An album that seems to have been around my whole life long celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week, The Shamen‘s most complete effort Axis Mutatis (1995).
After their initial acid and industrial explorations, The Shamen‘s commercial explosion came with 1991 (-ish)’s Pro-Gen, which you might know as Move Any Mountain. The Boss Drum album which followed in 1992 yielded pretty much every hit single anybody had that year, but has little else to offer, and so it’s very much left to Axis Mutatis to be an album in its own right.
Axis Mutatis opens with its most commercial track, the weirdly astral Destination Eschaton. Proving that drugs do little for your comprehensibility, this is the single that instructs listeners to “imminentise your Eschaton”, but for all its lyrical weirdness it’s a great pop song.
Single Transamazonia follows. The Shamen were at the top of their game here, as both Axis Mutatis and its companion piece Arbor Bona Arbor Mala emit an analogue warmth and depth which they hadn’t tapped previously and never would again.
The Aguirre-inspired Conquistador follows, with the early Latin American explorers getting a heavy dose of criticism for their love of gold, and then MK2A (“Mauna Kea to Andromeda”) follows. A couple of years ago I watched the New Year’s sunrise from Mauna Kea, which is definitely a deeply spiritual experience. If I were to try to put it into words, it would probably sound something like this.
In a rare case of a miss for The Beatmasters, omnipresent in the 1990s, both when they created their own hits and when they turned everyone else’s songs into huge hit singles as well, their single version of MK2A, which appears on the 1998 compilation The Shamen Collection isn’t anywhere near as good. Given that they were responsible for this and two other tracks on this album, that’s a curious fact, but sadly it’s true.
On the face of it, Neptune is one of the less exciting pieces on the album, an instrumental based around weird poppy and bubbly sounds. It is nice, though, and offers a gentle interlude after the heavily pop-driven dance that’s all around it.
Apart from any narcotic influences it may or may not have, Axis Mutatis seems to be influenced by a number of factors, but the conflicts between the old and new worlds during the Age of Discovery seem to play a big part, and Prince of Popocatapetl returns to that theme. With relatively few lyrics, but lots of deep jungle and acid noises, it’s an intriguing musical exploration.
Next comes the poppier, bubblier, and entirely more daft third single Heal (The Separation), produced by Steve Osborne. As with Destination Eschaton, you would be hard pushed to describe what it’s actually about, but it’s a great, uplifting dance track, and a worthy single.
A lovely deep instrumental follows, Persephone’s Quest, full of deep chimes and bobbly bass parts. It’s a reminder, were it needed, that The Shamen are a lot more than just the people who brought us Ebeneezer Goode and then had to spend a lot of time trying to justify it to the tabloid buying public – they are also capable of beautiful electronic music.
The mid-1990s were the period when cramming as much onto your album as possible was all the rage, and you do have to wonder slightly whether Moment actually adds anything much to Axis Mutatis, but it’s not doing any particular harm where it is, at the deep and dark instrumental end of the album.
The bonus disc Arbor Mala Arbor Mala is a magnificent 70-minute exploration of deep electronic trance music, which I’d hoped to find time to review here in its own right, but it will have to wait for now. As a precursor, the tail end of Axis Mutatis brings you a four-part piece called Axis Mundi, which mixes into one of The Shamen‘s own takes on Destination Eschaton (possibly proving that without The Beatmasters at the helm it’s not nearly such a good song), followed by the eleven minute Agua Azul. If you came here expecting more hit singles, you’re going to be disappointed, but for fans of electronic music, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
Bringing up the rear, and strangely lonely right at the end, is S2 Translation, a musical conversion of the amino acids in the S2 protein. Or something. As ideas go, it’s nearly as daft as trying to play the music notated by birds sitting on a telephone wire, but it’s very listenable too. The result is a strangely hypnotic piece, which closes the album entirely appropriately.
Sadly that was pretty much it for The Shamen – 1996’s instrumental follow-up Hempton Manor is great too, but was never going to be much of a commercial success, however much they wanted to blame the record company for its failure, and 1998’s final UV is an other-worldly exploration with little to offer the charts.
You can find Axis Mutatis at your regular music retailers, most likely second hand. Try to make sure you’re getting the double CD including Arbor Bona Arbor Mala.