With the second and third Smashing Pumpkins albums firmly entrenched in just about every recently published "All Time Top nnn Albums" listing (apart from our own, I’m sorry to say), "Adore" would inevitably be a keenly anticipated release, even without the continual stream of difficulties that leaked out of the Pumpkins camp during its gestation (the drug-related death of their tour keyboard player and subsequent sacking of their drummer, Billy Corgan’s on-off production duties on the new Hole album, guitarist James Iha taking time out to record an album of mellow country-rock-ish love songs...). Factor in a bizarre NME review that compared "Adore" to two of the finest albums of modern times ("OK Computer" and "Mezzanine") before awarding it a derisory 5 out of 10. Finally, copies of the limited edition American vinyl release have reached these shores (trailing the CD by three months), and we can at last decide for ourselves.

"Adore" is terrific - every bit the equal of its illustrious forebears - but it’s a strange album too, about as much a rehash of "Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness" as that bombastic triple set was a carbon copy of "Siamese Dream" - i.e. not at all. The fifteen tracks (one fewer than the CD, which had an extra 17 seconds of what my mate Vic describes as ‘scary piano music’) are predominately ballads, believe it or not, as mellow in feel as the last album’s "1979" but considerably less orthodox in instrumentation. Finding themselves without a drummer has meant that most of the songs are propelled by drum loops and synths, with nary a trace of the guitar burnout excess that has become their hallmark. What this restraint does mean is that when they do finally ‘cut loose’, with an immaculate fuzz guitar solo halfway through the penultimate track, the eight-minute "For Martha", the impact is incredible.

Picking highlights is difficult because "Adore" is pretty consistently wonderful, but a brace of songs that form the album’s centrepiece - "Appels + Oranjes", "The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete" and "Annie-Dog" are the closest to best for me. But the whole is so delightfully strange - with the Pumpkins meddling with primitive beat boxes and melodies that you could almost dance to, if they were two or three times faster - that interest never flags. I would hesitantly suggest that "Adore" could be their best yet, if it weren’t so different from the rest of their catalogue as to make comparisons pointless. Don’t be deterred by the lukewarm reviews in the music press, or the unspectacular (so far) chart positions of the singles; this is a truly fine album, and yet another that deserves to figure prominently in the end-of-year beanfests.

After all that gushing praise please permit me a few lines to whinge about the quality of the pressing - nasty thin vinyl, with the whole album senselessly squeezed onto three sides instead of four, meaning that the first two sides are pushing half-an-hour each, with a corresponding dive in sound quality. And as well as excising the CD’s brief final track, the lyrics present in the CD booklet seem to have disappeared. Such curmudgeonly penny-pinching is especially galling given than, when "Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness" finally made it to vinyl it did so as a cherishably luxurious numbered triple album, with a huge booklet and extra tracks. Ho hum.

THE SMASHING PUMPKINS MACHINA | the machines of God (Hut)

So this is to be the Pumpkins' last will and testament, as, following the slight return of errant drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, they have decided to split following their final British dates at the end of the year. And if this doomy, portentous, pretentious music is what they really want to be remembered for the end can't arrive swiftly enough. "MACHINA | the machines of God" (and yes, it seems it has to be written like that) is overblown and overweight, as if the band were desperately in thrall with the rattling ghost of the mighty Black Sabbath, but completely blinded to that band's (literally) wicked sense of humour and quicksilver dynamics. Here the Pumpkins do little but plod over the album's four interminable sides, the leaden tunery dragged even further into the mire by the kind of thunderingly obscure lyricism that inevitably accompanies songs called stuff like "The Sacred And Profane", "The Imploding Voice", "Glass And The Ghost Children" and "The Crying Tree Of Mercury" and Flood's claustrophobic production, which suffocates almost every track under thick sheets of guitar work.

Only one song emerges from this sorry, tangled mess with any dignity: "Try, Try, Try" is a gorgeous, chiming pop song that would have gambolled happily amidst the greener grass of their last long-playing outing, the criminally neglected "Adore". Otherwise, "MACHINA | the machines of God" is a gruelling way to spend an hour, an effect unleavened by the booklet's lavish illustrations and Billy Corgan's short story reprinted therein (in a font so contorted and on paper so translucent as to render it illegible). Gather up "Siamese Dream", your own personal favourite parts of "Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness" and "Adore" if you want to know why we should mourn the Pumpkins' passing: "MACHINA | the machines of God" will leave you wishing it had happened sooner.

James Iha