Death In Vegas
Satan's Circus (Drone)
~review by Uncle Nemesis
An odd bunch, this. Death In Vegas aren’t really a band. They’re one of those nebulous, shifting outfits which tend to be described as a ‘project’. Based around DJ/producer Richard Fearless, his collaborator Tim Holmes, plus an ever-changing cast of musos and guest stars, they’ve gone from indie label early days (the ‘Dead Elvis’ album) to major label almost-stardom (with the more recent releases ‘The Contino Sessions’ and ‘Mercury Rising’). Now they’re back in the underground, with this new collection on their own label.
In their time Death In Vegas have created some quite gorgeously menacing, grimacing, dark and dangerous grooves, towering, shuddering slabs of late-night menace (check out ‘Death Threat’ for a genuinely goosebump-inducing audio experience), pummelling rock ‘n’ roll madness, bourbon-soaked neo-jazz, ice-cold electroclash, and misty drifts of etherealisms. Along the way they even managed to rescue dear old Iggy Pop’s career from psuedo-adolescent metal hell with the coruscating, downright scary, murder-disco tune ‘Aisha’, unquestionably the best thing Iggy’s done for years.
All this, incidentally, illustrates one of the key points about Death In Vegas. They don’t have a vocalist. Much of their stuff is instrumental, or features cut-up sampled voices where, under normal circumstances, the vocalist would be. Occasionally, they’ll trawl in a guest vocalist to do the honours. Sometimes, this produces great results, especially when the guests are people like Iggy Pop, or Jim Reid from the Jesus And Mary Chain, or even Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream. Other times, the results aren’t quite so splendid. During Death In Vegas’ major label period, when they presumably had access to enough music biz money to buy in big stars, I was frankly rather underwhelmed to find Paul Weller and Liam Gallagher lending their vocal talents to Death In Vegas music. I wouldn’t have minded so much, except for the fact that both singers turned in exactly the kind of blandly competent performances you’d expect, over forgettable music which sounded like Death In Vegas had rather misguidedly tried to pastiche both singers’ usual dull dadrock musical backing. For this reason, I came upon this new album with a certain amount of trepidation. I really wasn’t up for another demonstration of how smoothly Death In Vegas can schmooze with their showbiz mates. Fortunately, the fact that this is an independent release gives a certain reassurance. If Death In Vegas are now operating on an indie budget again, it’s a fair bet that this time round we won’t find ourselves confronted with Liam bloody Gallagher.
Sure enough, once we start the CD spinning, it’s very quickly apparent that things are indeed different now. No superstar singers at all - instead, Death In Vegas have gone Krautrock.
‘Ein Fur Die Damen’ (oh, you smooth talking minstrels, you!) kicks things off with a pleasant if not what you’d call hard hitting retro-electro groove, while ‘Zugaga’ is, essentially, a rewrite of Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’, the tune following Kraftwerk’s blueprint so faithfully I fully expected to see the original writers namechecked in the credits. This is Death In Vegas in homage-mode, and a neat encapsulation of where they’re coming from on this album. ‘Heil Xanax’, on the other hand, is like Jah Wobble in a flotation tank, layers of atmosphere giving way to the throb of a deep bass and drumbeats which have been thoroughly reverbed into submission. ‘Black Lead’ is a loping, faintly menacing prowl through a fog of dub effects, a suitable soundtrack to the nocturnal wanderings of a science fiction Jack the Ripper. It’s close, claustrophobic, a forbidding cityscape in the silence of the night conjured up in sound. In many ways it’s the most effective track here.
‘Sons Of Rother’ is a slice of vintage experimentation, if that’s not a contradiction. A synth-pulse, a drum kit, treated guitars, and some endearing little ‘whewp!’ noises - it’s all very mid-70s BBC Radiophonic Workshop, in a way. This could be Colin The Flying Robot’s Theme from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (if Radio 4 ever gets around to making that particular episode, consider this a recommendation!)
‘Candy McKenzie’ is a tripped-out psychedelic dub atmosphere piece, a pile-up of surface noise, glitches and reversed sounds which unexpectedly breaks into some warm, recirculating guitar as the track unfolds. ‘Reigen’ and ‘Kontroll’ are two further exercises in Krafterkian chrome-plated electronica, stern and expressionless as they pulse away, while Anita Berber’ is slow, dreamy, built around a constantly repeating guitar motif which sounds like it’s going to develop into one of Death In Vegas’ avant-rock grooves any minute...but doesn’t. ‘Head’ features the full band clattering away (the drums in particular, sound very ‘live’) - psychedelic treated guitars, the works. It’s very warm, very organic, a complete contrast to the electronic precision of the previous stuff, although the track lacks any real focal point. It sounds a bit too much like the forgettable music that gets played over the end credits of a movie, while everyone is getting up and leaving the cinema. Nobody’s paying much attention, but you’ve got to have *something* on the soundtrack. We end on ‘Come Over To Our Side, Softly, Softly’, which turns out to be a minimalist trip through synthesised blooping, the kind of thing that would have been hailed as groundbreaking experimentation in 1975, but which frankly seems a little self-indulgent thirty years on.
This is not, by any means, Death In Vegas’ most accessible album. It’s all based around moods and ideas, atmospheres and experimentation, a deliberate homage to mid-seventies European egghead-rock and pioneering electronica, with some Pil-esque dub excursions thrown in along the way. If you’ve got your CD shelf arranged by musical style, ‘Satan’s Circus’ might fit quite neatly between ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Metal Box’. Alternatively, if you’re looking for compatible artists, then by all means slip Death In Vegas between King Tubby and Neu and they’d fit right in. But this isn’t an album for fans of Death In Vegas’ storming rock incarnation - unless you grab what I assume is a limited edition double album version of this release, which includes a live set recorded at Brixton Academy, and features all the mad-bastard rockers in full effect. If you’re entirely new to the band, then I’d suggest starting with ‘The Contino Sessions’ (that’s the one with Iggy Pop on it) and proceeding with equal parts enthusiasm and caution from that point on. ‘Satan’s Circus’ is a fine entertainment in itself, but it’s likely to be a bemusing experience for latecomers to the show.
The website: http://deathinvegas.co.uk/div/
A recent interview with Richard Fearless: http://www.whisperinandhollerin.com/chat/chat.asp?id=1790
An older interview with Tim Holmes: http://www.freewilliamsburg.com/august_2003/vegas.html
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to