Student days – 1990 or thereabouts – and I’m sat having a beer with Phil, a friend of my best friend, who is telling me with some pride about the band he is getting together. Phil is an affable greaser – he would be a full time stoner if he had two pennies to rub together. The band, he solemnly vowed, will be the ultimate cross between space rock and pub rock. Sat there in my long sleeved Happy Mondays logo t-shirt, nursing the dregs of a flat pint of Red Stripe, I am thinking that Phil is a long, long way out there. Needless to say, we both know it’s never going to happen for his band.
Nearly 20 years later, the stuff of a madman’s dream (or a stoner’s pre-white out fantasy) arrives in digitally downloadable form on Monday evening via the world wide web. Sadly, it wasn’t Phil who saw things through. No, the only men big (or barking mad) enough for the job are Super Furry Animals, whose ninth studio album in just under a decade and a half, “Dark Days/Light Years” arrives on the band’s website a month before a physical release on home of the hits, Rough Trade.
The record is SFA back in their mid ’70s Beach Boys mode with a collection of playfully loose limbed and experimental songs where vocal duties are shared by all five of the band members. On the outside, Pete Fowler is back involved with the artwork (a collaborative effort with Japanese psychedelic manga artist Keiichi Tanaami). Inside, the tracks are splattered with mangled acid house, restless Krautrock, and – yes! – Hawkwind-esque astro boogie spliced over British Legion club glam disco stomps. Space rock and pub rock, together, finally.
Having delved into the record for the last week, I’ve still got Llareggub idea what any of the tracks are about. The usual lyrical fuzzy logic (“Mt” features what has to be this year’s gonzo festival mantra “I wasn’t looking for a mountain/There was the mountain/It was a big fucking mountain/So I climbed the mountain…”) is present and correct, alongside Stentorian German rapping barked by Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy on “Secular Trams” listen here, lilting Welsh on “Lliwau Llachar” that swoops and dives with all the warmth and beauty of human birdsong and tranquilized vocoder on “Cardiff In The Sun” (an eight minute cyclical dream sequence, which sounds like one long build up of bottled ecstasy). Who else other than the Furries could offer up the same song twice (once with English lyrics, once with Welsh) and still have you hitting repeat?
The record marks the return to the wigged out demento rock’n’roll of (much) earlier records (the “Ice Hockey Hair” EP and “Mwng” spring to mind a lot) in that it’s more freeform and less constricted by short, sharp pop songs than their last album, “Hey Venus”. It basically sounds like they are having a fucking blast. “Dark Days/Light Years” is crammed with the kind of relentless experimentation that most popular musicians would run a mile from. Only Radiohead have bothered to push boundaries like Super Furry Animals – though, sadly, they make it sound like a whole bunch of no fun whatsoever, like a one long wet weekend in a Oxbridge student union espousing conspiracy theories whilst trying to eek out the last dregs of a student loan. The Furry version is the sound of a free festival where “Bread Of Heaven” blares out of the dance tent after a sequence of R&S 12″s with the occasional Glitter Band record thrown in.
Listening to “Dark Days…” and looking at the band’s website (where they’ve documented every stage of the recording process in the style of Mike Figgis’ Dogma movie “Timecode”), you’re left with the question – again! – that always seems to raise it’s head every time a new Furries record is released – why the hell aren’t this band massive? I mean, I always thought “Silver Machine” meets “Tiger Feet” was a genius idea. Glad to see there’s at least one band out there who thought so too. Hope Phil’s smiling about that somewhere.
PS If you’re on the band’s site, check out the Bunfscapes section – free ambient downloads of by the SFA guitarist – imagine Chris Watson if he was stuck in the Valleys with just a carrier bag of SA for company.