THE DUST BROTHERS Song To The Siren (Dust Up Beats)

The Chemical Brothers used to be called The Dust Brothers, before they got all successful and the American producers from whom they’d only temporarily borrowed their name ‘politely suggested’ that they should change it. This 12" single contains a selection of their early output that was released on the Junior Boy’s Own label. The fact that a) their three original EPs are now long deleted (JBO pressings of "Song To The Siren" fetch almost four times the price of this import) and b) this release on the obscure New York label Dust Up Beats seems to have a tenuous connection with anything resembling an original master tape (some of the tracks here have exactly the same surface noise as on some of my friends’ treasured legit Dust Brothers pressings) suggests an item of dubious legality.

Which shouldn’t really be a problem when faced with music of such towering genius as this. Essentially a brief compilation of the brothers’ Dust’s 1994 output, you get "Loops Of Fury" (not too impressive, later reworked as a Chemical Brothers single), "My Mercury Mouth" (stunning, along with Underworld’s "Rez" one of the great lost gems by the big boys of British electronica), "Song To The Siren" and "Chemical Beats", inferior versions of which appeared on the Chemicals’ debut album "Exit Planet Dust". Ignoring the dubious origins and that duff first track, this is the real deal; thumping, siren-riddled, squidgetastic affairs that it’s taken Tom and Ed the best part of three years to better (much of the already-classic "Dig Your Own Hole" album eclipses what’s on offer here - but only just). What the world needs now, of course, is for Junior Boy’s Own to reissue all their Dust Brothers material (ideally as a double album) for the unconditional enjoyment of all interested parties.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Exit Planet Dust (Junior Boys’ Own/Virgin)

Formerly The Dust Brothers, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were about as cool as it was possible to be whilst attempting to keep your feet in both the rock and dance camps. They made spectacular, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink singles which merrily ripped down barriers and prejudices against ‘dance music’, Primal Scream played their remix of "Jailbird" when they headlined last year’s Reading Festival, and they even refused to remix a Happy Mondays track on the grounds that they didn’t want to mess with perfection. An impeccable CV. And now, following protracted legal unpleasantness with the American act of the same name, they’ve re-emerged as The Chemical Brothers, wielding their first long-playing release, which must rate as the most eagerly awaited dance album ever. And, well, please tell me if I’m missing the point or something, but it’s not particularly good.

The beauty of The Dust Brothers’ best music was how all-encompassing it was. Like The KLF it’s hip to like, they threw in kooky samples, huge beats and basslines, and, most unusually, tunes that you could hum for days. "Exit Planet Dust" loses just about all of this, in favour of a far more simplistic siren-riddled hardcore assault - there’s no sense of progression or reflection - or even effort - in most of these songs. Good on the dancefloor it may be, but as listening music it fails totally, where truly great dance music easily bridges the divide. Sometimes it wins through by sheer determination: for example, the second side’s melange of "Song To The Siren", "Three Little Birdies Down Beats", "Fuck Up Beats" and "Chemical Beats", which gradually jackhammers through your skull after about fifteen minutes and becomes sort of enjoyable, in a primitive kinda way. The two vocal contributions add some much needed variety: Charlatan Tim Burgess slacks in bleary-eyed fashion over "Life Is Sweet", and Beth Orton turns "Alive Alone" into the sort of French-polished blow-dried chocolate box miniature that One Dove used to ply. It wasn’t any good when they did it either. I really wish I could find something more positive to say about this album, but unfortunately it never seems to strike a happy medium, being either unloveably relentless or forgettably bland. Try and get hold of a Dust Brothers EP to see how it should be done.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Dig Your Own Hole (Freestyle Dust/Virgin)

The second Chemical Brothers album is the sound of the ante being firmly upped. Whilst their debut long player, the potentially and eventually great "Exit Planet Dust", seemed to be subdivided into stylistically individual sides (shiny upbeat popkid-friendly techno on sides one and three, twenty minutes of siren-riddled musical assault course on side two and mellow folky chill out ambience on side four), "Dig Your Own Hole" is one huge stylistic melting pot in which all the known world (and much that is unknown) boils threateningly.

First there was that Gallagher collaboration, "Setting Sun", in which Noel hollers frightening verse over Tom and Ed’s demented hardcore deconstruction of "Tomorrow Never Knows". It gets released a week early to avoid competition with the new Spice Girls single and becomes the scariest record ever to get to number one. Then came "Block Rockin’ Beats", which cut up Schooly D samples with the eponymous beats and what sounds like an arrangement of Neil Young’s "Cinnamon Girl" one-note guitar solo for an extremely angry analogue synth. Yes, that’ll do nicely as well.

