Time Travel Paradox
Bobby Gillespie has yet to back himself into a corner. In his thirty-odd year career, Primal Scream’s leading man has somehow managed to avoid being forced to make up his mind when it comes to the genre of his band. Screamadelica gets called an alternative rock classic every now and again, but that classification is pushing it for a record that’s got a handful of straight-up UK acid house songs.
This strategy of non-specialization carries the added benefit of not narrowing the expectations of the Scream’s fanbase, but the group’s latest record Chaosmosis has far more in common with their most well-known album than just a portmanteau title. Primal Scream’s got a well-documented history of deftly incorporating hot new subgenres into their sound, and it continues with their 2016 release. It was as easy as throwing in some UK Garage breakbeats and techno throbs back in 1990, but staying hip is a little trickier in 2016 – now that the cycle of coolness has come full circle.
This time, the name of the game is synthwave, a style characterized by retro-sounding Rolands and stylistic cues from the scores of 1980s science fiction films, re-popularized and reinvigorated in no small part by artists like Mitch Murder, College and the movie Drive. With its tapestry of bleeps and clap-tastic percussion, “(Feeling Like a) Demon Again” is synthpop fit for a John Carpenter dystopia… which, when you stop to think about it, is presumably the synthetic, sterile scene that Primal Scream were rebelling against on their self-titled and Sonic Flower Groove, and the lo-fi, post-punk static of Gillespie’s work with The Jesus and Mary Chain. The end result shares a stylistic border with New Order but has as much in common with electroindie groups of the later 2000s – before the genre really settled into its current set of clichés. It’s much like Caribou and MGMT, reminiscent of Julian Casablancas’ sort of short-lived solo career.
Unlike the 1991 opus that had Rolling Stones-born cuts like “Movin’ On Up” jammed in between twin electro house marathons, the techno rhythms are a bit more evenly distributed throughout Chaosmosis. Sure, the prominence of keyboards vastly outweighs that of guitar; “Autumn In Paradise” features more echoing 808’s than Madonna’s debut album, and “I Can Change” lives in the house that Eno built and Daft Punk inherited. But the record is not without organic touches like jazz flutes and soulful lady vocals. “Trippin’ On Your Love” has the kind of ornate, orchestrated psychedelia that would bring a tear to George Martin’s eye, the kind of rocking swirl that Gillespie began his career in search of.
The synthpop formula works for the majority of Chaosmosis, but the consequences of Gillespie’s inevitable missteps are pretty fucking disastrous. “Where The Light Gets In,” a hyper-energetic duet with fellow retro-ist synthpopper Sky Ferreira, sounds right at home amidst the ranks of radio-ready, guitar-less alternative “rockers” like Capital Cities, Imagine Dragons and Bastille with its huge, pristine, sing-a-along chorus. A grand, hook-driven lead single isn’t unexpected, but the degree which Primal Scream have caved to every conceivable trend is….disappointing, maybe? Disappointing to see such a pillar crumble to modern pressure, to forgo trusting themselves for a contemporary roadmap.
Primal Scream are the kind of group that mighttake offence to the suggestion of their “aging gracefully” – too much genuine youthful energy is still at play in their sound. But they’re doing exactly that. And at the end of the day, it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a band to garage rock forever, especially when most of their members are pushing fifty. Even in the name “garage rock” are embedded expectations about cost of gear and level of exposure. Primal Scream’s sound has been in constant shifting flux since their first blip on mainstream radio, so what they’ve arrived at their 2016 destination through feels like a natural progression. With all the modern trappings, it only feels the slightest bit like your Dad wearing a do-rag and trying to casually drop urban slang like “on fleek” and “dead-ass.”