When Super Furry Animals toured Radiator the first time round, they were a few hundred yards down the road at the Jaffa Cake (now Silk). Though only on the toilet circuit, they played the grubby nightclub like it was the Usher Hall, even rolling out the timpanis for the album’s majestic closer, Mountain People. No ordinary rock band then, and no ordinary rock band now.
For such a forward-thinking bunch, touring twenty year old albums (Radiator, and its predecessor, their debut, Fuzzy Logic) feels strangely retrograde. It rekindles memories, and reactivates forgotten material, but whatever the albums’ qualities – and they are many, establishing the pop-from-a-parallel-universe template that has served them so well – SFA are seen to best effect when they have the whole palette of their career to pick from. They’ve never had a duff period, just hiatuses. Why not make the most of that?
Tonight, they do at least make a good case for their early years, hurtling enthusiastically through the druggy drawls and speed freakery of Fuzzy Logic. Not only do the bald bonces bobbing to Bad Behaviour etc. get their golden oldie musical fix, nostalgia freaks can get off on the album artwork also, cut up and recycled into imagery for the fruit machine reels that form the backdrop. Each new song sees them stop on three identifying letters – S4W is cue for Something For The Weekend for instance.
The thrill of the guitar rush from tracks like God! Show Me Magic might have disappeared along with the flush of youth, but already on Fuzzy Logic SFA were displaying invention and scope that holds up now. The Italianate lilt of Gathering Moss is brought fully to the fore, SFA becoming sonic gondoliers punting us down a psychadelic canal, while Long Gone is still a gorgeous (presumed) elegy for a lost friend.
On Radiator SFA pushed forward further, dropping the shaggy guitar riffage, and taking us for a smoother, more joyous ride. Furryvision‘s twinkly keyboard motif remains a tantalising overture, before Placid Casual blasts everything open in a delirious sugar-rush of noise. That buzz of late 90s hedonism can still be felt in the music, but what is most striking to contemporary ears is the lyrical unease and disgruntlement. Back in 1997, Download couched its world-weary cynicism in wilfully child-like couplets, and how tragically prophetic it sounds now: “There are people who lie, and people who cry, and the people who lie are the ones who get by.” So very 2016! Similarly, the rarely aired psycho-glam stomp of Herman Loves Pauline remains standing proudly as an anthem for outsider defiance. Its chant of “Why do you do what they tell you?” is chorus-as-provocation, and the verses are the case studies that prove the point – Einstein and Marie Curie were just oddballs at school: “They never noticed her at school / She kept herself to herself / She used to sit and stare up at the ceiling…”
Not for the first time at an Usher Hall rock gig, though, the sound lets the side down. Loud it’s meant to be, but all of SFA’s subtlety is lost in a swampy, boomy fuddle. The sampled answer phone message on Long Gone isn’t even recognisable as such, just a mess of electronic noise, and the only time some wonderful, bittersweet trumpet playing can really be heard above the morass is in the gentle instrumental break of Demons and its segue into She’s Got Spies. That’s not all. Just as Radiator picks up momentum, half the sound cuts out completely, enforcing a five minute break. Gruff claims “we blew up the PA”, the truth is probably more prosaic. Whatever the cause, flow is lost at a crucial point and Gruff’s vocals continue to be prone to drop outs.
The Furries’ first albums will always remain a high-water mark of the Britpop post-mortem years, a last blast of unhinged, unbounded joy before British “indie” disappeared up Coldplay’s fundament. They’re always worth a revisit, but you’d skip the retrospective to see SFA a fully active recording proposition once more.