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Manic Street Preachers – In Retrospect

Posted in Feature, Music, Review, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2014 by David Hall

futurology
With the upcoming release of Futurology, remarkably the Manic Street Preachers’ fourteenth studio album, now seems a good time to rank their albums from worst to best.

Know Your Enemy
know your enemy
There’s no getting away from the fact that Know Your Enemy is a bad record, for my money the only one in the Manics cannon. Their sixth album came at arguably the crest of their commercial wave, a year after their standalone single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ topped the UK singles charts. In what must be the closest thing to a Situationist stunt a major label band could pull off, the single was deleted upon its release day. Refamiliarising the Manics with their previous alt rock leanings, ‘Masses’ was a useful signpost towards Know Your Enemy’s overall direction, if something of a decoy as the latter album probably represents the biggest dropped ball of the band’s career to date.

That’s not to say there aren’t some good, often great moments; ‘The Convalescent’ harks back to their lyrically-dense days, guitarist James Dean Bradfield finding all kinds of interesting voicings to his chords both here and on the spiky ‘Intravenous Agnostic’. His fine work is also on display in his lyrical debut, a touching tribute to his late mother ‘Ocean Spray’, featuring some excellent textural lead guitar work from him. Co-songwriter Sean Moore’s strident drum riff propels ‘Found That Soul’, and his fills on the aforementioned ‘Intravenous Agnostic’ are startlingly energetic and precise. Mouthpiece and sometime bassist Nicky Wire’s spotlight ‘Watsville Blues’ however is poor, his voice ill-suited to the song and his recycled, endlessly repeated lyrics weak.

Stylistically Know Your Enemy ping-pongs from stripped-back power trio punk (‘Found That Soul’), through lush art pop (‘So Why So Sad’) to a lamentable take on disco (the apocalyptically misinformed ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’), whilst pointedly avoiding the typical trappings of mainstream success. There’s barely a string section in sight. Unfortunately the record isn’t wholly successful even in doing this, with some inaccessibly expensive gear backing up its more avant garde sounds such as ‘My Guernica’s crashing wall of sound outro.

The album is overlong, sporting a running time even outstripping Generation Terrorists, discussion on which to follow, and very much feels so. It isn’t a record that the listener would particularly want to get lost in, its hooks are densely hidden in the unfocussed undergrowth and its standout moments dotted sporadically through the daunting tracklisting. Whilst the opening five tracks are strong, at other times the album can feel a slog, hidden bonus track – a widescreen but faithful rendition of the excellent McCarthy’s ‘We Are All Bourgeois Now’ – notwithstanding.

In its favour, the record is matched to its artwork well, which is an obscuring squall of noise and colour and words, polemic clashing with dissonant streaked paint on an almost militaristic blue-grey background. It’s actually a fascinating piece, full of impressionistic rawness, frustration (“the fucking picture is almost done” a block of text from the artist reads) and also obvious beauty. A work that Know Your Enemy’s music never quite matches; it was an experiment in how far a three-piece aesthetic could be pushed and a calculatedly far cry from the orchestration of their previous two albums. Overall though? Unlistenable.

Lifeblood
lifeblood
Unfairly maligned but perhaps justifiably overlooked in their oeuvre, 2003’s Lifeblood showed the band maturing, and not just in terms of their sound. They went for ‘elegaic pop’ and fell someway short – the whole record feels a little misguided in its attempts at this, as brave an effort as it is – but the highs outway the lows. Nothing’s particularly terrible, it’s just that nothing’s particularly memorable either, which is a shame as Lifeblood remains entirely listenable. The band themselves have stated they regard Lifeblood as something of a misstep that failed to play to their strengths and forced them down sonic avenues unsuited to them. A brutally honest assessment and there’s nothing wrong with experimentation, in hindsight the error came if anything through not taking their overhaul far enough.

Whilst there are subtle but definite synth-based differences in sound, ‘Empty Souls’ for example wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the band’s Everything Must Go or This is My Truth era output. On tracks such as ‘To Repel Ghosts’ and ‘Emily’ the guitar work chimes and shimmers rather than bites, everything sounding just a little bit too squeaky clean. Again, these aren’t necessarily bad songs, ‘To Repel Ghosts’ in particular gallops nicely as it reaches its peak; its ambient section is similarly well done, Bradfield’s spectral voice echoing endlessly as his guitar cycles the song’s riff. Check out ‘A Song For Departure’ and the restrained, Michael Jackson-like rhythm section of funky bass and precise, hi-hat led drum fills. No, seriously. ‘Solitude Sometimes Is’ would have found better favour on almost any other album in their career, a huge, so-earnest-it’s-almost-tongue-in-cheek midtempo ballad which houses power and songwriting prowess. But again, other than its subsidiary touches of electronica, it sounds much more an appeasing nod to experimentation than a Kid A-esque feet-first plunge into waters of questionable temperature.

