If They Move, Kill ‘Em: Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR at 20

On their sixth album, the Scottish greats rang in the millennium with digital fire

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream. (Art: Ron Hart)

Primal Scream really began in 1990. They’d been around since 1982 in one form or another, and their first two albums have their fans, but the truth is, without “Loaded,” no one would care about them today.

That single, a radically transformed version of their song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have,” almost singlehandedly created a blend of indie rock and dance groove that swept the UK and the Anglophilic sectors of the US “alternative” scene in the early ’90s. Their 1991 album Screamadelica built on that sound, a swirling blend of blissed-out guitar-pop, ambient dub, and acid house that was like nothing else at the time and still holds up surprisingly well.

The album was effectively a one-off, though. The band’s leader, singer Bobby Gillespie, took Primal Scream down several blind alleys in the years that followed. First came a misguided attempt to be the Black Crowes on 1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up. That album’s cover art — a neon Confederate flag — is the least of its problems. Then came 1997’s Vanishing Point. A murky blend of Can, Funkadelic, Hawkwind, and ’70s Miles Davis (“Out of the Void” features a prominent sample of tabla, sitar and electronics from On The Corner), it was original, if not particularly enjoyable, and was followed, four months later, by an Adrian Sherwood-helmed dub remix album, Echo Dek, that was better in theory than in practice. It took them a decade after breaking through with “Loaded” to come up with another truly great idea…and they haven’t done it again since.

 

VIDEO: Out Of The Blue (1980) film trailer

XTRMNTR, released January 31, 2000 in the UK (it wouldn’t get a domestic US release until May), begins with the voice of actress Linda Manz, sampled from the early ’80s film Out of the Blue. “Subvert normality,” she says. “Destroy. Kill all hippies.” The movie itself is a dive into almost bottomless despair, taking place in that early, hopeless-feeling part of the ’80s that was still the ’70s. It’s a movie that cuts deep. But Primal Scream aren’t interested in interrogating despair. They’re just using the soundbite because it sounds cool, just as they’d done with Peter Fonda’s boneheaded speech from the 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels on “Loaded” (“We wanna be free…we wanna be free to do what we wanna do, and we wanna get loaded, and have a good time”). For Gillespie and the rest of Primal Scream, rock ’n’ roll is a costume trunk; you pull out what seems interesting at the moment and throw it on and boom, that’s your personality, for this album cycle anyhow.

On XTRMNTR, they were trying on politics. Gillespie claimed in an interview that they were attempting to convey “[what] it’s like to be in Britain in this day and age,” and the first single, “Swastika Eyes,” was allegedly about “American international terrorism.” That might be true, but the sentiments were conveyed in the most general terms possible: Gillespie sings, “I see your autosuggestion psychology/Elimination policy/A military industrial/Illusion of democracy” over a thumping techno beat.

It’s that beat that makes XTRMNTR better than any Primal Scream album before it — yes, even Screamadelica. Virtually every track here, from the opening “Kill All Hippies” to the closing “Shoot Speed/Kill Light,” and particularly the two versions of “Swastika Eyes,” one mixed by Jagz Kooner, the other by the Chemical Brothers, is driven by a massive, pounding rhythm. Many of them are constructed from thick layers of distorted synth and guitar, part industrial and part noise-rock. The riff on the second track, “Accelerator,” is so fuzzed-out and brain-blasting, it could be High Rise covering the Stooges, while the song after that, “Exterminator,” is a funky strut driven by a massive bass hook, louder than the vocals, with layers of high-pitched noise in the background, almost like flaws in the audio.  

Primal Scream XTRMNTR, Astralwerks 2000

The album’s not a solid hour of bludgeoning, though. Not unlike Ministry’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, it offers just enough of one thing to let you think you’ve figured it out, then delivers a variety of surprises. In its second half, on “Blood Money,” the Screamadelically drifting “Keep Your Dreams,” “Insect Royalty” and “MBV Arkestra (If They Move, Kill ’Em),” XTRMNTR takes a left turn into the murky industrial dub sounds of Vanishing Point. Some of these tracks were likely leftovers; Adrian Sherwood is credited on the first two, and the fourth is actually a Vanishing Point song, remixed by Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, who also worked on “Accelerator” and “Shoot Speed/Kill Light.”

Inconsistency has always been Primal Scream’s modus. Gillespie is a magpie with one basic idea (“rock ’n’ roll revolution, maaaaan”), and that can mean industrial, dub, techno, ’70s rock from the Rolling Stones to Can, free jazz…whatever turns his head gets incorporated into the band’s collage-like sound. Most of the time, the results are pretty boring, like flipping through the record collection of the guy James Murphy was making fun of on LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” while he chain-smokes and monologues behind you. But on XTRMNTR, they got it exactly right. The album is viscerally thrilling on first listen, but even if you’ve been listening to it for 20 years, it continues to deliver the same energy rush. By combining its inspirations in unorthodox and genuinely creative ways, it wrestles itself free from the grip of nostalgia and become something genuinely and, paradoxically, permanently new.

 

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Phil Freeman

Phil Freeman is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Bandcamp Daily, Down Beat, Stereogum, the Village Voice, and The Wire. He runs the arts and culture site Burning Ambulance and hosts the Burning Ambulance podcast, featuring interviews with jazz musicians. Follow him on Twitter at burn_amb.

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