Artist of the Week – The Shamen

In the penultimate artist of the week slot back in 2005, we covered The Shamen. As always, apologies for any unintended inaccuracies, plagiarism, or hyperbole.

The story of The Shamen goes back to the early 1980s, when Colin AngusPeter StephensonKeith McKenzie and Derek McKenzie formed the group Alone Again Or. In 1986, they metamorphosed into The Shamen, and released the debut album Drop, a groundbreaking and decidedly early Madchester-style fusion of guitar riffs and dance rhythms, shortly after the release of which they were joined by Will Sinnott.

Two members down, the second album In Gorbachev We Trust saw them move more into dance territory, but only a year after its release, Will Sinnott drowned off the Canary Islands. Angus, now calling himself Mr. C, reformed the group, and they moved truly into the mainstream with 1991’s En-Tact album, heralded by such huge hits as Move Any Mountain and Make it Mine.

In 1993 their Boss Drum album saw them turn almost entirely pop, releasing drug-inspired hit after drug-inspired hit, but it also saw their long-term fans deserting them in droves, so their return in 1995, Axis Mutatis, was a much more sombre affair. Fusing new age idealism with deep dance rhythms, it truly is a much  overlooked mid-90s masterpiece.

The follow-up Hempton Manor came out the following year, and saw them dramatically split with their record company after no singles were released. The follow-up best of album The Shamen Collection was a minor hit, but is essentially made up of tracks off the Boss Drum album.

Their last album UV followed in 1998, and was a very deep and dark house-filled affair, with dark beats and the occasional lighter moment. Following very little interest for this project, the group disappeared into cyberspace, leaving very little trace behind except a legacy of late 80s and early 90s dance hits. These days Mr. C continues to DJ and release solo material.

Bizarre search engine terms – 2017 edition

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the statistics for this blog, to be honest, but roughly once a year, I like to take a peek through and see what crazy search engine terms people have used to get to the site. Here’s a selection…

jnrinxs

I love the idea of a junior version of INXS. Perhaps you’re thinking of Michael Hutchence‘s daughter, whom UK tabloid The Daily Racist seem to have been obsessed with for some time, disturbingly describing her as “remarkably beautiful” when she was just fifteen.

Thanks, by the way – I just lost comfortably half an hour Wikisurfing about the sad tales of Paula Yates and her family.

robin hood trevor horns

You might be thinking of Batman, who’s a similar sort of historical character I believe. Trevor Horns produced Seal‘s Kiss from a Rose in 1994.

have madness rever won a brit award

Astonishingly, they rever haven’t – they have three nominations to their name, but that’s it. Check out my list of BRIT Award Losers here.

royksopp the understanding rubbish

Definitely not. Royksopp the understanding quite exceptional.

fascinating facts about the brit awards

That’s a subjective term, but I found these pretty fascinating. And these. And also these.

alison moyet cat deeley forum

This sounds like a great event, which all of us should thing about attending. The closest I can find is that time someone pretended to be Alison Moyet on Stars in Their Eyes.

1990 brit awards who returned awards

That would be Fine Young Cannibals that you’re thinking of. Because nobody really liked Margaret Thatcher.

smashie and nicey shamen

No idea about this one. I’m assuming it’s a clip which may or may not exist, but if you do manage to find anything, please share it with the rest of the class.

trevor pinnock songs of the auvergne

In an extreme moment of self-doubt, I actually searched this blog to find out what that takes you to. The answer lies in the 1984 BRIT Awards!

Well that was fun, wasn’t it? See also: the 20162015, 2014, and 2013 editions.

The Shamen – Hempton Manor

After many different incarnations, The Shamen‘s penultimate contribution to the world of music was with the entirely instrumental, fundamentally doped out Hempton Manor, released this week two decades ago.

Opening the album is Freya, built around a small warbly synth sequence, and clocking in at almost six minutes. It’s strange to think that this followed so soon after they were last seen chasing the charts with Axis Mutatis, and it’s not difficult to understand why their label One Little Indian found it difficult to promote this release – a fact which ultimately led to The Shamen going off to a small indie label, disappearing into obscurity, and never really being seen again.

Apparently all the titles of tracks on here are inspired by weed in some way, and so Urpflanze (“ancient plant”) is perhaps no surprise. Musically, it’s much more chilled out than its predecessor, although still driven by frenetic beats. Roughly halfway through, you do get a few reminders of some of the duo’s previous work as the countermelodies come together, but it’s still something of a departure.

In many ways, the lack of vocals helps, actually. I’m not sure lyric writing was necessarily ever The Shamen‘s strong point, but by the mid-1990s they had definitely lapsed into semi-mystic (possibly drug-addled?) drivel about crossing the Rubicon, and fun though that is, it does have its limits.

Trying to describe some of these tracks will inevitably make me look stupid. Cannabeo is a sweet drum and bass track full of electronic warblings and churning bass. On they come – after a while, Khat seems to blend into Bememe and already you’re halfway through the album.

Wikipedia, despite not containing any references, does reveal another fascinating fact about the titles on the album – it turns out they’re an acrostic, spelling out “Fuck Birket”, as a reference to their record label boss Derek Birket. The suggestion that the whole thing was intended to release them from their responsibilities therefore seems particularly likely.

Consequently, there was no single from this album – the closest they came was with the beautifully catchy Indica, which appears on their subsequent singles album The Shamen Collection and also led their promo Hemp EP, accompanied by a number of tracks which I’d assume are reworkings. It should have been a huge hit, but that was clearly never going to happen.

