Super Furry Animals
(International) Noise Conspiracy
By J.R. Jones
If you can't understand the lyrics to Mwng, the fourth album from the UK's Super Furry Animals, there's a good reason: it's sung entirely in their native Welsh. "I had a bunch of songs that were musically and linguistically coherent and I think we make a better album by sticking to one language," guitarist Gruff Rhys explained in a press release. "It's not an explicitly political statement." Usually Rhys is eager to play up the socialist content of his vaguely malcontented songs, but for once he's understating the case: the medium is most certainly the message, and when the largest market for British pop is the United States, recording an album in a language understood by fewer than 600,000 people is tantamount to commercial suicide. By its very essence, Mwng ("Mane") is about as political as pop music gets.
Survival Sickness, the U.S. debut by Swedish garage rockers the (International) Noise Conspiracy, seems almost tame by comparison. Musically it's the best rock 'n' roll record I've heard all year, a 40-minute eruption of punk rage, amped-up R & B, and 60s spy riffs that feels like a blast of fresh air in the stifling cellar of American rap-rock. Its Marxist diatribes, largely inspired by the French theorist Guy Debord and printed beneath each song title in lieu of the actual lyrics, are equally bracing. Yet actions speak louder than words, and after self-releasing a string of seven-inch records (collected on the Canadian import The First Conspiracy), the (I)NC has bowed to commerce and licensed Survival Sickness to Epitaph, the closest thing punk rock has to a major label. (Epitaph has done some great work, but no one who's attended its cynical Vans Warped package tour would confuse it with a socialist collective.)
Super Furry Animals, who play at the Double Door this Friday, have rent to pay as well; they may have recorded and released Mwng independently in the UK, but their first three albums came out on Creation (home of Oasis), and now that the label has folded they're looking for a new record deal in Britain. Yet Mwng is still a nervy project. With English the lingua franca for a global economy and world trade agreements overtaking national sovereignty as a political force, releasing an entire album in an obscure tongue seems like a bigger "fuck you" to the powers that be than wearing black turtlenecks and throwing around a lot of esoteric political philosophy.
Despite all the lip service we pay to ethnicity (especially in this city of immigrants), the idea of nationalism has taken quite a beating in the last century. Our government was founded on the romantic notion that political power derives from a people who share a common language and culture, and the French Revolution was ignited by the same spark. But by 1945 the grail of national identity had led the Germans to the gates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In the mid-60s the very prospect of a "nation" of Islam so terrified the federal government that it passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And after the fall of the Soviet Union made the world safe for multinational corporations, the war in the Balkans seemed like some sort of historical anachronism, a time warp back to the Great War. Diversity might be one of our favorite buzzwords, but our economic security has always depended on our homogeneity.
Wales has been resisting this trend since the 16th century, when Henry VIII incorporated it into the realm of England. The Welsh language has fared better than the other Celtic tongues, but only because the English wanted to bolster the Protestant faith and permitted a Welsh translation of the Bible. Gradually the region became an industrial center, and during the 19th century the labor movement thrived in Welsh-language periodicals. In the early 1960s the Welsh Language Society spearheaded a movement to preserve Welsh, but these days only about a fifth of the population of Wales speaks it.
On the Super Furry Animals' home page, Rhys has provided notes and (admittedly clumsy) English translations for the lyrics to Mwng, and while it isn't a concept album by any means, a fair number of songs wrestle with the band's Welsh heritage. The creepy falsetto chorus of "Ymaelodi A'r Ymylon" translates as "Joining the periphery / Banished to the periphery," and as Rhys explains, "There's an old idiom in Welsh, Y cythraul canu, which is about the demon in music, which creates friction between people....It's partly about our experiences of doing taboo moves like singing in English." Draped with brooding trumpet and electric piano, "Y Gwyneb lau" is a ballad about war refugees: "Take your homestead and then head down south / Leave your heritage in the designated space / What was once home now is gray matter." The exotic "Sarn Helen" pays tribute to the ancient Roman road that connects northern and southern Wales. And "Gwreiddiau Dwfn" ("Deep Roots"), which floats by on acoustic guitar, melancholy horn, and a shimmering keyboard pattern, is about "being rooted to a sad piece of land...being doomed to live somewhere and that's all you have and that's what you're stuck with."
Sweden has never had to worry much about ethnic tensions: its people have been speaking a common standard language for more than a century, and about 90 percent of them are Lutheran. During the world wars Sweden remained neutral, and while tensions between East and West were escalating in the late 50s, the Swedish legislature was enacting a compulsory pension for all employees. So when the (International) Noise Conspiracy demand worldwide revolution based on the principles of Situationist Internationale, a French anarchist group from the 60s, you have to wonder whether their motivation is social injustice or sheer boredom.
Fortunately the brand of anarchy championed by their heroes the situationists consisted mostly of dadaist pranks and a self-negation that was supposed to end in existential freedom but in practice usually led to paralysis. "The Subversive Sound," the second track on Survival Sickness, pounds along on a brutal three-chord garage riff, powered by singer Dennis Lyxzen's bristling vocal and Sara Almgren's cheesy organ. It's exhilarating, the kind of song that makes you want to hurl yourself around the room. But don't bother--in the liner notes, Lyxzen declares, "Music is nothing but [an] abstraction of an old and dull idea of bourgeois self-realization....We get taught to believe that the emotions expressed in songs can be relived again and again by the artist and the audience, not realizing that when the song is written it is already dead, it is already a bleak and hollow representation of the process that made the piece appear in the first place." (Of course by this time we've already broken the seal on the CD.)
I'm more impressed by the stunt the band pulled last spring, when the individual members sneaked into China on tourist visas and performed more than a dozen shows at illegal rock clubs in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. That's the kind of international conspiracy the rock world could use more of, and in a sense it trumps the Super Furry Animals' gesture of Welsh nationalism. English may be the language of global capital, but it also allowed a band of Swedish punk rockers to carry the flame of individual expression to kids chafing under a cruel and rapacious government. And after all's said and done, no language means anything unless it's backed up by deeds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Elin Berje/Vincent McDonald.