the secret best album of the 90s

I heard it again for the first time yesterday – How To Operate With A Blown Mind by the Lo-Fidelity Allstars.

You don’t know the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, I guess; at least, you don’t know them any more than you might know Bizet or Wagner. You’d probably recognize the highlights of the music from films and TV, but you wouldn’t know what it was or who wrote it.

But you should.

I know I don’t usually write about music, but on this occasion I just feel I’ve got to. Because, since it came out in 1998, I’ve become more and more convinced that How To Operate With A Blown Mind was – and I say this with no trace of exaggeration or hyperbole – the best and the most creatively brilliant and the most confused and the most passionate and the most exciting record of the 1990s.

There are some records, like Sgt. Pepper or Bringing It All Back Home or London Calling or Disintegration, that encapsulate a mood and a time while somehow transcending it; that are completely of their moment and are still somehow timeless because they have their own journey and tell their own story. Looking back, while we were foolishly debating whether any of Oasis’ interminable pub rock might make it into this category (of course they didn’t), Blown Mind quietly, but certainly, did. This record, a heaving opus of technological confusion and funky, squelchy bass and fin de siecle panic and art poetry and a massive drug overdose and filthy sex and deep, passionate love – this album is the real deal; it’s an electronic dance-rock record that is one of the most human records I have ever heard.61aaaM+TgzL._SS500_

So who were the Lo-Fidelity Allstars? They were just a bunch of guys making what sounds, at first, like electronic dance music. And I didn’t even like electronic dance music until I heard them. Annoyingly, they got tagged with the horrible ‘big beat’ label, though none of the other big beaters were on their level artistically or emotionally. They were different because they weren’t just two nerds fiddling with a synthesizer; they were a real band – a really amazing band, with a proper drummer and the funkiest bass player ever and two keyboardists and a DJ, and a vocalist, a proper vocalist, who wasn’t quite a singer and wasn’t quite a rapper either, but was absolutely a poet as well as being the coolest frontman a band ever had.

And they had crazy names – the singer/rapper/poet had called himself ‘The Wrekked Train’, and given the rest of them equally bonkers pseudonyms like ‘Albino Priest’ (the DJ, whose real name was actually ‘Phil’) and ‘The Slammer’ and ‘A One Man Crowd Called Gentile’. They were phenomenal musicians, and they were batshit crazy.

And they played dance music live.

I saw them once, in Northampton, the week How To Operate With A Blown Mind came out. I was 18. They basically played the album, but the crazy feel of the record seemed even crazier when they were doing it all right in front of us. As I remember, they used to start their performance the same way as the album – with ‘Warming Up The Brain Farm’. It’s a subtle and understated start, with a dischordant, out of time synth loop and a feeling of impending weirdness. And then the Wrekked Train arrives, wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses (and getting away with it indoors because he’s so fucking cool), takes a breath and starts into a bizarre self-reflexive poem in his far away, almost-cockney coked-out sneer: “Dear God…the patient’s best intentions have sadly faltered…” And it gets more and more surreal and tense, until an ominous piano riff starts up behind him and you think the tension can’t mount any more and the Wrekked Train blasts out, “Allsssstaaarrrs takin’ OOOOOVVEERRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!”, and then a funky percussive vocal loop kicks in for a few bars, there’s a pause, and then the band explodes into about a minute and a half of the kind of beat-scratch-sample-bass chaos on a scale that Norman Cook always wanted to make but couldn’t in a million years and everyone who hears it starts jumping up and down and dancing and doesn’t stop…

But even though the beats are huge, the record isn’t just about that – ‘Will I Get Out Of Jail’ is properly soulful and even has a properly-sung chorus; on ‘I Used To Fall In Love’, there’s a piano ballad in amongst the explosions and noise, and a lead guitar part that carries so much screaming, squealing beauty and pain that it’s almost unbearable. And then you check the sleeve notes because you have to find out what kind of genius session musician they got to play that guitar part – and it turns out it was the band’s manager. And his name is ‘The Disco Bison’.

So the record has its emotional ups and downs – but it’s the ups that make it really great: the political fury of ‘Battleflag’, and the epic ‘Vision Incision’ that closes the album with its heavenly vocal samples and a bass part that is, without doubt, one of the most disciplined, patiently built-up crescendos of soul and groove that I think any bass player has accomplished since Visions of Johanna.

And the biggest up is the climax of ‘Blisters On My Brain’. That’s the song that turned me from a person who didn’t like house music, didn’t really get it, to being, well, someone who loves this kind of house music. House music that takes you, without any drugs even being necessary, to what feels like the next level up… To hear the climax – the release – at the end of ‘Blisters On My Brain’, in a room of 1,000 people who feel the same way; this is to understand the point of dance music, not just contemporary electronic dance music but the dance music that existed since even before the tribal dances of early man, before the Ancient Greek Orgia, before the hysterical dances of religious ecstasy in the Middle Ages, before Schopenhauer, before Hesse wrote Steppenwolf. It is to be at once completely within yourself while, simultaneously, everyone else becomes completely within you too and you are completely within them, the principium individuationis is shattered, nothing exists except everything, and everything exists in just one note and one exploding, primal, pounding beat…

It was never going to last, of course. ‘Battleflag’ went top 20 in the US but The Wrekked Train decided that that he didn’t want to tour and left the band. And then Albino Priest decided that he wanted to just be called ‘Phil’, and the band have staggered on, admittedly with no dishonour, though as a far more pedestrian outfit. They brought out another album, Don’t Be Afraid Of Love, a few years later; it had a beautiful piece of disco fun on it called ‘Feel What I Feel’, which is worth buying the album for alone. But there was never any chance of recreating what had been – the art had gone.

The last words of that first record were a sample that went, “I had no idea it was going to end in such tragedy.” But it always was going to. As a band, their talent was just too explosively chaotic to hold together for long…

Anyway. If you’ve never heard How To Operate With A Blown Mind, you have to hear it. If you like electronica and rock, and want to know what the future felt like in 1998, you have to hear it immediately. If you don’t: well, as soon as you’re feeling open-minded and artistic enough, then you know where to start.

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5 Comments

  1. God I love that album.
    Saw them do most of it at Bugged Out in Liverpool circa 1999. Brilliant.

  2. UPDATE! you can now listen to the album for free on spotify at http://open.spotify.com/album/68hVq0qabp8d6s6VGB63tn – do it now.

  3. great review of a great band. i used to code to this album during the internet bubble in the ’90s…to me it is linked to what it felt like to be working *on* the future.

  4. Man, you have written so perfectly about this album it is absolutely one of the best albums of all time, I am listening to.Blisters On My Brain right now and of anything it is better the thousandth time round, a perfect blend of talent and imagination, all too rare. Thanks for the great read, it actually gave me goosebumps while reading, great stuff.

    • No problem! You’ve made me want to go and listen to it again, now…


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