Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies, 1992

Here’s a band whose amazing sound-as-baptism aesthetic I got into right from the start. I picked up Lazer Guided Melodies way back in 1992 based on Steve Sutherland’s review in the Melody Maker. I was into ‘shoegaze’ at that time—bands like Ride, the Boo Radleys and Catherine Wheel. This sort of got lumped in with that crowd presumably because of their sound—often a wash of sustained guitar fuzz and white noise feedback with a certain laidback feel, which describes Lazer Guided Melodies quite well, except this is more synth-laden than those other bands, and let’s face it, infinitely cooler. Nowadays it gets called ‘Space Rock.’ It’s an evenly spread affair with occasional dips into pure sonic heaven amidst the rush of a streamlined electric/electronic momentum which glides and swoops around Pierce’s equally smooth, processed vocals. It never gets psychedelic—if this is druggy music, it’s more in the sense of pharmaceuticals like morphine, codeine and amphetamine. As much as I’ve always loved this, it’s not my favourite—I would have to reserve that accolade for Ladies And Gentlemen. If you don’t play this at a decent volume it has the tendency to drift by like some kind of ultra-modern muzak. You have to buy into the theory behind it, whatever that is, something about music-as-escapism, if you want to fully appreciate it.

I’m kinda glad Spiritualized have never released a greatest hits album. They’ve had a couple of excellent live releases but they’re not really a ‘singles’ band. Tis respect due then that they’ve sustained a twenty-year career with only six albums proper and one full length live album. I did end up buying, or at least listening to the Spacemen 3 catalogue, but I’ve always thought, as Spiritualized, Pierce was a lot more inventive in terms of taking his Spacemen 3’s wasted Velvet Underground vibe into more expansive and explorative territory. At the end of the day you need a few hooks to hang your sound on and Spiritualized definitely has a few of those. Lyrically and sonically the whole thing seems not so much to be about escapism, but rather to enact escapism through being a musician. As a listener, you can’t help being pulled into the album and along for the ride. Time to jump on board then Bumstead and surf this baby into the ether…

You Know It’s True… uses this repetitive six note bass riff for its underlying structure. The song fades in, the pace, relaxed. “You know I’ve been here before / And I don’t like it anymore / You know it’s true / But what can I do.” The voices are beautiful. By ‘voices’ I mean Pierce singing with a ghostly echo following just behind himself. The tones are absolutely mesmerizing. When you turn it up loud you’re completely immersed in the softest timbres and colours imaginable, the occasional shake of a tambourine, hammer dulcimer and then the instrumental break with its loud shimmering cellos, violins, sweeping autoharp, everything rising like a bird on a wing, taking off, as if setting a kind of theme for the album – the theme of flight, which I guess is where Steve Sutherland got his ‘surf music’ thing from in his 1992 review. The lyrics all seem to be about wanting to move on from something—flight as escape.

If I Were With Her Now… again uses a repetitive bass melody, with a stabbing repeated electric guitar line for its main rhythm. The bass line here is almost used percussively, and again, by the time all the musicians are in the house, the whole sound engulfs you in its plush, lush interior, with the occasional hints of brooding intensity. Pierce’s voice wafts just below the surface – hard to make out the words at the start. His voice is all spaced out through the mix as though it was just another instrument. The whole thing builds up to a crescendo of screeching, everything stops, weird coiled spring sounds, electronic dripping, awesome cross-fade stereo effects drift across the soundfield, like a total trip-out and instead of crashing back into action, the original sections all build back into the song with a long slow fade in, before we get those stabbed shards of electric guitar again and the bass line joins for a full band sound. Pierce starts chanting the title, “If I were with her now / If I were with her now / If I were with her now.” I adore this stuff. I’ve been playing this album on and off for twenty years. I didn’t realize until now just how deeply embedded in my psyche it is. The tunes are never really ‘catchy’ in the pop sense, they’re more textural rhythmic things that swamp your ears, but it’s wondrously wowsome stuff.

I Want You… is the fastest and poppiest on Side One, with this huge rollicking kind of rhythm. This has always been my favourite – the lyrics and musical rhythm blend into one amazing form – take off, flight, soaring. It almost perfectly captures the feel of someone running down a hill holding onto a paraglider and then leaping off the edge of a cliff into free space. I always liked to play this on a car stereo when I was going snowboarding. “I want you to glide with the air you breathe / I want you to set me free… / … I’m gonna drive to the nearest hill / Gonna take control / I’m gonna free my will / I’m gonna swallow it whole / Like some giant new pill / Cos I believe / In every day /And I believe / It won’t go away / And I believe / In every day / Cos I want you.” It’s semi-religious in its intensity. “I want you to realize it’s my life / I want you to take my advice … Cos I want you.” The music continues at this relentless pace, all vibrato, shimmering, electronic bleeps. Just magnificent. Still one of my favourite Spiritualized songs.