But if this whole release was intended as a bit of a joke at their record label’s expense, it’s still far from a waste of time as a listener – proof, were it needed, that The Shamen had a lot going for them in their day. Rausch is another chilled out piece, and Kava is certainly the closest this group had come to an acoustic track since the 1980s (possibly ever). There’s really nothing bad here.

El-Fin is, contrary to the name, the penultimate track on the album, and plods along very nicely, leading us through to the actual closing track, The Monoriff. By the end, you’re left wondering quite what went wrong for The Shamen – Axis Mutatis is great, Hempton Manor is too, UV is… questionable at best, and that was it for their career under that moniker. Or alternatively, you could just enjoy sixty minutes of great instrumental music, and not worry too much about it.

You can still find Hempton Manor through all major retailers.

Peel Sessions – The Shamen, 12 February 1991

The Shamen‘s fourth and final John Peel session was recorded in February 1991 and broadcast several times that same year. The Shamen had long been featured on Peel’s radio shows, and he seems to have even stuck with them once they transitioned from psychedelic eighties “alternative rock” to the rave-pop-dance that they were so fond of in the early 1990s.

The session opens with a pretty good version of En-Tact‘s Hyperreal, already available in the shops for a year or so at this stage. It seems to have gained some slightly daft sound effects which weren’t there on the quite brilliant original version, and it’s notably lacking the input from William Orbit that made the US album and subsequent versions so good, but it’s still pretty strong.

Make it Mine had already been a single in 1990, and this version seems to have undergone a slightly ill-advised reworking, with a pointless middle section and a length rap from Mr. C. It’s interesting to see them exploring some slightly different directions, but they really don’t seem to know what they’re doing. The input of The Beatmasters that would characterise the next album seems long overdue.

Possible Worlds is a nice inclusion – definitely one of the best tracks from En-Tact, it offers them a chance for some musical exploration without going completely off the rails. There’s a bit more freestyle rapping (including rhyming “brain pattern” with “Saturn”), which is definitely unnecessary, but in general it’s pretty good. Just not quite as good as the original version.

Then comes In the Bag, which I think I’m saying was never released anywhere else. It’s a pretty nice ambient piece which is entirely lacking in melody, but it’s a strong inclusion nonetheless. In a way it’s pieces like this rather than the better known singles and album tracks that make it worth hearing these sessions.

You can read more about The Shamen‘s relationship with the John Peel show here. This session is available on The Shamen‘s 1993 compilation On Air, which is still widely available.

The Shamen – Axis Mutatis

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.

The Shamen – En-Tact

In 1990, The Shamen were on the verge of being at the top of their game. Move Any Mountain, or Pro-Gen, as it was also sometimes known, was just beginning to storm the charts, and the five or so years of continuous hits which would follow were just about to begin. But the growth of their popularity was tempered by the tragic death of long-term member Will Sin in 1991, which seems to have affected them very deeply, although they barely took time to breathe before reappearing with Boss Drum in 1992.

In the years which followed, the 1991 US version of En-Tact seems to have become the definitive one – the long dull acid sections which plagued the original release were relegated and replaced by more accessible pieces. It opens with Move Any Mountain, which is a brilliant place to begin – it’s accessible pop, but also very contemporary dance music, and it’s easy to see why it ended up being such a huge hit.

Then comes Human NRG, not a single, but every bit as good as its neighbours. The production was from Graham Massey, of 808 State, and sounds like the best imaginable combination of The Shamen and Massey’s own works.

The brilliant underground Possible Worlds follows, possibly even the best track on here, as it mixes hard-hitting beats with soft and gentle ambiance. As with much of The Shamen‘s output, the lyrics are total gibberish, but once you accept that, it’s an easy track to enjoy.

Omega Amigo follows a similar pattern. This was actually, perhaps surprisingly, the first single from the album, released back in 1989. It’s catchy, daft, and fun. Which is what you want from the early 1990s. This is followed by an edited version of the interminable deep house Evil is Even, which is just about digestible in four-minute form.

Hyperreal Orbit comes next, William Orbit‘s acid take on one the penultimate and second most successful single from the album. It’s an odd hit, with some particularly bizarre lyrics, but Orbit’s production really brings out its better sides. Similarly, the edited version of Lightspan which follows is rather brilliant in its own way, heavily hinting of future directions for The Shamen.

The other single Make it Mine comes next. It wasn’t a huge hit, although it’s one of the catchier moments on here. This version features an oddly low vocal, so possibly needs a bit of work on the equalisation, but it’s easy to recognise it as a good track nonetheless.

At this point, the person compiling the US version of En-Tact from the pieces of the original album appears to have given up somewhat, as the pointless Oxygen Restriction gives way to Orbital‘s sub-par Hear Me and then 666 Edit, a particularly lousy remix of Move Any Mountain. Proceedings don’t pick up until the next of the alternative versions, Make it Minimal, and even that isn’t as good as the version we heard earlier. Hyperreal Selector suffers much the same fate.

Lightspan Soundwave is hard to fault, though – the breakdown between the riff may not be quite as powerful as the original version, but it’s still great while the riff is going. Then, finally, another version of Move Any Mountain (actually it’s Progen 91, but you’re unlikely to care) the I.R.P. in the Land of Oz version, which is a broken down, slightly extended take.

Ultimately, dispense with the remixes on the end, and you’ve got a pretty good album here. Sure, it falls apart a bit towards the end, but plenty of other albums do. As a first step into the world of chart hits and commercial pop, En-Tact is a pretty good release.

The US version of En-Tact is still widely available.