Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years Review

The Furries freak show saw signs of splintering earlier this decade as they used the success of Rings Around the World as a springboard towards increasingly bloated electronica-flecked neo-psychedelic hurricanes. Rarely drifting into the ponderous, they still managed to make their tunes lumber more than levitate. Recently, on 2007’s Hey Venus!, they tried to streamline the sound and return to their potent power pop roots for a less navel-gazing and astringent sonic whirlpool, but failed to break through the ceiling of consistently good into occasionally great, which the Furries used to specialize in. Now on their ninth studio LP, we should probably be grateful that the band is still hanging around no matter the diminished results, since long-term bands of worth are so hard to find these days. Even more grateful we should all be because Dark Days/Light Years is their most astonishingly gripping album since their all-time best, 1997’s Radiator.

The album as a whole weaves its spell in subtle and mysterious ways, but the songs gratify immediately. Taken individually, hardly any of them don’t demand a repeat or two right away. But the track sequencing initially seems aloof, pitting epic dirges between zippier numbers and slowly vacating the charms of previous songs into polar reactions a few seconds later. I initially thought it was a just a series of great tracks, poorly placed and begging for a digital swap. But on the third and fourth listen, the nature of these songs fit the turmoil—they are constantly at odds with each other within the barriers of the compositions, so the unnatural flow is a reflection of the progression. Hell, that turbulent communion is right there in the name of the album. The songs have quiet unease; so too should the breaths between them seem jumbled and erratic.

Take the leadoff multi-part epic, “Crazy Naked Girls,” which stomps like heavy glam, swings like vamping funk and gurgles like color-drip psychedelia. The crunchy wah-wah sounds like Cream on a bad acid trip, but the groove and raunchy attitude is Prince-esque. Imagine a sexed-up supercharger howling about, “Crazy, crazy naked girls with nothing on,” who shortsightedly decided to pilot a blimp made of lead. Then the next track, “Mt,” begins quiet with a gentle acoustic guitar and crooning vocals, but carries over the epically dumb drive of the last one by showcasing Gruff Rhys singing the hilariously bong resin-clogged line, “I wasn’t looking for a mountain/There was a mountain/It was a big fucking mountain/So I climbed the mountain.” And lest you be turned away by such bare-knuckle sentiment (or is it bone-headed?), the song quickly turns to stomping again, bass-heavy and brimming with brimstone.

The sultry lounge swing then comes back on the electro-greased, neon nu-disco fetish “Moped Eyes.” But before we get too sexed up again, the Furries navigate through motorik with blood in its heartbeat; “Inaugural Trams” even manages to turn a throwaway German rap into an advantage. In the same way that the Furries’ most ingenious jams were always preciously creeping towards a cliff overlooking the dark sea of overkill, so too does “Trams” succeed mightily against tradition. By the time they pit a reverb-verve pop tune against an eight-minute psychedelic haze dream, you’re ready to start swapping the tracks around to suit your mood.

But the rise and fall of the album’s tone, pace and style is paramount to its success. It only seems to bog down and fly by at different intervals because they know that if too many faster, upbeat songs are front-loaded, they are quickly forgotten when the next one arrives—adding a dirge echoes the last cut’s hooks even as you drift off into dreamland. Similarly, if the long ones bled out and seeped into the next one, you’d find them to be a trudging chore instead of a relaxing tempest.

Exhausting as it might sound, there’s no need for a break before tackling the back end. They manage to live up to the ingeniously tongue-in-cheek song title, “The Best of Neil Diamond,” by delivering a mid-tempo dazzler that manages to be unpredictable even as it constantly returns to the hook-heavy chorus that hammers home the murmuring warble, “Trust but verify.” “Helium Hearts” is gorgeously decadent psych-folk crossed with breathless R&B dressed up as sunshine pop. “Where Do You Wanna Go?” is breezy cotton candy that culminates with a signature-change surprise I won’t spoil here. “Lliwiau Llachar” is another one of their Welsh-language screwballs that again proves that Welsh-speak rolls right off the tongue in lovely ways, but on paper, the hyper-extended words look like someone ate an entire box of Alpha-Bits and took a dump.

Since this is Super Furry Animals, there are destined to be a few brow-crinkling moments along the way, but instead of bordering on obnoxious as they sometimes have in the past, here they’re integrated much better. Instead of grating left turns, they rise almost naturally out of the groove or melody they’re beating to death. And by doing so, they become an advantage—a nice break in the drawn-out sections. A good example is “Cardiff in the Sun,” which begins on slippery footing by aping a spacey Edge riff from any number of recent distended U2 epics, but expands on it before long without turning into mere mockery. Then there’s the extended closer, “Pric,” which is an instrumental that retains vocal parts. Impossible? Give it a listen and you’ll see. I don’t even mind the last three minutes of faintly audible electronic goop—if I’m not in the mood for it, I shut it down and lose nothing from the experience.

With the weird stuff charming again, the intentionally dumb interludes bordering on transcendent and a wealth of great fundamental songs stuffed with juicy hooks beneath the eccentricities, Super Furry Animals sound more invigorated than they have in a long time. They’ve never been content to “phone it in,” but the results could be drastically uneven—the slow ones draining and the quick pop nuggets too faint and forgettable. But a masterstroke of seemingly clunky planning has beefed up the variety on here. More than that, though, nearly every song on here can be cherished alone again and again. Dark Days/Light Years is everything you could ever want from the Furries, and maybe a few things you didn’t know you were missing.

"Dark Days/Light Years" is on sale April 21, 2009 from Rough Trade.

Matt Medlock


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