A toothless mix certainly doesn’t help the album, but that’s really just symbolic of its problems. The band made a conscious effort to ‘grow up’ and to restrain themselves. Nobody could ever accuse the Manics of being an AC/DC ‘make the same album every time’ sort of band, but the accusation that they were attempting to add a further string to an already-overloaded bow certainly sounds well-founded, particularly listening back now. Lifeblood failed to ingratiate itself with the record buying public and sales were disappointing, critics also split on the album’s merits for a second studio release. Perhaps tellingly the band chose to punctuate their studio releases with a near-inevitable greatest hits package Forever Delayed, which forgivably cherry-picked chart successes over cult favourites. In the bigger picture however, it was a continuation of a barren run album-wise and by the end of Lifeblood’s touring cycle the Manics saw a step back down from arenas to theatres.

Gold Against the Soul
Gold Against the Soul
Holistically, the band’s sophomore effort is arguably weaker than Lifeblood. It’s a shoddy, slapdash affair that is only saved by the paydirt of its handful of classics. A rushed-feeling compilation released little more than a year after their debut, with the band needing to prove themselves to an unimpressed major record label, as strange as that may seem contemporarily. They promised to shift 16 million copies of their exhaustive debut; they sold barely 250,000 worldwide and now staggered blinking into the harsh sunlight of that difficult second album.

This is a record from the early-to-mid nineties which (although admittedly isn’t exactly a hotbed of timeless production decisions, hi there Screamadelica) just sounds insanely dated. Bear in mind that this was from the same year as In Utero, Siamese Dream, Rid of Me, Bjork’s Debut, Yo La Tengo’s Painful, none of which have suffered time’s ravages as much as Gold Against the Soul. It’s an ill-considered, genreless record that stumbles from the more bloated excesses of G’nR Californian hard rock, a rattling, baggy-style tinny percussiveness and floral shirt-wearing classic rawk.

The overarching emotion listening to Gold Against the Soul today is frustration. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad it’s horrid. The band clearly knew where the album’s potency lay, and it’s no coincidence that the opening three tracks comprise two Manics setlist staples and one cult classic. These strong tracks are furiously undeniable, ‘From Despair To Where’ snapping from terse palm-muting through whirling, choppy riffs to eventual expansiveness. The slow-building, strangely anthemic ‘La Tristesse Durera’ is strident, confident stuff, Bradfield ranging from falsetto over the bassy intro to his signature roar over swept, rumbling guitar. Moore keeps it on-message throughout, delivering a simple and straightforward ‘big’ sound, throwing in some deceptively complex fills when it counts. Then there’s ‘Sleepflower’, something of a pop-metal cliché in retrospect which now sounds far more fun than was probably originally intended, through which Wire’s lumbering bass work unapologetically crashes. But then there are wasteland tracks such as ‘Symphony of Tourette’ and ‘Yourself’ (livened in parts by a valiant JDB vocal performance, which is in turn hamstrung by the toe-curling spoken word sections) that should really have just been cut adrift to B-side-dom. ‘Nostalgic Pushead’ is just… there. Rather than include 4:15 of silence instead, the band delivered this unfocussed, by-the-numbers stomp whose uninspired and unwelcome chorus feels as if it comes around almost metronomically. The cracks show more than anywhere else on ‘Drug Drug Druggy’, a song which should have been drowned at birth and is lyrically littered with poorly-constructed lines that even Bradfield’s fearless voice can’t dust off. Lines like, “Dance like a robot when you’re chained at the knee, the CIA say you’re all they’ll ever need”, fail utterly to please the ear, and do so without any semblance of profundity. It’s a mess, and something of an achievement for a ten-track album to host filler, but Gold Against the Soul manages a fair amount.

