Chemikal Underground & the Delgados

There’s a 30-minute documentary on Chemikal Underground available on the BBC iPlayer right now.

Chemikal Underground, despite its name, was not an acid-house label. It’s an indie label, formed by the members of the Delgados in Glasgow in 1994. After putting out their own single, they released records by Bis, then signed Mogwai and Arab Strap. The programme is worth seeing to get the story of how you accomplished that with minimal funding in the mid-1990s. Frankly, the Delgados worked miracles to get uncommercial and pretty uncompromising music heard – and available – across the UK and worldwide.

However, with its abbreviated running time, the documentary showed very little of the Delgados’ own music, which for me was much the best to have been released by Chemikal Underground between the label’s formation and the time it dropped of my radar, around 2004-5.

Early single Monica Webster and the group’s first album, Domestiques, suggest a band in thrall to American indie, vocals submerged behind relatively rudimentary guitar thrashing. Peloton saw the group dialing down the distortion, revealing their vocal melodies and allowing Stewart Henderson’s bass to become the band’s crucial instrument. While they still got noisy on occasion (Repeat Failure’s wind-tunnel guitars are a pretty dead-on shoegaze recreation), the album’s key track was probably opener Everything Goes Around the Water, which employed a more widescreen soundworld of woodwinds and strings, and fused multiple sections, feels and tempos to create a sort of homespun avant-pop.

The band’s third album, The Great Eastern, saw them perfect that sound, albeit by ditching a little of what had made them endearing in their early years. The band brought in an outside producer for the first time in Dave Fridmann, who’d become a big cheese in indie music after his big three late-1990s successes: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young (the latter I see got some tepid reviews on release, but it seemed to me at the time to be enormous).

Fridmann did what Fridmann does (and I hate what Fridmann does sonically), but these were songs that were on the whole suited to the Fridmann aesthetic. The group’s songwriter/vocalists, Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward, had composed a set of long, multi-part songs geared towards a maximalist approach to arrangement, and while I’d question some of Fridmann’s mix choices, the arrangements he and the group created were magnificent, full of cellos and violas and elegiac brass. In an era where an orchestral arrangement on an indie record usually meant 200 violins straining to make the banal sound important, the Delgados’ approach (the gradual accumulation of small details to achieve a massive end result) was hugely refreshing.

With their next album, Hate, the Delgados arguably overreached themselves. At times, Fridmann’s sonics are unbelievably ugly (it’s an ear-scrapingly difficult listen on headphones, compressed and distorted beyond any reasonable endurance), but there are songs there every inch as good as those on The Great Eastern – opening duo The Light Before We Land and the title track may be the best things the band ever accomplished, and Pollock’s Coming In from the Cold has probably the album’s most appealing melodies, allied with a breezier, less claustrophobic mix. Undeniably difficult, Hate‘s insistence on avoiding lyrical cliche and embracing darkness make it worth hearing, even as its excesses make it a less satisfying record than its predecessor.

The Delgados called it quits after 2004’s Universal Audio, which stripped back the group’s Fridmann-era bombast and returned to their indie-pop roots. At that point, I stopped paying attention to Chemikal Underground, so I can’t speak to their releases in the last 15 years. But I do wish that someone involved in the making of the BBC documentary had spoken up in favour of the band’s own music, as for all the screen time given to Woodward, Pollock and the group’s yeoman drummmer/sound engineer Stewart Henderson, they were much too modest to speak up for themselves.

great eastern

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