So now comes the album, and of course it’s marvellous, an hour-long aural rollercoaster ride where rhythms (no melodies of course, they’re for lightweights) tangle and mutate like early Philip Glass, ageing electronics are thrashed until they unleash sheets of evil, distorted white noise and disembodied voices hector from the darker corners. Fragments of tunes arrive for seconds at a time, only to be submerged by newer, better samples, breaks and beats. And, if at times you get the feeling that proceedings, although fantastically enjoyable, are becoming a wee bit formulaic, something will happen, for example the arrival of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue and his clarinet towards the end of the sitar-strung "Private Psychedelic Reel", that will banish such foolish and unworthy thoughts entirely.

Perhaps the dead giveaway key to the album is in the title of that final track, as if the Brothers Chemical had ingested superhuman quantities of 1967, which knocked their worldview ever so slightly askew. In a musical genre that often regards purity of execution as a virtue, "Dig Your Own Hole" is a widescreen Technicolor juggernaut thundering through a black and white landscape. Dig it? Oh yes.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Brother’s Gonna Work It Out A DJ Mix Album By The Chemical Brothers (Freestyle Dust/Virgin)

This is Tom and Ed’s second mix CD (the first being a spin-off from their residency at the Heavenly Sunday Social club, creatively titled "Live At The Social Vol. 1"), and sees their dexterity as platter spinners improving on something approaching the same staggering trajectory as their parallel career as recording artists. While "Live At The Social" could have been a summation of their DJing abilities thus far, "Brother’s Gonna Work It Out" leaps the same void into the unknown that their own music did between "Exit Planet Dust" and "Dig Your Own Hole".

There are 23 tunes on here, to a greater or lesser extent, and the intricacy with which the brothers Chemical entwine each song around its nearest neighbours can be gauged by the fact that the CD has been divided up into but five tracks, presumably because it’s almost impossible to see the joins. Pretty much all dance music life is here, but being staunch advocates of the freestyle philosophy here you’ll find old school blaxploitation soul (Willie Hutch’s "Brother’s Gonna Work It Out"), evil Aphex Twin-style distorted drum madness (the Micronauts mix of their own "Block Rockin’ Beats"), screaming acid (pretty much all of the self-styled third track, The Seratonin Project’s "Sidewinder" in particular) and even "Shine"-friendly Britpop (the Brothers’ own stupendously wonderful remixes of Manic Street Preachers’ "Everything Must Go" and Spiritualized’s "I Think I’m In Love"). Legend tells that Tom and Ed have been known to drop The Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Known" into their live DJing sets; presumably only copyright wrangles prevent its inclusion here (a shame, because it’s the sort of association that the popular Liverpool beat combo could only benefit from).

To conclude: two hands bad, four hands good. "Brother’s Gonna Work It Out" stomps so conclusively on every other mix CD I’ve ever heard that it just has to be due to the extra pair of limbs at work here compared with most solo DJs, allied to an astute ear for a kicking break and an inabilty to grasp the concept of musical barriers. Inquiring minds, ears and legs form a line here. (Full marks, by the way, for the gatefold packaging - just like a record! - and the quote from "Revolution 9" splashed across the inside).

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Hey Boy Hey Girl (Freestyle Dust/Virgin)

Oh dear. This is the first taster of the Brothers Chemical’s imminent third album, which should be out by the time you read this, and unfortunately it ain’t very good. Over the last five years, even at their most rudimentary Tom and Ed have never neglected to include a rattling good tune for the ears to latch on to whilst the feet are under alien command. Aside from a light frosting of some of the trancier mixes of The KLF’s "What Time Is Love" "Hey Boy Hey Girl" is tragically bereft in that department, and the repeated "Hey boy/Hey girl/Superstar DJs/Here we go" hectoring does a pretty poor job of papering over the lack. There’s some interesting scratching and stereo effects as the track judders to a close, but all too little much too late.

The b-sides ("Flashback" and "Scale") tragically fail to redress the balance, plagued with the same ‘can’t be bothered’ vibe. The latter even manages to sound like Kraftwerk at their most infuriatingly whimsical (the "Radioactivity" album, at a guess) albeit with the benefit of much bigger beats.

The ray of light in all this unprecedented chemical gloom is that reports suggest that "Hey Boy Hey Girl" is atypical of the upcoming album as a whole, which, given that will include contributions from Noel Gallagher and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue (both in the area during the creation of some of "Dig Your Own Hole"’s many highlights) we can but hope is true.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Surrender (Virgin/Freestyle Dust)

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Let Forever Be (Virgin/Freestyle Dust)

1999 seems to be turning into something of a year for spectacularly average dance albums: following the release of the first dull Orbital album in living memory a few months back, we now have the first dull Chemical Brothers album in living memory to keep it company.

Amazing though it may seem, listening to "Surrender" is a singularly spark-free way to waste an hour, and the root of the problem is that Tom and Ed have attempted to change, move on and expand their musical horizons, having seen every fantastic idea they pioneered in their previous incarnation as The Dust Brothers and throughout their frequently amazing first two long players ripped off wholesale by any number of talentless no-marks (and Fatboy Slim, who at least has the good grace to admit it!). So the vast majority of "Surrender" is, to use the parlance, 'chilled out'. Or, to gouge away at the euphemism, dull.