Later on, looking past their flaws which lie mostly in production and arrangement (in almost a trope of its misguided nature, the album bizarrely features M People percussionist and sometime ‘90s kids TV presenter Shovel amongst its personnel), the other two singles ‘Life Becoming a Landslide’ and ‘Roses In The Hospital’ are also strong. It’s telling however that aside from the opener, the only really worthwhile album track is the title track, with its spiralling guitar riff and focussed lyrical assault. As a side-note, it’s baffling to think that this ponderous-sounding album was recorded at the same time as the curt, snarling ‘Comfort Comes’ (see the Life Becoming A Landslide EP or the rather good Lipstick Traces b-side album for easier access), which would signpost their next infamous move.

Generation Terrorists
generation terrorists
The band’s glam-punk debut feels something of a curio today. It sounds almost antiquated, certainly the least recapturable era of the Manics’ existence. That it precedes the verdant aural pastures of Everything Must Go by just five years is just as remarkable, as is the visual counterpiece the album found in the promo video for its most durable track ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. The beautifully photographed clip is a Tokyo-shot paean to alienation, all moody shots of four disaffected youths in the baffling sprawl of a supermetropolis.

So too the youths’ debut, which features a near absence of self-awareness; no pose struck is too camp, no solo too masturbatory, no lyric too outlandishly dogmatic. Production-wise however it’s a record largely inkeeping with the Manics’ sensibilities. Only a couple at most of their studio albums possess what one could term a ‘snarl’, and the slick Generation Terrorists certainly isn’t one of them. It is however decidedly emblematic of the band’s ‘kitchen sink’ phase, further evidence of which can be found in the Heavenly version of ‘Spectators of Suicide’ which features samples, curtains of vast guitar squall, a disconcertingly loud live-sounding drum track and a punishing, vocal-burying mix.

Today Terrorists feels bloated and pompous, overlong too at eighteen tracks. It’s infuriating, as the chaff is so obvious as to barely need stating; losing the re-recorded ‘Spectators of Suicide’ (sounding, according to the band, like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’), ‘Repeat (Stars and Stripes)’ and ‘Damn Dog’ would have resulted immediately in a leaner record. It’s interesting to note that the US version features a vastly reworked second side opening with ‘You Love Us’ whilst also pillaging ‘Democracy Coma’ from the ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ single, strangely at the expense of the far more saveable ‘So Dead’ and ‘Methadone Pretty’, whilst keeping ‘Repeat (Stars and Stripes)’ intact. Perhaps I digress in my anorakishness, but you too can play this distracting game; just select twelve or thirteen tracks from the album and its associated b-sides and arrange tastefully. It’s harder than you think to compose your own “Dream Generation Terrorists tracklist” – try it yourself! And I’ll see you next time, ta-ra everyone!
art-attack
The material from this era was of a high standard, and should you have a go of this activity you’ll appreciate how difficult it is to cull some tracks. In view of this, it’s perhaps understandable that Gold Against the Soul felt so threadbare. There was and is no denying that Manic Street Preachers were a potent creative force at this point, Bradfield and Moore crafting at times unwieldy lyrics into hookish singalongs even on relatively forgotten tracks like ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Another Invented Disease’. At times the lyrics pass into self-parody in their screed-like indignation (“Our lives fade into a faceless sense of void, everything of meaning becomes destroyed”, ‘Love’s Sweet Exile’ almost cracks a smile pre-chorus) but whatever criticisms can be thrown from this angle mostly are deflected. They’re polemical sure, but so were The Clash, and nobody derisively snorts “collegiate” at the anointed words passed down to our earthly plane by Saint Joe of Strummer.

Ambitious is a word that springs to mind. As is overreach, but there’s a great deal of success to be found in this youthful grand folly.

Postcards From A Young Man
postcards from a young man
There’s plenty to love about Postcards, and not a lot to dislike. Taken as a whole, the material is strong. And I really don’t know why it isn’t higher on the list, apart from to say it simply wouldn’t be my first choice of an album to listen to. As a cohesive whole it just doesn’t quite grab in the same way as some other records, which is strange given that This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours is higher on the list and really couldn’t be considered much of a cohesive whole at all.

