‘Come with us into the realm of imagination’, a cryptic voice broadcasts on “UNKLE (Main Theme Title). Indeed, UNKLE’s debut album Psyence Fiction is all about concepts, ideas and creativity. Inspiration derives from DJ Shadow’s favourite records — ranging from old-school hip hop to soul stirring rock — as well as his favourite films and TV series. The fact that DJ Shadow and James Lavelle are able to (mostly) sustain a cohesive direction is an achievement in itself. Psyence Fiction attempts to be the sonic equivalent of the visual cinema experience — a lofty ambition, but UNKLE give it a bloody good go. It’s not quite the epic statement that Shadow and Lavelle so wished it to be, but it remains a fine achievement, though faintly undercooked. A small percentage of cuts have only gotten clumsier with age, such as “The Knock (Drums of Death, Pt.2)”, where Mike D’s appearance seems awkward and inappropriate. Yet I find myself strangely forgiving of Psyence Fiction’s flaws. UNKLE’s vision is just as enticing as the execution itself, perhaps even more so. It remains a unique experience.
Coming off the back of the groundbreaking Endtroducing, anticipation was certainly high. For certain fans and critics, Psyence Fiction was a colossal disappointment. It’s not nearly as accomplished as Endtroducing, true, nor is it as revolutionary. Yet the sampling on show is still, frankly, ingenious, and the sound is just as rich and multi-faceted. The construction and design of the soundscapes are outrageously good. Occasionally the beats do feel like outtakes of Endtroducing, though I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing. The measure and stride of “Lonely Soul” isn’t all too dissimilar to the likes of “Building Steam With a Grain of Salt” and “Midnight in a Perfect World”, and it’s undoubtedly one of the crowning jewels. “Rabbit in Your Headlights” is the other treasure, adapting a theatrical temperament that seems only fitting for Thom Yorke’s astonishingly beautiful vocals. These two monuments are the optimum products of Shadow and Lavelle’s grand vision. Two bull’s-eyes from eleven attempts may at first seem a luckless proportion, but to experience UNKLE striving for something truly extraordinary is a worthwhile experience in itself.8 10
Favourite tracks // Rabbit in Your Headlights
I enjoy Psyence Fiction best as a kind of ‘90s aggregator. It juggles so many sounds, sample, and vocalists that treating it as a uniform vision seems silly. If anything the album is stubbornly scattergun in its approach. Some grunge here, a sprinkle of trip hop there… and some orchestral spells of course. There’s a daring to that, win or lose. Throwing Richard Ashcroft into the midst of a downtempo flow is audacious, but “Lonely Soul” pulls it off. Doing sombre, cooing Thom Yorke years before he was doing it himself is something we probably take for granted now, but it really is quite impressive given Psyence Fiction came out in 1998.
On balance I think the album is more more ambitious than successful. It’s a cluttered experience. The quality of that clutter is high, but that doesn’t make listens through any less erratic. Sometimes it’s grandiose and impressive, others it simmers down and passes by like a cool dream. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s certainly not a case of an album where every minute of its running time feels essential. I’m not sure I’d call any of Psyence Fiction essential. It scratches a different itch, one that calls for something expressive and well made and unfocused, and to that end it does very well.7 10
Favourite tracks // Lonely Soul
Rabbit in Your Headlights
Sample heavy albums usually appeal to me through their sheer creativity in flipping a passage of music on its head. The likes of The Avalanches and The Beastie Boys have piqued my interest during our reviews for similar reasons. Where Psyence Fiction, with DJ Shadow in tow, makes a stark difference is in the moods that result. Far from the cartoonesque quirk of Wildflower, or the bombast of Hello Nasty, Psyence Fiction gives us “Bloodstain”. Its eerie, sullen guitar line creates a far more distinctive atmosphere that builds through its six-minute play time to wailing guitars that echo out across the stereo field. Distinction is Psyence Fiction’s best friend and worst enemy at times, as it can often seem to veer between genres. While a healthy portion of the first half is full of guitars (seemingly too many guitars for the NME), the two “Drums Of Death” tracks stray firmly into hip-hop, and despite Mike D featuring on the second part, it doesn’t do enough to justify the diversion. In fact, despite the track list being littered with features, some of the best material here are the tracks that lack one. The exceptions are “Lonely Soul”, which suits Richard Ashcroft’s vocal brilliantly and makes for a dramatic experience which has aged well, and “Rabbit In Your Headlights” which could comfortably sit among any of the following two decades of Thom Yorke’s output and sounds simply wonderful. I’ll happily let a lot of Psyence Fiction’s flaws slide thanks to the highlights here, the sampling is intriguing, the best of the tracklist sounds excellent, and the rest is by no means terrible either. I’d definitely recommend giving this a listen, even if the NME couldn’t deal with all those guitars.8 10
Favourite tracks // Rabbit in Your Headlight