Tag Archives: The Delgados

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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The Light Before we Land – The Delgados

At best I get to play drums a couple of times a week, at a rehearsal and subsequent gig or studio session. And that level of activity isn’t constant. It ebbs and flows depending on what the artists I work with have going on, what I can fit in. In the past I’ve played daily, but where I live now, that’s not an option. Still, I’ve played more than enough to know what it sounds like to sit at a drum set and give the snare drum what for when it’s two feet away from your ears. I know how it responds to strokes of different power, what it sounds like when it’s played softly, or firmly, or with violent intent. Recordings of drums, by and large, don’t capture it. They can’t. Mix engineers can’t bring the full dynamic possibilities of the drum kit to bear on most pop or rock material and have it work. The dynamic range of the playing has to be constrained, in arrangement, execution, then mix. Same with the voice, which has – if anything – an even wider possible dynamic range.

So we get used to it and on occasion we have to reassure fellow musicians that what seems an overpoweringly loud pattern we’re playing on the bell of the ride will sound very different in a mix than it does in the rehearsal room. We live with the more or less frequent disappointment that comes from yet another recording that doesn’t sound like we know a drum kit sounds.

But fashions in mixes change, and there have been periods in mix fashion where engineers have got close, and other periods where representing that sonic reality never seemed to be on the agenda at all. We lived through an example of the latter about ten years ago, starting in around 1999 and continuing for five years or so before it levelled off very slightly (it’s still a very dark era in the history of recorded sound).

By the early noughties, with credits on Weezer’s Pinkerton, Mogwai’s Come On Die Young, Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, Dave Fridmann had become a big-name producer, something of an indie-rock Trevor Horn. The sound he had deployed on the latter two records was immediately identifiable, and made those who valued transient energy in drum performances despair. As a result of what’s often called the Loudness War – broadly, the attempt by bands to have their records be louder than those of their competitors, principally through the use of digital brickwall limiting, in both the mixing and mastering processes, and often in recording too – which began in earnest in the mid-late-nineties, snare drums no longer went ‘blap’; they went ‘wap’ instead. Bass drums became muddier and more indistinct as their transients were brutally lopped off in the quest for ever-louder end product. But Fridmann’s work was something else again, so removed from a realistic representation of a drum kit played in a room that it was almost funny. Except when it was being deployed on records I cared about.

Having seen them at the Union Chapel in 2000, I can attest first-hand to how majestic the Delgados’ music was around the time they released The Great Eastern, similar in its sweep and ambition to that of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, but more intimate, grounded in observation of people and emotions, rather than wide-eyed, faux-naif magical realism. The Great Eastern was big – bigger perhaps than it needed to be – but its follow-up Hate was an atrocious-sounding record, big but thin and fatiguing to listen to due to its sheer wearying RMS levels and accompanying digital distortion. A complicated record full of ugly emotions demanded a subtler treatment than it received.

One song works, though. There have been occasions in Fridmann’s post-Soft Bulletin era (after the near-universal criticism of the sound of At War with the Mystics in 2006, Fridmann did dial down his worst excesses) when his approach coincided with the right material. His oafish work on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods is a perfect fit for the material and the aggressive commitment the band brought to it. I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way, although I can’t listen to it on headphones for more than a song or two at a time. It also, and I have to assume it was by accident, fit the opening track from Hate, The Light Before we Land, which is almost a parody of Fridmann’s production and arrangement tricks: choir, strings, distorted percussion, monstrously overblown low end, furious clipping and digital distortion, unidentifiable sound effects. It shouldn’t work, it should overwhelm what is in mood a small song, but through some kind of alchemy it’s glorious. I can hear in it what Fridmann seemed to be going for, and it makes me wonder why he so frequently missed the mark.

 

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Indie heroine: Emma Pollock

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Sonic criminal: Dave Fridmann