Nothing happens here. Yes, there are melodies and lyrics, but nothing that'll lodge in your mind and send your hands and feet battering out morse code messages on the nearest available solid surface. It's all so polite and tasteful: only the occasional effect, such as the tinkling windchimes on "The Sunshine Underground", disturbs the immaculately polished sheen. There's a formidable array of hardworking talent buried somewhere in here too: Bernard Sumner, Bobby Gillespie, Noel Gallagher, Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval and Jonathan Donohue from the sublime Mercury Rev. They sing, play guitar, co-write or whatever, but you'll be puzzled on how such capable people could leave so little of themselves within the finished product.

No doubt "Surrender" will sell by the truckload, and might even scoop this year's Mercury awards ahead of the rest of a pretty bloodless shortlist. But to my, admittedly totally biased ears, it's nothing less than a massive disappointment, because, in the words of Mr Zimmerman, there's nothing here, nothing really to turn off.

"Let Forever Be" is the latest offspring of the album to be sent out to fend for itself in the single charts, and, being "Surrender"'s Noel Gallagher track, has more marketability than most. However, the song in question is little more than a heavily diluted version of the Brothers Chemical's last Gallagher collaboration, the revelatory "Setting Sun". Neither of the additional tracks - "The Diamond Sky" and "Studio K" - would sound out of place on the album itself, which is not intended as a compliment.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Come With Us (Virgin/Freestyle Dust)

After their last album, "Surrender", proved to be more washed-up than chilled-out, it's a relief to report that the brothers Chemical have at least attempted to inject the rapidly stiffening corpse of their music with a little excitement and adventure this time around. Admittedly most of that excitement appears to have been lifted wholesale from Leftfield's laboratory - the rival duo's fingerprints are all over first single "It Began In Afrika". Still, with some of the flab trimmed from the Chemical's usual overweight guest list - there's the traditional Beth Orton track, a welcome first collaboration with Richard Ashcroft and the slightly bizarre borrowing of M People's percussionist, Shovell - "Come With Us" is the most interesting release from Tom and Ed since the "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" mix CD.

Most of "Come With Us" is perfectly pleasant in a head-tapping, foot-nodding sort of way: "Star Guitar" is suffused by a feeling of galactic possibility, which veers only slightly too close to Daft Punk in disco makeover mode for its own good. The Beth Orton track, "The State We're In", like most of their Beth Orton tracks, only seems to catch fire when she stops singing, with a gorgeous, tinkling crescendo. And Richard Ashcroft's contribution, "The Test" is one of the best in show, a nostalgic anthem for ageing ravers (the threesome involved now all teetering on the other side of 30) with the repeated hookline "Have I passed the acid test?". Which is all good stuff, and makes "Come With Us" a far more interesting record than the sleepy, celeb-saturated "Surrender". But why anybody would choose to play this album instead of the magnificent "Dig Your Own Hole", which stomps with awesome authority over similar territory, is a mystery to me.

THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS Roundhouse, London 20 May 2010


Visually, on this first show of a four night residency, the brothers Chemical turned the stiflingly hot Roundhouse into something akin to a 19th century Death Star, the performance featuring lasers and a huge contraption that descended from the rafters to belch dry ice over the dancing multitude beneath through a circular arrangement of inverted chimneys. A huge screen behind the stage bombarded the eyeballs with images all night, but to me they frequently seemed a bit sub "2001 A Space Odyssey". Nevertheless, it's easy to see why they might be deemed necessary. With scarcely any lyrics to latch on to, and the duo's music constructed almost entirely from the classic dance music template of sustained build and euphoric release, the visuals are pretty much the only way to give the production any kind of narrative flow, especially in the light of the decision of the two silent figures on the stage to spend the first hour running through as-yet-unreleased new album "Forever" in its entirety. On this evidence, at least, they seem to have pared back the guest (list) vocals and dotted their music with occasional shards of Atari Teenage Riot-style noise and distortion, but it doesn't seem to be the spectacular return to former form some of us have been patiently awaiting for a decade.


The second half opens with the first recognisable (to me, at least) music of the evening in the form of "Hey Boy Hey Girl", and perhaps it's a measure of the impact of that new material that this track, which in my humble opinion precipitated the landslide in the quality of their work, is the best moment of the night so far. The set mutates into something that almost sounds like them playing DJs with their back catalogue, with familiar elements such as Noel Gallagher's "Setting Sun" vocal juxtaposed with stripped-down alien backdrops. An awesome "Chemical Beats", the one-note acid samba that invented Daft Punk, finally gets me to my feet but, perhaps realising that nothing in their armoury could follow it, at that point the show ends. An evening of occasional pleasures, then, and one that makes me wish I'd seen them in their mid-90s pomp, when their entire catalogue was that marvellous.