Run… opens with a very fast, spongy, electronic bass line. Then we get lyrics ripped straight from Lynyrd Skynyd: “They call me the breeze / I keep rollin’ down the road / They call me the breeze / I keep rollin’ then I’m gone / I ain’t gotten me nobody / I ain’t carryin’ no load / Run run run run / Run run run now babe.” Again the music here completely supports the idea of movement, flight, with this shimmering echo-laden stuttering keyboard effect. The bass simulates thundering horses hooves, airy spacey keyboard effects offer us exhaust, plumes of smoke, vapour trails in the sky. I think this was the single. It’s fast, awesome, very cool and over almost too soon.

Smile… it’s getting difficult thinking of the right words to describe this stuff. Here we have a very light, repeated electronic breath effect, just a light touch, a puff of something, with the very short lyric, “When you shine / You know you take a massive part out of me / And when you smile / You know you’re blind to all the horrors I see.” That ends, a distantly grinding ethereal guitar chord starts up but soon fades and the song is over within two minutes. It’s really just a kind of bridge between ‘Run’ and the next song…

Step Into The Breeze… opens with a slowly see-sawing keyboard/string part. Pierce’s vocal is awash in echoes of itself, pre-echo and post-echo, but other pulsing keyboard-harp kind of sounds wash in and out, big swathes of melodic tympani, angelic in tone. The actual words are difficult to grasp. “I’m feeling slow / Come on.” Again, everything here is layered, different wisps and breezes of sounds moving through each other and past one another at different speeds, little crescendos, pulsing fenders, echo, feedback, fuzz, everything blending together in a magnificent wah-wah of soft-noise. It’s really effective at conjuring up the sense of disintegrating into pure sound, dissolving the subject/object dichotomy perhaps, or more likely, just passing out.

Symphony Space… sounds like the echoes you might capture if you placed a very sensitive microphone high up in the rafters of a huge concert hall and recorded reverberations of a concert that ended hours ago, still wafting around in that airy space high above the audience’s head, washed out organs, a low distant barely audible rumbling beneath it all, aircraft engines and the echoes of church bells, all atmospheric Eno-esque space, not unlike ‘Treefingers’ from Radiohead’s Kid A and a lot of other post-rock tone/drone music, though this is prettier than that. This really does sound like Pierce’s imagined heaven, or some kind of waiting room in limbo-land, or what you might hear perched on the top of a five hundred storey skyscraper in some futuristic city. It shimmies and drifts, a multi-form many-sided thing. Icy, glacial, cool, and shiny.

Take Your Time… winds in on a gentle up/down strum with a very low bass. “Take your time / … / Come on now people / Get yourselves out of it.” Something like a synthesized flute joins the up/down motif but out of sync until you’ve got about five parts wavering along with each other. Pierce’s voice is recorded so low it’s hard to discern the actual words. You catch the odd word here and there, but basically the title pretty much sums up the vibe of the song—take your time, slow down, smell the roses, no one’s in any rush here. I realize by now that the whole album is all about momentum, movement, variations of speed, travelling in waves, waves of light or water waves or whatever, but for what end? “I’m sick,” sings Pierce, “there’s not a thing I wanna do about it.” And then, “I’m tired of it all / I guess I’m … through with it all.” What exactly though is ‘it’ we wonder. Life? The rock’n’roll lifestyle? A relationship? The song continues on and on in the same wave formation, jazzy piano starts up, but distant, quite a lot of far off sounds tinkling in the background, and sudden stop.

Shine A Light… continues the same pace as the previous song. This is far more ethereal, Pierce’s voice wafting in waves and echoes and waves and echoes, saying something like, “I’m tired and bored…/…Lord shine a light on me.” Apparently this song was/is a live staple of his. It has a slight tune, the whole sound just floats over you, with a regular bass part to give it forward momentum but generally this is really laidback stuff, a song for drifting off to if ever I heard one. A faint electric note of some kind with alto and soprano saxes to add ornamentation to the main rhythm. For the most part the lyrics don’t really amount to much in any of these songs, just some kind of “I’m wasted” or “I’m miserable” sort of schtick. The vocal is used pretty much the same as any other instrument. Towards the end all this distantly atonal white noise chaos unfolds in the background but it really remains submerged beneath the bass line so that it blends in nicely without getting unpleasant. I would say it’s repetitive but that’s the wrong word because this is sound for sound’s sake. It’s yet another a track to lose yourself in. Lovely.

