I think it’s time to discuss your philosophy of drug use as it relates to artistic endeavour…
That quote is from the movie “The Naked Lunch” directed by David Cronenburg (see also this) and it also opens “Bug Powder Dust” by Bomb The Bass, the five star single that opens “Clear”. A rollicking piece of rock rap dripping with pop culture references that runs for four and half minutes and does not stop until another quote from “The Naked Lunch”, it is probably one of my favourite songs of the 90s. That churning guitar line sends me right back.
Most of the rest of the album proceeds in more straightforward fashion. Second song “Sleepyhead” is all dub rhythms and fuzzy guitar, the sort of record I used to dream of making for myself. I used to write a lot of songs around this time and I reckon most of them sounded like “Sleepyhead” inside my head, even if it is a pretty standard bit of 90’s R&B made interesting by that dub baseline.
Much more exciting is the second single “One To One Religion”, a great combination of a really interesting bassline, meditation bells and a soft vocal that might be a bit X Factor but does the job for me. Back when I first bought the album, it was the bassline that really excited and was part of establishing my love of electronic music. On the CD single, there is also an amazing instrumental mix by Tim Simenon and one of my first encounters with 808 State in the form of the “Space Funk” mix, a track that I learned to love by at first absolutely hating it.
After that comes “Darkheart”, which unusually is featured in its 12” version and introduces another strident bassline. It is interesting that the vocal, a pretty standard reggae song about being strong and fighting off the forces of darkness, holds up so well against the aggressive and elastic backing track. “Darkheart” was also a single (the Sabres Of Paradise mixes are excellent) and the 7” edit is a completely different song - pretty much a standard reggae tune. At first I would include that version on my walkman cassette of the album but nowadays I much prefer the more aggressive version.
One of the novel things for me about “Clear” was the way spoken word tracks were deployed throughout. “If You Reach The Border” is the first of three (or five, if you count the samples on “Bug Powder Dust” and “Somewhere”). A disembodied female voice that sounds like an answerphone message describes gender politics (I think, or maybe drug addiction) over a crunchy background - another very dominant bassline and some nice detail in the synths in the treble range. I used to find it very spooky, it fits well as a homage to Burroughs - both in terms of the subject matter and the cut-up techniques applied to the voice.
Following that, we have “Brain-dead” or if you like “Bug Powder Dust 2”. It is more laid back than “Bug Powder Dust”, very much in keeping with the then nascent trip hop genre. There’s a wonderful slow sucking synth that underpins the chorus, it is how I imagine having your brain removed by a vacuum cleaner might sound; it would not sound out of place on Portishead’s recent masterpiece “Third”. Like “Dark Heart” it also has a wonderful false ending with yet another A+ bassline.
Will Self provides the vocal on “5ML Barrel”, a harrowing account of the impact that injecting morphine extracted from kaolin and morphine on a junkie’s circulatory system. The problem being that when siphoning off the morphine from the solution the narrator cannot help but take some chalk (kaolin) as well and this ends up being deposited along his veins. If I didn’t think drugs were bad (“Mmmkay”) before hearing this track, I definitely did afterwards. It’s horribly gruesome and something of a guilty pleasure for it. It is mostly Will Self’s excellent deadpan delivery that makes the track such awful fun but the backing is again interesting and admirable. Around this time I would have been well immersed in The Orb’s dub experiments but hearing in this (almost) rock context was a real ear-opener.
“Somewhere” is the only instrumental on the album (save for some de rigeur late 90s ethnic chanting and a few words in a sample at the end) and is probably more like “space funk” than that 808 State remix I mentioned earlier. It sounds a lot like The Future Sound Of London, another band that I would have been heavily into at the time. At that stage in my musical fandom I was beginning to realise that an instrumental was not necessarily a lesser track on a vocal album and “Somewhere” was likely most responsible for establishing that view point.
The B-sides to singles off “Clear” that were not remixes were also instrumentals. “Dressed In Black” (again not completely instrumental, there are movie samples), which backed “Dark Heart”, is a pretty standard five minute guitar and dub bass knock off. Meanwhile, “Absorber” the B-side to “Sandcastles” was a really quite futuristic drum’n’bass track, blazing a trail about two years ahead of Roni Size. Of course, there was “Timeless” by Goldie etc etc but “Absorber” is probably the first d’n’b track that made me really sit up and take notice of the genre.
Quite why “Sandcastles” was one of those singles, I am not so sure. It’s a pretty bland soul song with a pleasant enough vocal but actually rather forgettable compared to the rest of the album. I think that the next song “Tidal Wave” would have made a better choice, a nice bit of Lovers Rock with a vocal from (OMFG!) Minnie Driver (I only found this out a few years ago).
Last but not least, we have “Empire”, an absoloutely batshit-crazy compilation with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah and professional basket case Sinead O’Connor. The best thing is that Zephaniah and O’Connor have obviously written their parts completely independently and one of them has in fact misheard the title of the song: Zephaniah’s is “Empire” and O’Connor’s chorus and bridge are “Vampire”. It’s so crazy that it works. It bounces along with yet another dubby bassline and a springy acoustic guitar, a highlight to close an album full of them!