Be Afraid Of Love emerged. A shinier, happier, more disco affair, a close relative of Daft Punk’s (allegedly) epochal Discovery, it was good, maybe even very good; you should check it out. But it lacked something that How To Operate… had…
Some insouciant threat, perhaps. Some very male, very selfish, very early-20s cultural and social disillusion. That’ll be the nihilism. Oh we know it’s bad but sometimes we love it, and it’s so much better with a slow groove and a fat beat behind it than a tinny piano and a repetitious melody. Oh the songs are too long and they’re barely songs at all and he does talk shit and it’s just dance music made by indie boys and it’s derivative but not derivative and original but not original (that means it’s Platonic, right?), but betcha by golly wow it fucking works. Full-fucking-time.