Let’s start with the positives then, which are numerous. The album kicks off in assured style with ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’, which smacks of classic Manics, from its guitar motif, avalanching drum fill and string section flourish, diving into a lyrically insightful verse (“do you see the stars or the darkness begin”) and resurfaces into a soaring chorus. Wire’s playful bass fills and vocal interjections later on shows a playful side to a band considered by many to be unrepentant miserablists. From the title track’s seesawing guitar riff and ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’’ inspired Ian McCulloch collab, both combust into deliberately towering choruses, the former with a braying string section and the latter with an ecstatic choir arrangement. The appropriately tumbling opening chords to ‘The Descent’ settles the album into a less eager-to-please frame of mind, but still captivates with its snaking string lines and almost military drumming. ‘Golden Platitudes’ sees the band shamelessly delivering the kind of towering, stately ballad that has become almost second nature to them, consciously playing to their strengths. Both these tracks and the album as a whole has a swagger about it, and can feel effortless at times. Even the slightly less remarkable but no less listenable tracks like ‘Auto-Intoxication’ and ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ have a sense of seasoned confidence to them.

The main problem is that some tracks veer a little too close to self-parody to be truly memorable, ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ being an obvious case in point. But so too ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’, Wire’s voice not quite filling the spaces as Bradfield’s does and finding awkward syllables where he wouldn’t. It also manages to shoehorn in some brass, which smacks slightly of the ‘if in doubt, chuck some brass on it’ crutch the Manics have often leant upon in the second half of their career. On a mainly electric album, ‘I Think I Found It’’s wonky mandola intro is a little jarring and ‘Hazleton Avenue’ really is only remarkable for being so pedestrian. Those relatively minor missteps in places do add up to conspire against Postcards being a really great record, teetering as it often does between greatness and mediocrity, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless. It’s something of a backhanded compliment to describe a band’s tenth album as ‘solid’, so I’ll steer away from that.

This is My Truth Tell Me Yours
this is my truth tell me yours
Slick, widescreen, radio-friendly arena rock was the order of the day here, critics rushing to heap praise and the British record-buying public lapping up the Manics’ fifth album. If Everything Must Go’s alt rock was their breakthrough, the unabashed pop of This is My Truth propelled the band to the top of the UK album and single charts and into the nation’s consciousness. Commendably, it was pop on the Manics’ own terms, with their first Number One Single tackling the Spanish Civil War; a homage to Homage to Catalonia.

However that’s something of a testament to its coffee table status, with the previously leftfield punks edging into the mainstream and with the weighty influence of several successful singles behind it earmarking the record as suspiciously ‘cool’ to eulogise. The album that had every conceivable plaudit levelled at it following its release has if anything had its flaws exposed more and more obviously as the Manics’ catalogue has flourished. This is My Truth is a scattered affair, pinballing between chart-conquering singles and if not quite ‘the rest’, then several tracks which lack direction.

Their well-deserved and forever-delayed (I’m here all week) commercial success came at a couple of expenses; the skippable track count was upped from zero on the past two albums to… well, you decide. ‘I’m Not Working’? No thanks. ‘Born a Girl’? Next. ‘Be Natural’? For me, it’s onto ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’. The record is far from bland – it’s a wonderfully textured affair – but it is effused with all the possibilities at the bands disposal, the washing strings and collapsing percussion on the aforementioned ‘Black Dog’’s outro counterstruck by ‘Nobody Loved You’’s crashing powerchords and strident lead guitar work is excellent. Elsewhere experimental tickboxes are triumphantly and confidently stamped, ‘Tsunami’’s reverberating sitar work sets it up whilst a truly colossal chorus (and of course those “in-between, in-between, in-between, in-between” bits) smashes it out of the park whilst the odd scales and the subsonic bass rumble of ‘My Little Empire’ feels like finding a jewel in the grass. That really says it all however as setting aside from the album’s singles, the remaining tracks can be quite categorised quite easily as successful and unsuccessful.

What This is My Truth does most effectively is prove that a big-selling record could tackle issues of real gravity without censoring intellectualism (‘SYMM’) and could explore poetic emotionality (‘Tsunami’) successfully without resorting to needless sentiment.

Send Away the Tigers
send away the tigers
Three years after the poorly-received Lifeblood and a tour in support of The Holy Bible’s tenth anniversary, the Manics found their feet again with this record. The interceding period saw a clutch of solo records, the diversionary and now almost entirely obscure God Save the Manics EP and a contribution to the Help: A Day in the Life charity album. I mention the latter as in hindsight it seems indicative of the Manics route from the sterile atmosphere of Lifeblood to Send Away the Tigers, a summery guitar rock record. That track was ‘Leviathan’, a short, straightforward, sample-introed feather boas-and all stomper, featuring Bradfield’s guitar histrionics right up front and sees him snarling, cooing and roaring Wire’s hostile subject matters (cold war militant/borderline terrorist group Baader-Meinhof and the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, kids!), a world away from the soft-focus of their previous album.

