Royal Albert Hall was yet another Spiritualized album I bought on CD then sold again around the turn of the millennium. This one I really struggled with first time around. Strange, being such a Spiritualized fan and yet not digging their white-noise side, which was always a part of their aesthetic since the Spacemen 3 days. Again, since rediscovering this on vinyl in 2011, I’ve been really enjoying it. I notice that many of the songs have quite a different feel from the studio versions which is what keeps this interesting. In terms of the song-mix, we have two tracks from Lazer Guided Melodies, two from Pure Phase, and seven of the remaining ten from Ladies And Gentlemen. Of the other three, one is an “Introduction,” which also serves as a bookend called “Oh Happy Day,” in the finale, and the other is an old Spacemen 3 song they’d already recorded for the 1993 live album, Fucked Up Inside.
Even on CD this comprised two discs’ worth of material so it’s a long listen, best treated as two separate albums in some ways, so as to avoid listener fatigue. Sometimes the extended white noise jams become a bit tiresome—doesn’t matter where you set your volume control, don’t expect to be having a conversation with anyone within earshot of your speakers, the noise is that penetrating. This is the curse of the live concert LP— live albums mostly only serve to remind you that what you’re listening to isn’t a patch on being there. That said, this is not some fly on the wall document—it’s a full blown professional recording, mixed and produced to sound pretty great, so turn it up and turn it on, Bumstead…
Intro… opens ambiently with a climbing piano arpeggio and phase tones. Pierce on vocals: “Oh happy day / Oh happy day / When Jesus walked / Oh when Jesus walked / Oh when he walked / He washed my sins away.” Repeat this and then introduce a violent maelstrom of roaring noise, presumably a baptism of sound in which to ‘wash his sins away.’ Imagine the drone of a million cybernetic bees attacking an airforce base—it’s truly vicious, a hyper-metallic punishing victory rush, an enraged river of molten steel after an acid rain storm, a stratosphere of radiowaves with nowhere to go, caught in their own voracious self-eating cycle … and very quick phase-out/merge-in to the next song…
Shine A Light… which opens with that same old church organ sound, and really nice pedal steel notes floating hither thither, and piano: “When I’m tired and all alone / Lord, shine a light on me / When I’m lonesome as can be / Lord, shine a light on me.” Pierce seems pretty well buried in a Christian hegemony here, one minute he’s appealing to Jesus, the next, Lord. It’s a strange song to stick on so early because he sounds exhausted, and the lyrics only augment that feeling—it would have made more sense as the penultimate track. Between the solid piano parts and the pedal steel, and that aircraft hanger engine drone of an organ, the vibe is mellow and wistful, but growing ever more powerful by the second, as the chords come thundering down, and the guitars start up with more hyper-squalling, electric-bathing, and the bass drives ten tonnes of pounding doom and menace into the proceedings, as it builds and builds and struggles and wriggles like a drugged woolly mammoth caught in a net. Cymbals crash, guitars feed back, everything distorts up into the eye of a needle, vanishes like the red stain in The Cat In The Hat and morphs into some warping, twinkling, oscillating guitar note…
Electric Mainline… which introduces this song. That hard, electric oscillating note continues twiddling around itself, while various wind and dust storms of noise sway about, a forest of squeaking birds, shimmering organ drones, phase tones, and a giant descending UFO hovering over the proceedings, beaming the players up in its Galaga-like teleport rays. The oscillating note turns into something more pulsing and regular, slower, while the rest of the noise all slowly vortexes, whirling around and around, hard, wah-monica, piercing string sounds, snippets of brass, all churning together into a rhythm and when the drum kicks in everything speeds up, finally in accord with itself, and we glimpse the redemptive power of rock’n’roll taking over, with brass interjections moaning and wailing, the noise factor building again, faster and more turbulent, a turbine engine roaring into life, flight, upheaval, bedlam, getting ever yet faster and louder and wilder, although I’m loathe to say ‘violent’ because that brings the wrong connotations. I’d love to have been an audience member standing in among all this sound. Now we get caterwauling saxophones and a bruising bassline, and the million electric drone bees swarm back into the hall and …suddenly die away to loud applause. Absolutely insane. This bleeds slowly into …
Electricity… more insane rock’n’roll. It’s cool how they don’t let up at all. This is all-powerful, even faster than the previous track, although the various sounds are all so mixed together that all we really get is a noisy dirge and Pierce’s voice barely making it through: “Electricity / Electricity / Electricity.” Again, imagine a transformer-robot creature bio-engineered to look like a dinosaur, fallen over with a spear in its side, writhing around trying to stand up. The beat drops out, and the windstorm builds, although sandstorm is more appropriate—more friction, more of everything, and again this crashes out into huge applause. Bloody hell. What a way to open. A vast roar. The idea was entirely to invoke Jesus, the Lord, and then some kind of salvation through rock’n’roll. Crazy stuff.
