Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mark Stewart & Primal Scream "Autonomia" (Future Noise)

Bobby Gillespie briefly played bass in one of my favourite bands. He then played the drums for another group, on perhaps my all-time favourite album. He went on to form his own combo, who released two dropdead gorgeous singles on Creation which even now still fill me to the brim of heartbreak with their waterfall lilt. I love him so much for all this that I can even draw a discreet veil over everything they've released since 1987. Every so often, I see him in town and I'm *this* far away from saying "Bobby, excuse me, but please can I just run back home and get you my copy of "Crystal Crescent" to sign ?", but I don't, and perhaps it's as well to be so bashful as I hear that Bobby doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Mark Stewart, for his sins, stars on no less than three of my favourite LPs: twice as frontman of head-wrenching Brizzle post-punk funk-toting jazz / dub mentalists the Pop Group (enjoying "Rigour" again the other day, we were reminded once again how the Pop Group helped pave the way for the stupendous bIG*fLAME, who shared the same obsession with pop, politics, excitement and rage) and once via his crushing Mute solo work "As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade", one of the 80s' most memorable slabs of invective. Even when I lived in Bristol, I never saw him in the park or the street or the coffee shop, but I understand that he too doesn't suffer fools, so it's probably best that I never bumped into him and ended up asking him to autograph "For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder", say.

But you can see why it stirs some long-dormant emotions and memories to have Mark Stewart team up with Bobby and his band (Mark thanks the Primals on the sleevenotes for his 2008 "Edit" album, so it's obviously not a brand new friendship). The ostensible subject matter of "Autonomia" is Carlo Giuliani, the teacher killed in Genoa in 2001 at the hands of the carabinieri, but the lyrics are framed more widely and the "rubber bullets, tear gas" mantra which Stewart deploys here is instantly recognisable today: in the context of subsequent summit protests, of the streets of Athens, of marches in Syria and Bahrain, even the looting and riots in England last summer. We're all familiar with shaky mobile phone footage of thudding feet and madding crowd, but become anaesthetised to the reality as it's sold as cheap drama, syndicated to rolling news across the continents, the images turned into mere fodder for talking heads that sagely nod but do nothing to stop the madness.

"From the ashes of empire, hope survives... rise like a phoenix from the flames"

So this is important stuff, and as ever there's no doubting Mark's sincerity and the distinctive power of his narration, but despite being produced by longtime Maffia man and all-round On-U legend Adrian Sherwood the music behind "Autonomia", while spiky and sparky enough, lacks the necessary *urgency*, and feels light-years from the alternately spatial and clawhammer production by the same man that made the likes of Stewart's "Hypnotised" 12" so damn powerful, so on-edge. Conflict will never enjoy the metropolitain colour supplement caché of the Primals, but musically their brilliantly raging tribute "Carlo Giuliani" had much more fire and *purpose*.

The remixes fare better, even if they can't match my favourite Mark Stewart re-work, Ultraviolence's dependably aggressive pseudo-gabba re-rendering of "Consumed". Tectonic head honcho Pinch's "Apocalyptic" remix is as powerful a dubplate-wobbler as you'd expect but unfortunately, as well as excising the single version's 90s Primal Scream-isms, it also removes the bulk of Stewart's vocal contribution. JD Twitch's perky Optimo mix gets the balance better in this respect, as well as lending proceedings a funky yet still slightly queasy feel: we'd recommend it as the best starting point from the song's five versions.

But despite our reservations, "Autonomia" is still welcome: it may be the best thing Primal Scream have been involved with for a quarter of a century (although we still reserve a soft spot for "Ivy Ivy Ivy" and half of "Sonic Flower Groove"), and it's a signifier that there are those who haven't forgotten the powerful nexus that music and social comment can forge. Yes, this union may throw up mere ephemera (time will tell whether that includes this single), but it can also create songs that echo down the decades. And if you don't believe us, just listen to "She Is Beyond Good And Evil". "She", of course, now being played by Meryl Streep.

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