So it was pleasing to see the band return to an unfussy setup free from the convolutions of their previous two albums, the hit-but-mostly-miss experiment of Know Your Enemy and the ideologically flawed Lifeblood. They seemed once more comfortable in their own skin. This embracing of their past would become pivotal for the band from this point on, Everything Must Go no more. The realisation seems to have slowly dawned on them that they need not keep forging ahead with the same approach. Once they “escaped from their history”, but this no longer worked for them and they would have to take one step back in order to make two steps forward. Arguably they ended up making several steps forward, and Tigers pinpoints this sea change in the band. It represents an acceptance of what they’re good at, and rather than continually – some might say belligerently – pushing on doors marked ‘pull’, they seemed liberated from this point.

At a lean ten tracks, the album seems built from the ground up as a re-establishment of a band many had earmarked as a spent creative force. The choruses therefore range from huge – ‘Imperial Bodybags’ is delirious stuff, Bradfield’s voice hitting an almost frenzied pitch at times – to holy-mother-of-God enormous, such as ‘The Second Great Depression’, which is a gigantic sledgehammer of a song from beginning to end, shifting from loud to louder. The title track’s helter-skelter of a guitar riff writhes its wide-eyed way through hook after hook like a child in a sweet shop. Lead single ‘Your Love Alone is Not Enough’ is an undeniable pop gem full of delicious self-reference which fits Nina Persson’s voice like a glove (and is transformed brilliantly in the live arena into a laddish gang-vocal rocker).

There is a real sense of last hurrahism to SATT, a sense of “if this doesnt sell, we might as well pack this in, because we’re all out of moves”. What remains is an escape from check and the sense of abandon, the loss of inhibition, suits the band well. Even the title – a phrase used by late comedian Tony Hancock meaning to escape demons through drink – harks back to this, connotative of dispelling scavengers circling, or of a stay of execution from the lions’ den. Tigers bursts with insistence, “we’re alive” it screams on every track, victoriously so.

Rewind the Film
rewind the film
“I don’t want my children to grow up like me; it’s too soul destroying, it’s a mocking disease. A wasting disease,” opens 2013’s Rewind the Film. It’s symbolic of the record’s sentiment as a whole, addressing middle age as an epoch “caught between acceptance and rage” according to ‘Builder of Routines’, another of the album’s most ear-catching and important missives. Their most recent album really is very good, good enough to nudge it right onto the periphery of their ‘essential’ body of work, which in my mind is comprised of three records.

The highlights come in wholly unexpected places, and are all the more thrilling for that. The guest spots are all equally as inspired as each other, the title track’s cathartic nostalgia and opener ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’’s resigned calendar-glancing both emotional and beautifully performed. But on ‘4 Lonely Roads’, even eleven albums into their career, the Manics throw something entirely unexpected at the listener in Cate le Bon’s vocal. It creates an entirely different atmosphere, at once cavernous and reverby yet intimate, which intricate piano lines and staccato percussion tiptoe around. Even the bombastic elements the band would usually be expected to excel at have been honed, singles ‘Show Me the Wonder’ a brass-led yet minimalist Motownish sketch with a gleefully bashed-out drum part and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ a blend of interwoven acoustic licks. As far away from previous performances most kindly described as ‘patchy’, Nicky Wire puts in a commendable shift on lead vocals of ‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’, encapsulating the album’s approach in its keys-led stomp of feeling proud of a fondly-revisited past that is perhaps best visited in nostalgia solely. ‘Builder of Routines’ features a beautiful flugelhorn solo reminiscent of ‘God Only Knows’ of all things, probably the most successful use of an orchestral instrument the Manics have dreamed up in a long streak of swings and misses.

The mellow, acoustic nature of the album fits both the material and its performers well, neither risking finding the middle of the road. Before recording Lifeblood, Wire stated that the Manics wished to make their Nebraska, Springsteen’s follow-up to his exhaustive double album The River. Whilst it seems unlikely that Futurology will be greeted as the Manics’ Born in the USA, the band seem to have almost unwittingly made an album far more faithful to that template, in the sparse, well-arranged songs and hushed, emotive atmosphere of Rewind the Film. They’ve also brought with them the wisdom of experience; the stories and memories captured here really do feel Springsteenian in their everymanish triumphalism, offset and belied by some ‘it’ll be alright in the end’ hopelessness.

