Don't look at me like that.. You think 90s alternative bands are immune from the marketing colossus that has taken over world pop music since the turn of the millienium? The Smashing Pumpkins is a brand name as much as it is a band name. I wrote a piece on The Shins recently as well. The Shins is now just James Mercer. The Smashing Pumpkins is essentially just Billy Corgan. Album sales always go better when you stick to the original name, just ask Axl Rose.
I'm not bitter and my view on the record is not coloured by in-fighting within this band. I was never even really a fan. 2 stunning tracks, 1979 and Bullet With Butterfly Wings and the rest just kind of meshed in to the whole 90s grunge scene for me. I wasn't excited when I saw this release, and I was even less excited when I read an interview in Rolling Stone (or maybe MOJO?) with Billy Corgan about the band and him in general. He seems really angry!
Enough about all of that! I'm starting to sound like a Pitchfork.com reviewer. The album is entitled Oceania, and it is excellent. From the aggressive throw-back gesture Quasar all the way down to the surprisingly soulful Wildflower, this album is a progression and a regression in all the right areas. My first impression was just Muse. I think its the aggression and the thumping drums, it gives off a late 90s British alternative feel, as if you're listening to a brand new Muse album or something from Interpol. The brilliant Quasar starts us off, one for the purists. This would be the lead off track at their live concert I would imagine. Hard, relentless, energetic, the hair would be flying immediately. Panopticon feels like Quasar part 2. There's no let up. The Celestials I'm almost certain steals directly from New Slang by The Shins. The rising synths at the start rise and fall like a tide-flow, and Billy's voice, always harsh but occasionally tinged with softness, drowns the acoustic guitar as he builds in to a soft growl, 'Everything I want is free..' the dream..
Elsewhere, we see synth. Now as i said, I am no Smashing Pumpkins anorak here so don't shoot me down. But this dabbling, and occasionally flirting and full penetration, with synth is disquieting. It feels like Corgan and co wrote the album, decided it was a bit too heavy, and sprinkled some after-market studio magic on it, cut-price. Violet Rays is a pulsing thing, but when the guitar kicks in you're left asking 'why did we listen to the first 30 seconds?' One Diamond, One Heart is the weakest track on the album, and it is built around a drum, bass and synth combo that sounds more like a mid 80s dance track than a time-wisened grunge song. Pinwheels as well? Get out of the damn studio Billy and plug your freaking guitar in!
Thankfully, there is grunge to be found yet. Oceania is a stunner, a real slow-burner. Billy wails 'I’m so alone, so alone But better than a wretched world Better than a broken pearl I’m so alone, so alone'. His most pleading song, pining for a lost love or despairing for one that doesn't even exist, it exposes him and opens the track up beautifully, so that at 6:30 when the lead guitar lick kicks in over the top of the swelling drums at the back the tension bleeds out, releases. It's the best track on the album, a brilliant composition.
Pale Horse is a personal favourite. The steady, comfortable rhythm it starts with, juxtaposed with the nostalgia-inducing words transporting you back to your teenage angst years: when they lit you up / you shut me out / they gave me the keys so i could show you around / but we were not around / ominous of a day dream of a cottage. The Chimera picks up a little bit, it reminds me of my 5:30am alarm but in a good way. Straight up, straight out of bed, straight in to the day.
Glissandra and Inkless, tracks 11 and 12, must not be cast aside here though. Both tracks are heavy on guitar, heavy on excellent drumming, both very solid album tracks. There isn't enough said for songs like this. They turn a good album in to a great one, listenable and catchy and inherently head-banging enough to pleasure the purists, it's these 2 songs that I build a case for a very high score for this record. Without them, it'd be a collection of a few good songs. With them, it's a complete record.
Enough of my incoherent ramblings. The final track, Wildflower. At first was wildly unpopular with me, I hated it. I thought the start sounded like the violin backing to a contemporary spoken word track, and when Billy comes in after 20 seconds of elevator music he is whiny and nasally and singing about drugs. What I believed was boring elevator music was actually the slowly opening flower of a vibrant song. The piano-esque synth, the guitar that builds slower than a handjob orgasm, the strings that dabble, tease, then disappear, and Billy's voice all combine to create a soundscape worthy of a Beach House album. Very mellow, very nice, an excellent end to an excellent album.
If you've stuck with Billy this long, you're probably more than a fairweather fan. I'm not sure how the masses of grunge faithful will view this album, but I was pleasantly impressed with it. It's not a classic, but it certainly isn't a flop by any means. And for the Gabba Gabba and Dance Dance generation, there's a bit of drum and base and some pounding synth thrown in to keep your hormonal juices flowing
Standout tracks: Quasar, The Celestials, Oceania, Pale Horse, Wildflower