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Primal Therapy: Primal Scream recorded 'Bomb the Pentagon' a month before 9/11.

Scream Dream

Primal Scream gets caught in another crossroads on 'Evil Heat'

By Michael Alan Goldberg

SINCE REVVING to life in the mid-'80s, Primal Scream has careened down its fascinating career path at reckless speeds, shifting gears from '60s fuzz-rock to acid-house pop to hazy electronic psychedelia to politically charged noise-punk at a split-second's notice. The Brit band's penchant for zigzagging unpredictably has resulted in instances of pure exhilaration (1991's Screamadelica, 1997's Vanishing Point, 2000's XTRMNTR) and only one minor wreck (1994's aptly titled Give Out but Don't Give Up).

Of course, knowing how and when to change is just as vital as desiring change. And like the most celebrated chameleons--Bowie, the Beatles, Madonna--part of Primal Scream's genius has been in its timing. Ever a step or two ahead of the prevailing musical winds, the group has always seemed adept at incorporating the right sounds, styles and moods from whatever the source--ecstasy-fueled Madchester club euphoria, coke-addled electronica paranoia, weed-soaked garage rollick and shoegazer atmosphere--with its experimental-rock leanings at just the right moment. By playing its cards right, Primal Scream has managed, on more than one occasion, to create the perfect soundtrack to the times.

But in August 2001, the band's timing was, unfortunately, a bit too perfect. Continuing with the political vitriol that marked the previous year's XTRMNTR, which featured the anti-Madeleine Albright scorcher "Swastika Eyes," frontman Bobby Gillespie and company added a brand-new song to their live arsenal, an incendiary rant against U.S. foreign policy called "Bomb the Pentagon." Oops.

So as they headed to the studio several weeks later to record their next album, the band members found themselves having to retool their art in the wake of 9/11. A difficult spot, to be sure: continue laying on the radical agenda and risk being viewed as insensitive at best, while facing almost certain record bans and label difficulties--or, retreat from the controversy full haste and face the wrath of fans and critics crying, "Sellout!"

The resulting album, Evil Heat, smacks of compromise between those unenviable choices, and therein lies the problem. The righteous anger rarely appears, yet when it does, it's watered-down. The Scream seems tentative and a bit lost, backtracking across previously covered terrain in search of new roads to travel.

Predictably, the band is insisting that the sudden change of heart was actually planned all along. Bassist Gary "Mani" Mounfield told one British paper that the group had "gotten politics out of their system on [XTRMNTR]" and that the new album was meant to be "a celebration of life." Given Primal Scream's track record, it's not impossible to believe in such dramatic U-turns, although "Bomb the Pentagon" seemed packed with enough conviction to suggest there were plenty more bold diatribes at the ready. But Evil Heat plays out like a band falling back at the 11th hour to what it knows best, to what's safe and comfortable.

That said, the album's hardly a stinker. By reaching back into its playbook, Primal Scream generates enough quality moments to compensate for the overall lack of focus and vision. The not-so-sour Kraut rock of "Autobahn 66" and "A Scanner Darkly," the fruits of its reunion with Screamadelica producer Andy Weatherall, burst with the kind of carefree exuberance that marked the band's early-'90s heyday. And both the opening track, "Deep Hit of Morning Sun," and "The Lord Is My Shotgun" (featuring Led Zep's Robert Plant on harmonica), with their unsettling guitars and creepy keyboards, are heavy on the claustrophobia and menace.

More uneven, though, is Primal Scream's revisit of Stooges/Stones-style garage rock ("City," "Skull X"). Although My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields adds a bit of his warped six-string magic to the grime, such tracks come off as fairly stale and formulaic.

One senses that if Primal Scream were more in control of its own destiny, Evil Heat would have been the forward-thinking album fans have come to expect, rather than a "Plan B" kind of affair. Granted, it wasn't really the band's fault, but let's hope timing is on its side for the next trip.

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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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