It’s a young album that already feels worthy of repeated revisits in years to come, and may well prove to age better than arguably any of the albums named above.

Journal For Plague Lovers
journal for plague lovers
It’s fair to say that reservations of this album’s concept were widely held and perhaps justified upon its announcement. Dredging back through their history, the band decided to record an album based on lyrics left to them by Richey Edwards shortly before his disappearance and probable suicide. The resultant atmosphere is admittedly a strange one, but also a massive catharsis that propels the album into the periphery of greatness. Any suspicions of a cash-in wringing dry the band’s past and their former members’ legacy were quickly dispelled however by Journal for Plague Lovers’ content. Comparisons with the Manics’ third album were almost inevitable upon JFPL’s release, but to the band’s credit, it’s the two albums’ disparities that are most noticeable.

Edwards’ memory is kindled and celebrated unashamedly, and the mental hurdle of the Manics revisiting his lyrics posthumously after all this time is conquered, Journal For Plague Lovers becomes a touching and fitting tribute. The artwork repeats its use of The Holy Bible’s inverted typeface, as well as another painted cover by Jenny Saville, this time her austere and strongly figurative 2005 portrait Stare. There were no singles released from the album, and other than its dedicated promotional tour in which the Manics played the record from beginning to end each night, its tracks have been retired from live performance. The credits list their missing bandmate as Richard Edwards, the centre spread occupied by a single monochrome photo of him in authorial pose hunched over a typewriter, hair pragmatically short, his tattoo of Purgatory on show. It’s almost as if the band are collectively carrying Edwards’ ashes throughout, as if they are merely a conduit for his words. The lyrics themselves are studied; not quite restrained but certainly showing more metricality than the dense, polysyllabic tracts of The Holy Bible.

Similarly Journal For Plague Lovers lacks the musical flights of fancy characterising The Holy Bible; everything here is terse and succinct, with barely an inch of fat on the album. There are no extensive solos, the riffs are hookish and memorable yet unobtrusive, transmitting and punctuating the lyrics without encroaching upon their spotlight. The guitar work is never boastful, be that ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’’s quick change sustains and pull-offs, the title track’s ringing, open-chorded chorus motif or ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’’s choppy signature riff. The almost industrial clank of ‘Peeled Apples’’ drum intro, Wire’s lurking bass and Bradfield’s post-punk toned guitar, combine into a chiselled, sickly sexy version Public Image Ltd. ‘All is Vanity’’s atonal intro unfurls into stuttering, blocky riff punctuated with a strident bassline as Edwards’ neuroses are poured forth. Most riffs are found within picked chords rather than the head-on assault of its companion record The Holy Bible and lead guitar is refined into concise fills rather than extensive solos. Perhaps it’s not representative who they are as musicians these days to wring guitar necks and whistle up and down fretboards, but if their comments and teasers of Futurology are anything to go by, a revisit could well be due.

Everything Must Go
everything must go
Let’s face it, these two were always going to be top-two, the only question is their order.

The backstory of Everything Must Go surely must have come from one of the most emotionally exhausting periods it’s possible to imagine a group of friends experiencing, never mind a music group. The psychological torture Bradfield, Moore and Wire must have gone through for all those years, treading on eggshells whilst Edwards teetered on the emotional edge, was above and beyond what most people experience in a lifetime. Dip into literally any Manics biography detailing the years of 1992 to 1995 and you’ll be as shocked at the near-daily scares revolving around Edwards as you’ll be impressed by his bandmates’ courage amidst his fragility.

The fact that the three remaining Preachers didn’t break down emotionally themselves during this time or following Edwards’ disappearance was incredible, that they were then able to produce any work of creativity not far short of a miracle. Then to produce an artistic and career highpoint so disparate to what they had previously done is just as remarkable; with all due respect, it feels like the reigns were taken off and the band were able to spread their wings without Edwards’ baggage weighing them down. His shadow nevertheless looms large over Everything Must Go’s entirety from the sparse cover art with its empty brackets upwards. This sense of bereavement is never more prevalent than on ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky’, whose sentiments really stick in the throat, knowing what came next in its lyricist’s life. To the Manics’ credit, there is never the sense that their bandmate is speaking from beyond the grave; this is an intellectually and conceptually transcendent record at times, but never a séance.

