Blissfully Lost Inside the K-Hole
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The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole at Twenty-Two
I was just shy of fourteen when...
IN THIS PHOTO: The Chemical Brothers (circa 1995)/PHOTO CREDIT: David Tonge
The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole came out. I was discovering Trip-Hop from the likes of Massive Attack (their debut album, Blue Lines, was released on 8th April, 1991) and harder sounds. It would be a couple more months until The Prodigy released their third album, The Fat of the Land, but, at such a young age, I was being exposed to these edgier and more exciting sounds. There were samples and Rock beats being integrated into something less conventional and mainstream. The Chemicals Brothers – formerly the Dust Brothers – were no stranger to remastering and reworking layers; taking music in new directions and creating material that was at once tripped-out and calm at the same time. The sensational Exit Planet Dust was released in 1995 (the debut from The Chemical Brothers) and there was a lot of anticipation around their second effort. Dig Your Own Hole was the first album from the duo to reach number-one and boasted five singles. With guest vocalists such as Noel Gallagher, the album was able to appeal to Electronica/Breakbeat fans and crossover into other genres. The Chemical Brothers were touring heavily in the run-up to Dig Your Own Hole and were keen to try out new material. As a teenager, I was excited by the mix of strangeness, darkness and effusive passion that made the songs explode and remain. Perhaps Block Rockin’ Beats is the standout but, to be fair, some of the lesser-played songs hold as much weight. It is a fantastically rich and rewarding album that stands the test of time.
When I was in school, there was still a lot of chatter and focus on Rock and Pop. 1997 was a year when Britpop mutated and there was a sort of shift from British dominance to new American ideas. That was nothing new. Trance and Dance music sort of spiked during the early/mid-1990s and then we saw Britpop and other tastes take over. One could definitely see a particular taste throughout the 1990s and, whilst a lot of the music was joyous and unifying, there was not a great deal of danger and sonic experimentation. Not in terms of electronic fusions and subverting traditional sounds. Electronic music and Big Beat were beginning to filter into the British mainstream. The fact Massive Attack brought out their debut the same week as The Chemical Brothers introduced their sophomore revelation shows there was a real revolution happening. I am not sure whether one can link British Big Beat and Electronic music with the House and Trance movement that moved a generation. Whether The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole as the next phase or a natural evolution, it definitely spoke to critics and fans alike. A lot of tastes during 1997 were still aimed at the charts: The Chemical Brothers offered this new world and sensation. Me and my friends were taken aback and, although we could not identify with a lot of the lyrical themes and sources of inspiration – one feels Dig Your Own Hole was primed at slightly older listeners – the music stood out and translated.
Maybe it was the primal energy of the beats – The Prodigy had already laid this foundation but The Chemical Brothers provided their own take – or the guest vocalists like Noel Gallagher and Beth Orton (Where Do I Begin)…something about Dig Your Own Hole cut through everything else and sparked the imagination. It might seem unusual to mark an album’s twenty-second birthday but I think pioneering records deserve investigation every year they are in the world. I do think there is nothing in music now like Dig Your Own Hole. The Chemical Brothers are releasing their ninth studio album, No Geography, on Friday and it will be interesting to see how they fare this time around. It is clear Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have lost none of their spark but how many artists like them are around right now? Even if The Chemical Brothers remain untouched and in their own league, the magic and fire of Dig Your Own Hole inspired Big Beat and Electronic artists thereafter. The reviews for Dig Your Own Hole were emphatically positive. In this retrospective review from AllMusic (from 2011), they celebrated the energy and diversity of the album:
“Everything is going on at once in "Block Rockin' Beats," and it sets the pace for the rest of the record, where songs and styles blur into a continuous kaleidoscope of sound. It rocks hard enough for the pop audience, but it doesn't compromise either the Chemicals' sound or the adventurous, futuristic spirit of electronica -- even "Setting Sun," with its sly homages to the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and Noel Gallagher's twisting, catchy melody, doesn't sound like retro psychedelia; it sounds vibrant, unexpected, and utterly contemporary.