Angel Sigh… it’s almost like the album’s doing a very long gradual fade out. This has the same kind of echo-in-the-rafters feel as ‘Symphony Space’ with vocals, and a very simple three note bass line. Pierce’s vocal again is buried in pre- and post-echo, but the sound all converges into an intense build up of ‘thrashed’ telecaster and distortion and it moves through this structure several times. Something about being “just a feather on your breath / Girl you know the reason why.” The whole thing picks up, the piano adds a jazzy element to the song. This is a slight precursor to the full on assault they would launch with their Royal Albert Hall album at the end of the decade. Mostly this track floats along like a cloud changing shape in the wind, some cellos and other string parts grind a little thing at the end, but it all sort of slowly drifts away into the ether.

Sway… a hum fades in quietly at first, getting louder, a repeated guitar note, the hum building, a piercing piano/guitar figure does a three note up/down thing, the repeated guitar note starts to sound more electric. Various other sounds join in the quietly pulsing rhythm. We’re way up in the stratosphere again, we haven’t come down for quite some time. This is really quite pretty, mainly for the little ornamental pieces. “Slide through the back door / With your life strings attached. … Can see for miles / Open your eyes.” In between these lines, Pierces sings a call and response thing with himself (something he would do again brilliantly on Let It Come Down) and then we get “Sway” stretched out, but it’s difficult to catch most of the words. Something like “Mama, take your cold hand away from me / Take it away and let me be.” Again, the singer here wants to be alone, to escape, to get away or out of it. “Slip through the back door with my head in your hands / … / Life sure is weird / But what else am I to know / Done so many things but my folks don’t wanna know / Sway / Slow / Stay / Low.” A pitter-patter drum beat, a neat flute part. Man this is laidback stuff, you totally get pulled into its gentle lulling rhythm patterns. The sound on all of these songs is not loud, and yet it fills the whole room. While each tone or flicker is distinct and discernable from each other, the sound never stops—there’s always something filling every available space, as if the band felt they had to record the air or whatever gas is filling the room, getting you high.

200 Bars… fades in really quietly with Kate Radley counting each bar of the song but you don’t really hear her until she gets to fifteen. She counts right up to 200 during the course of the song. The music is another two chord back’n’forth pulsing kind of thing, quiet at first, but I remember at some point the song proper launches. We’re up to 35 with a regular strum across an autoharp, pulsing electric notes, a repeating four note bass part. When the music and vocals all kick in, it’s a blast, “I’m losing track of time in two hundred bars.” I remember Sutherland’s review suggesting that the ‘bars’ puns on the idea of pubs  the pub circuit kind of thing. “I’ve been abused / And I’ve been used / I’m gonna lose my thoughts in two hundred bars / You know I’ve tried / But now I’m tired / I’m losing track of time in two hundred bars / I get confused / You know I’m used to it / I’m gonna lose my thoughts in two hundred bars / I’ve had my fix / Too much of this / I’m gonna lose myself in two hundred bars.” I suppose ‘blast’ isn’t the right word, it’s not as intense as I’d remembered it. It’s quite soft in fact but quite melodic. And when the song reaches two hundred bars, the music all drops away, and we hear Radley’s voice one last time: ‘two hundred.’

There’s really no other album that sounds quite like this. It’s interesting how I often think of the nineties as being defined more by an American sound of distorted guitars and wailing/crying grunge merchants, but England had Spiritualized, who were making an infinitely cooler/better racket by their second and third albums, beginning with the follow-up live document Fucked Up Inside. This album sounds positively contemporary too, the quality of the recording is superb, I think it’ll be a long time before it dates.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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4 Responses to Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies, 1992

  1. Will Carruthers says:

    That’s not a keyboard at the start of Step into the breeze , it’s a bassline . cheers

    • Ah, thx for the comment. I shall leave as is tho, because the point of these commentaries is to type the first thing that comes into my head as I listen to the music; an approach in which “mistakes” are integral to the process. :)

  2. David says:

    Great review. You do a great job of trying to describe the sound of this record. which is no easy feat. I recently got an original vinyl pressing of this album (avoid the Plain remaster, as it’s garbage), and it’s probably one of the five or so albums from my collection that I’d save in a fire. I can’t believe how damn AMAZING it sounds — so immersive, so dense, so beautiful. You’re right that this is music that will take a while, if ever, for its sound to date. It still sounds modern and lush and lovely today, just as much as it did in 1992. Surely one of the best-produced LPs ever made, that also happens to be one of the greatest LPs ever made, full stop. (I like their next two albums a lot, especially Pure Phase, but I definitely prefer this to them).

    • Thanks for leaving a comment. Sounds like we’re in near full agreement. Check out Laurie Anderson’s album Bright Red, for another 90s album that still sounds far ahead of its time. And Spiritualized did cover an Anderson song, Born Never Asked, on Pure Phase.

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