Home Of The Brave… opens with the crowd cheering and whistling before we get that pedal steel note twisting around, and a pulsing, guitar chug, while Pierce starts up his drug confessions. “I’m gonna rip it up / Tear it out / Gotta get it off of my soul / I don’t even miss you / But that’s cos I’m fucked up / I’m sure when it wears off / I will be hurting.” The pace quickens, some hard clattering drums come tumbling down over top of the building noise, and before you know it, we’ve lost all trace of the tune and vocals as wailing, crying distorted guitars come feedbacking through the monitors trying to keep up with the bass and drums. That all fades into a noisy organ drone, and shimmering synths, a grungy electronic hum like static picking up all the bits of noise and hum and collecting it all into one long powerful drone, as if the band were a giant biotechnological vacuum cleaner. This continues with screeching brass and twittering keyboard effects. The effect is to render you ensconced in the noise, to render you fixed in its trance, the air thick with the resonance of Spiritualized and their cacophony-coffin encasing you in its death-grip. That all fades…into applause…
The Individual… (somewhere during “Home Of The Brave” we morphed into “The Individual” though I’m not sure where exactly…)
Medication… and phase-tones. This is the third time I’ve written about this song, originally as the eight minute opener on Pure Phase and then a live version on Fucked Up Inside. How does this version differ? Not sure. Those phase-tones are pretty insistent on this version though. It’s the usual thing—relatively soft shimmery verse parts, where Pierce sing-complains about his drug habit, before the bass and drums and screeching guitars all come pounding down with their violent catharsis, and Pierce tells us that he’s “waiting for a time” when he “can do without these things that make” him “feel this way all of the time.” This is a pretty standard version of the song, the song with a lyric that lends itself to the title of their first live album; “leaves me fucked up inside.” We get a middle section that goes all trippy psychedelic on us for a minute before the squalling noise mashes the song back into a ball of hot white fury. Seems that the band were intent on nothing more than blasting the roof right off the Albert Hall.
Walking With Jesus… phase-tones humming and swaying, and a good old rock’n’roll riff gets this song going into a melodic rhythm. “I walked with Jesus and he would say / Oh you poor child / You aren’t coming with me no way.” Quite where Jason Pierce lies in his relationship with the messiah is beyond me. One minute he’s pleading for redemption, the next he’s refusing it. Is he serious? Is he toying with Christianity to make some kind of statement? Here comes the sound of confusion, he tells us, amidst another rush of noisy dynamics. Is it all a bit much? A bit over the top? I mean it’s cool’n’all on one hand, but on the other, it’s like, why even bother writing songs? Why not just thrash your guitar as violently as you can for two hours and be done with it? I’m not sure there’s an answer to that question. I love that wah-monica sound though – tis pure white-blues gospel, as it comes surging through the storm of noise that takes over the ‘song’.
Take Your Time… and we’re back to that Lazer Guided Melodies aesthetic, except that the mood is created with live instruments instead of the precisely programmed sound of the studio version. The vocal is almost spoken. “Take your time and back up a little bit / Come on now people / Get yourselves out of it / No chains can hold you / No walls confine you / Come on now people / Come on and slide with me / Cos I’m blind / But not as blind as you / I’m sick / There’s not a thing I wanna do about it / I’m dull / And I wanna mouth off about it.” Woah. How counter-cultural is this? This is great, only because it’s so opposed to common sense thinking. It begs to be judged and yet the mere fact he’s saying this stuff means to judge him is to fall back into the very societal trap that he’s railing against. Brilliant. “Take good care of it babe …You know I’ve been thinking about not coming down / Take good care of it babe.” Of course this builds into an ear-damaging noise. “You know I could talk about a revolution / But the air’s so thin and still polluted.” I’ve just realized he’s merged two songs together here – “Take Your Time” from LGM and “Take Good Care Of It” from Pure Phase. Heavens, this is exhausting stuff to listen to, let alone describe it in words, but it’s exhilarating to try.
