Artist of the Week – Faithless

Rolling way back into the prehistory of this blog, we find a radio show called Music for the Masses, which ran in its second incarnation from late 2004 to 2005. Here’s another Artist of the Week from that show, and my apologies again for any problems with what’s written below.

The Faithless story goes back to 1995. After no success as a record company boss, Rollo, responsible for releasing the debut Felix track Don’t You Want Me, was starting to make his name as a producer and remixer. He joined up with then renowned DJ and remixer Sister Bliss, folk guitarist Jamie Catto, and Buddhist Maxi Jazz to become one of the most bizarre but best loved dance groups of the last decade.

The debut album Reverence was recorded in an astonishing 17 days back in 1995, providing a springboard for many music careers, not least that of Rollo‘s younger sister Dido, who provided vocals from the start.

After several false starts, Reverence finally became a hit at the start of 1997, spawning the massive hits Insomnia and Salva Mea. The second album, the less chaotic but also eclectic Sunday 8pm, was released in late 1998, and included only one substantial hit, the euphoric God is a DJ.

After a break of three years, the third album Outrospective followed in mid-2001. It gave the group a number of further minor hits, as well as the huge smash hits We Come 1 and One Step Too Far, both of which broke into the top ten. The third album also marked a turning point, as, after shedding members with each album, they worked once again with the now-infamous Dido, who has now appeared on every Faithless album to date.

Also worth mentioning at this point is Jamie Catto‘s project, the seminal 1 Giant Leap album. Probably only widely known for the hit My Culture, this is a fantastic album, and definitely something we should play a lot more often on the show.

The fourth Faithless album No Roots was released last year. It contained some of Maxi Jazz‘s most insightful lyrics to date, but I would argue that despite its tremendous success, being their first number one album, it is one of their less good albums. However, it included the wonderful Mass Destruction, and also spawned an instrumental spin-off album Everything Will Be Alright Tomorrow, even if the hits were a little thin on the ground this time around, I Want More scraping into the top thirty, and Miss U Less See U More, admittedly only a vinyl release, only making number 106.

However, we are now at  a turning point for the band. As always, the live juggernaut rolls on, crushing every venue they visit, and April will see the release of their Greatest Hits album, Faithless Forever (sic). Still no news on exactly what the track listing will be, but it’s probably safe to say that all the hits will be on there… and we’re going to play three of them tonight on the show.

1 Giant Leap – 1 Giant Leap

For me, the surprise hit of 2002 was 1 Giant Leap‘s debut album. Without warning, Jamie Catto, formerly of Faithless, and Duncan Bridgeman disappeared and travelled around the world, working variously with established western artists, stars of what I hesitatingly call “world music,” and less well known names, mixing together their vocals, instrumentation, atmosphere, and also (on the DVD, for this was also a “video album”) the visuals.

Being a mix of sounds from all over the world, it contains instruments and vocal styles that are almost totally alien to me, so I won’t try and describe the sound too much. But Dunya Salam, which opens the album, is gloriously atmospheric, with a deep synth sound, acoustic stylings, and what, if I had to guess, I would assume was a vocal from west Africa (having checked, Baaba Maal is indeed from Senegal).

The second track was also the first single, the brilliant My Culture, featuring vocals from Catto’s former band mate Maxi Jazz, and also Robbie Williams. The lyrics – particularly those delivered by Maxi Jazz – are typically expressive and evocative. With all the bits put together it somehow didn’t work too amazingly as a four minute pop song, but within the context of the album it works brilliantly.

“Only silence remains,” says the sample at the start of my favourite track The Way You Dream. The eastern stylings of the introduction gradually build over a few minutes into something very powerful. Without warning, it’s then Michael Stipe of R.E.M. who turns up to deliver the lead vocal.

I’m not sure I ever really appreciated quite how good a vocalist Stipe is, and he’s in extremely good company on this album. Also performing on this track, for example, is Asha Bhosle, as in Brimful of Asha, the 1997 hit from Cornershop. And the many other things which I should feel ashamed for not knowing her for.

If I had one criticism, it’s that all the geographical cross-mixing can make the album can feel a little disjointed in places. In the context of the “one world” theme of the album, the jump to Ma’ Africa is entirely logical, but the African gospel-style vocals of The Mahotella Queens could come as a bit of a surprise if you weren’t expecting it.

Next up is the second single, the slightly more complete but less catchy Braided Hair, with vocals from Speech and Neneh Cherry from off of the 1990s, which leads into the Maori sound of Ta Moko, with its incredibly moving spoken word introduction. Before you know it this has seamlessly passed the baton onto Bushes to kick off the second half of the album, and Baaba Maal is back with us again.

This is an album which definitely works best listened to in one go, without ever using the skip button, and while everyone will find quieter moments within it, the seventy minutes of music comes together to form something quite exceptional.

Bushes is possibly the darkest track on the album, with sudden unexpected industrial samples and moments of feedback, but in no way is it out of place. Passion, with its tropical conch-shell style percussion and a vocal from Michael Franti is excellent too, as it builds into a huge percussive crescendo. Daphne is tucked away a little unfair towards the end where you might forget it, but is great too.

Of the later tracks, All Alone (On Eilean Shona) is my personal favourite. Eilean Shona, the tiny tidal island on a Scottish loch, with its population of two somehow seems an entirely apt place to set this song. The vocals are fantastic, and the rather unexpected African vocal which turns up half way through does nothing to detract from the deep Celtic atmosphere. We are all of the same tribe, no matter what our background.

Racing Away features a welcome lead vocal appearance from the fantastic Horace Andy, and then already we’re onto the final track Ghosts. The vocal this time is performed by Eddi Reader, and finally, softly, gently, the album comes to a close in beautiful fashion, evoking the ghosts that haunt all of us. Sorry, I’m not sure why I suddenly went all philosophical there.

If, like me, you enjoy a bit of “world music” mixed with electronics, you’re going to get a lot out of this album. There’s really very little to criticise on here – every track brings something, even if it just adds to the general atmosphere.

Incidentally, the review above is for the album, because over a decade later I still haven’t got round to buying the video version yet – if I ever do, you will be able to read about it here.

You can find 1 Giant Leap at all major retailers as a CD or DVD. We previously reviewed the second album What About Me? here.