You can feel the release and catharsis throughout the album, in the spacious arrangements no longer scrawled over with endless words. ‘Interiors (Song For Willem De Kooning)’ is a bright and optimistic acceptance of such a shift, Bradfield’s voice reaching into a high register as currents of guitars undertow in a climbing chord sequence. Most tracks are so famous that they barely need description, ‘Kevin Carter’’s arch guitar work and canny trumpet use a case in point. ‘Australia’ sees the band in high gear at their bombastic best, all galloping drums and slashed guitars. ‘A Design for Life’ must have a painting in its attic as it simply never ages, sounding as fresh and exciting as the day it was recorded, especially its timeless outro of unadorned drums. Even ‘The Girl Who Wanted To Be God’, arguably the weakest track is kept anchored by its octave-scaling chorus amidst its string-laden storm. Never afraid to experiment with unconventional guitar tones, Everything Must Go’s palette is often overlooked in this regard, from ‘Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier’’s trebly distortion to the clean, natural rumble of ‘Removables’.

The Holy Bible
the holy bible
Wire and Edwards’ lyrics found their voices most effectively on The Holy Bible, never before or since has such striking imagery and such a forceful voice been crammed between bars. The lyrics are so dense that the music is actually stripped back, sparse in places with riffs composed of just a few repeated notes or a variation on a scale. See ‘Ifwhiteamerica…’ for a salient case in point, a corkscrewing intro guitar riff whirling into Bradfield’s droning, ringing verse notes as he machine-guns his lines. ‘Of Walking Abortion’’s abrasive harmonics and mechanised, chiding guitar fills reflect well the nihilistic lyrical matter, Edwards channelling militant feminist Valerie Solanos’ writings. The death rattle of Bradfield’s jarring guitar intro coupled with Moore’s thundering drum part heralds ‘Die in the Summertime’ more than appropriately.

It’s an uncompromisingly bold, fearlessly audacious record full of stringent creative decisions. ‘Faster’’s furiously pummelling head-down bass drone drives its verses before a slew of self mutilation is spewed out over Moore’s frantic octopus-armed cymbal clashing and gnashing, descending guitar lines elsewhere. ‘Archives of Pain’ fans out from its terse, foreboding bass intro to hammerblowing a staccato chord sequence and ends in a near two-minute guitar solo.

Everywhere you look there is utter, abject horror. ‘Mausoleum’ renders the Holocaust as an incomprehensible, apocalyptic annihilation, such rending of human life as an affront to nature itself (“No birds – no birds, the sky is swollen black” gasps Bradfield, sounding as if he is recoiling in revulsion). The harrowing ‘4st 7lb’ borderline glorifies anorexia and dysmorphia, gouging out its manifesto in the most poetic yet disturbing imagery possible, “I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view; I wanna walk in the snow and not leave a footprint… and not soil its purity”. The churning, broiling industrial krautrock of ‘The Intense Humming of Evil’ opens with a chilling reading from the Nuremburg Trials. There’s a nightmarish screed of self-loathing in ‘Faster’. A future of physical degradation and a longing to be snuffed from this world in ‘Die in the Summertime’. Even the Wire-penned lyrics tap into this abject, dolorous atmosphere, the crushing emotions of ‘This is Yesterday’ sobbing, “I repent, I’m sorry, everything is falling apart”.

It’s an unflinching work that picks at scabs by seeming to exalt what it detests most, full of allusions redolent with meaning and dripping with Edwards’ fierce, flawed intellect. The record feels almost skeletal in places, working itself into the ground it’s so busy leaping from one idea to the next, one riff to the next. Song structures are contorted with so much to say in so little time, siphoning its fuel from some intrinsically integral place like a collapsing star or a starving organism.

Even at nearly an hour, the running time simply flies by as the listener is kept rapt. There are no inconsistencies in quality here, no high or low waterlines. It’s a dark, uncompromisingly visceral vision made terrifyingly yet brilliantly real. The Holy Bible is the Manic Street Preachers’ best album not because it taps so successfully into such unspeakable emotions as no other record has, but because quite simply it’s one of the best albums ever recorded.