No God Only Religion… opens with a dense power-riff and a wailing, dreary brass section playing some kind of demented march against the powerful guitar part. Almost immediately every other musician joins the mix and the churny violent arrhythmic maelstrom kicks its feet into the dust and takes off like the four horses of the apocalypse. Apocalyptic – now there’s a great word I haven’t used yet, like I fully admit my ability to find ways to describe this stuff in real-time is being quickly eroded. How many ways can you say “violent, maelstrom, miasma, thunderous dirge” without boring yourself? Can words replicate in any way at all this assault-by-sound? Try speed-reading Pynchon for an approximation of the mental effect of this music through literature.
Broken Heart… anyway, that last song fades into a hum—appropriate because this song is a much more mellow affair. The gospel choir “ooohing” behind Pierce’s mournful vocals sound amazing. There’s a high pitched piercing sheen and some deliriously deep resonant drum, but mostly it’s the choir that makes the sound so great to listen to. It sort of floats along—you can imagine the effect on the audience who must’ve been seriously in need of some kind of salve by this point in the concert. Like a great piece of soothing, medicating sunshine descending on the crowd, bringing everyone together in some sort of ghastly mass love-in, a soppy hand-holding moment of bliss, peace, outrageously uplifting good vibes and smiles and yet despite that, this is essentially the most despairing, soulful, sad-sounding number in the Spiritualized canon. I do love this song, it’s truly magnificent and this version rules. Love the brass instruments warbling their golden throats amongst all the atmospheric shimmering and luscious shine.
Come Together… a staccato hum stutters for a bit before the power chords of “Come Together” join to bring the mood back into a heady mix of noise-as-high. Playing “Come Together” after that last track was clearly by design, as Pierce and co. bring the whole thing roaring back to where they’d left it at the end of “No God Only Religion.” There’s no analyzing this stuff—it is what it is, in the moment, a presence, no past and no future, only the atomic, electronic, your molecules as waves of energy shivering in the endless void of outer space, and for the duration of an evening in the Royal Albert Hall, your molecules vibrate on the same frequency as the people creating the noise—that’s what “Come Together” is all about—not just some mutual understanding, but a real and physical melding of mind and chemistry. You’d be deaf by this stage if you hadn’t brought earplugs, because the loud bruising electric squall of this song doesn’t let up at all, as Pierce intones, the words “come together” over and over before one of those free-for-all finales in which every musician does their own thing. There’s a false ending though, and the drums start up again, twice as fast, and Pierce keeps singing the title phrase, faster, a chant, an exhortation, a plea, until eventually the words lose their meaning and as if by voicebox alone, the coming together can be cast like a spell over the audience; we are all one.
I Think I’m In Love… here we’ve been brought up very high, up into some kind of space above the rafters, no bass, no drums, floaty drifting guitar notes, a wash of cymbals, light keyboard drones. “Free as the water and air that I breathe / Even freer than DMT / Feel the warmth of the sun in the room / But I don’t care about you / I got nothing to do.” Boy is that a perfect, simple poetic evocation of being off your stoned rocker or what? “Love in the middle of the afternoon / Just me, my spike, my arm and my spoon / Feel the warmth of the sun in the room …” After all the foregoing noise, this must have felt like heaven if you were standing in that crowd. The beat and rhythm all start up, and I love the way this song is structured, so warm and lovely and reassuring as Pierce starts up his chant/answer thing. “Think I’m in love / Probably just friendly / Think I’m your friend / Probably just lonely / Think I’m in a spin now / Probably just turning … Think I can rock and roll / Probably just twisting / Think I wanna tell the world / Probably aint listening / Think I can fly / Probably just falling / Think that I’m the life and soul / Probably just snorting / Think that I can hit the mark / Probably just aiming / Think that my name is on your list / Probably complaining,” etc. The “think” line sung by Pierce, the gospel choir answers him, a devil and an angel on his shoulder. “Think I’m on fire / Probably just smoking / Think that you’re my dream girl / Probably just dreaming / Think that I’m the best / Probably like all the rest / Think that I could be your man / Probably just think you can.” The rest of the band join, the surge builds, the guitars go wild, the noise takes over and we get the chorus repeated over and over, “Think I’m in love.” Incredible. One of my favourite Spiritualized songs by a country mile. The songs are looong man, which is why my write-ups are so long. I just keep typing what I hear…and on an on this goes, all sorts of exquisitely placed rhythmic jitters, tiny effects, snippets, curlicues…applause.