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There are no distinctions between different styles, and the Chemicals sound as if they're having fun, building Dig Your Own Hole from fragments of the past, distorting the rhythms and samples, and pushing it forward with an intoxicating rush of synthesizers, electronics, and layered drum machines. The Chemical Brothers might not push forward into self-consciously arty territories like some of their electronic peers, but they have more style and focus, constructing a blindingly innovative and relentlessly propulsive album that's an exhilarating listen -- one that sounds positively new but utterly inviting at the same time”.
It is clear, now, Dig Your Own Hole changed music in 1997 and helped bring Big Beat and Electronic music closer to the mainstream. DJ magazine wrote an article last year explaining how Dig Your Own Hole made a huge impression on the scene and helped push The Chemical Brothers to new heights:
“With the release of their debut album, 1995’s ‘Exit Planet Dust’, The Chemical Brothers were still seen in many quarters as representing the lingering remnants of big beat: a fun, if rather shallow, mid ’90s dance phenomenon that combined rock music structures with electronic production. After 1997’s ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, however, it was impossible to see The Chemical Brothers as anything but their own men, a legacy that has stayed with them until today. Open up a new Chemical Brothers album in 2018 and you genuinely don’t know what to expect, from shiny trance fusion to soil-worn psychedelia. This is the legacy of ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, an album that radiated ambition and adventure, as Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons matured as producers, growing up without ever growing old.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Chemical Brothers in 1997/PHOTO CREDIT: Joseph Cultice
It is a fitting closer for an album that remains almost unparalleled in electronic music for scope and adventure. Individually, the 11 tracks on ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ are fantastic; collectively they add up to a milestone of musical ambition, one that stinks of the sheer possibility of the electronic sound. In many ways, ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ is a nostalgic album, a reminder of an age in which Britpop, rock, beats, clarinets and psychedelic reels were united in the hearts of open-minded ravers. But it is very forward-looking too, its genre-hopping foreshadowing the post-genre pop world in which we now live. The Chemical Brothers didn’t just dig their own hole back in 1997, then; they dug out a new space for everyone”.
Two years ago, Loud and Quiet investigated The Chemical Brothers’ second album and how it added something fresh to music; a response to a particular sound that was becoming, perhaps, a little stale:
“On another, though, characterising ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ as a big beat record today seems absurd. If you remove the hulking behemoth of ‘Setting Sun’ from its middle (which, of course, you can’t – but more on that shortly), the album is suddenly recontextualised as three suites of ecstatic electronica, full of abstract glorious noise, nagging repetitions and polyrhythms and, crucially, a level of stylistic depth that separates it from merry pranksters such as Fatboy Slim and Bentley Rhythm Ace entirely…
That’s not to say, though, that even without Noel Gallagher’s presence, ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ would be a record for purists. Indeed, from the album’s opening combination of samples – bassline from jazz fusion, drums from funk, vocals from hip-hop – to the dizzying climax of ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’ with its sitar drones and clarinet improvisations, it’s clear that Rowlands and Simons are more magpies than pure musicians, drawn less to the introspective, technical cleanliness of techno’s thud and more to the shimmering breadth of its influences.
…But nonetheless, in the comparison with Revolver perhaps lies Dig Your Own Hole’s ultimate appeal and addictiveness: alongside Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’, this is dance music’s greatest response to classic rock’s obsession with the idea of album flow (a very big-beat idea, one might argue), stymied only by a genius but entirely incongruous one-off single. Thankfully, in 2017, that can easily be fixed: Put on ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, but delete ‘Setting Sun’ from the playlist, instead letting ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ pick up straight from where ‘Piku’ left off: all of sudden, there materialises one of the all-time great albums – seamless, generous and engrossing – regardless of genre”.
To the school-age me, the full impact and beauty of Dig Your Own Hole could not be felt but, at the age of thirty-five, I am picking up new things I did not notice back then. Apart from The Chemical Brothers, there are not many acts that can create such a daring and sense-spinning sound. I am hearing of approaching artists picking up little bits from Dig Your Own Hole and updating and stretching it in their own directions. It is great The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 record is still creating influence and, back upon its release, it was a sensation. I am going to spin it (again) now and, if you have not experienced all its giddy wonder and innovation, make sure you…
GET on it now!