Cop Shoot Cop… twinkling piano, stabbed notes, buzzing effects, discordant hums, zinging, randomly coming together, moving around each other, then the bassline providing a centrifugal force to hold it in place, those zipping, piercing notes sound like an electric bowed saw. “Hey man there’s a hole in my arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose / Cop shoot cop I believe I believe that I have been reborn / Cop shoot cop / I haven’t got the time no more.” And then BANG, biff, POW and THRASH, for twenty seconds. Apart from the inherent mental violence of this song the actual main vocal section is really peaceful and mellow, quite lovely. But “Hey man there’s a hole in my reason that I gotta close / Cos all my love died for nothing I suppose,” and we get violent guitar phases creating giant crepuscular holes in the stratosphere, convex and concave spaces open and warp and bubble and burst against each other, the very fabric of time unravels and turns inside out, then gets completely forgotten about for the mellow bass rhythm as Pierce intones his miserable vocal line over again. It kind of sounds like the band are an army, no, several different armies, each musician is a superhero representing a different planet of the solar system and they have to protect it, so they battle up hard against one another as if to say “get off my turf” and their instruments are their battle weapons and you can only win by being louder and weirder and meaner and harder than your neighbour and this is no coming together but rather the very fabric of the universe coming apart. My metaphors are becoming more and more abstract, my ability to think in concrete terms has been completely undermined by this music; its very elemental nature scoffs at language, it’s the big bang theory turned on its head, the universe contracting into an ever denser singularity, the cosmos being sucked through a black hole, a thousand angry dinosaurs, the gnashing of their teeth and the stomping of their great thighs into the ground, and speed, wiggling wriggling flying snakes, a storm of them being shot up and over the sky, their forked tongues spitting sinuous syllables. Huh? Yeah, and that sort of all dissolves as the choir starts up, a soothing “ooh aaah” like some kind of cult, a night sacrifice. It’s dark this stuff, deeply dark, through the K-hole kind of dark, into the darkest recesses of a drug-addled nightmare. Could be the sound of death itself. Pierce has a few more words to add at the end, but his voice sounds weak and lacking any kind of hope; “I can’t seem to find my way back home / If this is heaven, well you know that I’m not happy here / Cos heaven aint any place…[something].” While the choir keep up their chant and Pierce sings barely audible words, the orchestra keep blatting all manner of twisty sounds, shrill, spiraling, dribbling, squeaking, like electric insects buzzing about doing their thing. The piano always sounds great, when you can hear it. Eventually the thing falls apart, becomes increasingly discordant, disparate and disintegrates into…applause.
Oh Happy Day… and we’re back to the song from the “Introduction” only this time the gospel choir add flourishes behind Pierce’s words about Jesus washing his sins away. The bass punctuates the song, but suddenly, unexpectedly, the whole song bursts into a huge loud crescendo, and with that choir going on, I can’t help thinking of the finale of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it really erks me, because suddenly it all seems super corny with that reference point, but I can’t not hear it. Like, I feel I’ve been tricked, duped. This is super corny, the noisy rush of brass and strings, guitars and choir, just sounds like the end of some big Las Vegas show. This was a mistake, it’s a terrible way to end the record. They didn’t need this at all. They should have faded out instead of going out on a big corny American-style finale. Ugh.
So essentially, we’ve come on a long journey with a whole mountain range of peaks and valleys, highs and lows. And we all hold hands at the end, and breathe a sigh of relief and say, “thank God, it was only a show, and not the real thing”? No way. Let’s just pretend “Oh Happy Day” doesn’t exist and we’d all be better off. It even sounds like fireworks are going off at the end. Oh man, it is fireworks, and the audience are going berserk, ergh. What a gyp. Great live record, terrible ending. Should have ended with “Shine A Light.”