Super Furry Animals
Dark Days/Light Years
Rough Trade Records, 2009
To cut to the chase, Dark Days/Light Years is a very good album that nevertheless seems to betray the 16-year history of this Welsh bizarro-pop band. For this reason, it may become a controversial offering in the band’s catalogue, but for the very same reason, it may also stand out as a high-water mark.
Throughout their career, Super Furry Animals have charted a course that seems intent on perfectly synthesizing pop sensibility with ear-bending weirdness. This formula culminated in the 2001 album, Rings Around the World, as well as in its immediate follow-up, Phantom Power, in 2003. Both of these albums featured a wealth of melody and hooks, but with enough excursions into chaos, psychedelia and downright subversion to perk up ears of even the most jaded audiophiles. After this era, the group had its Burt Bacharach moment, releasing Love Kraft in 2005, which coated a majority of its songs in lush string arrangements and kept the experimentation to a muffled roar. Perhaps as a natural consequence, the following album, Hey Venus!, was stripped down, featuring dominant hooks, aggressive electric guitars (at least by SFA’s standards), and far less of the lushness of previous albums.
One could expect that a holding pattern of increased ornamentation followed by “back to basics” efforts could easily flesh out the remainder of the band’s career, which is why Dark Days/Light Years is a bit of a head-scratcher. For this release, the band has decided to do away with traditional song structure, instead opting for groove-based songs, often consisting of only one or two chords. The music is made even more aerodynamic with insistent and unchanging bass lines and other sonic elements that continue throughout entire songs. On a more global scale, almost every song segues neatly into the next, so the entire work can be viewed as one, lengthy multi-part song. It is from this perspective that the album begins to make sense, and where it essentially becomes a DJ mix consisting entirely of original material.
After a few listens, it becomes evident that, despite a lack of catchy song structures, the melodies make the most of their minimalist surroundings, creating distinct and ultimately memorable verses and choruses. In addition, the music is densely and meticulously layered; something is always changing or evolving. This is music that can fade to the background while never fading out of consciousness.
Dark Days/Light Years begins with “Crazy Naked Girls,” which after a minute or so of false starts, ramshackle beats, and falsetto vocals, roars to life with a full frontal stoner-rock riff that continues in various permutations for the rest of the track. With this song, SFA not only flex their sonic chops, but appear to be having more fun than they have had since 1999’s oddball Guerilla. Also of note in the first half of the record is “Inaugural Trams,” in which the band beams optimistic on the subject of gleaming new public transportation while a slyly infectious krautrock beat bounces along.
However, it is the second half of the album in which SFA earn their keep. After the candy-coated “Helium Hearts,” which stands as the album track closest to conventional songwriting, a persistent rhythm guitar announces “White Socks/Flip-Flops” with so much confidence that within seconds, there is no doubt for the listener – this is the record’s strongest track. This song encapsulates the best of this album: a hypnotic groove becomes the canvas for manic layering of textures and subtle shifting of chord tones, resulting in a cathartic combination of menace and impish glee. The album closes with the lengthy “Pric,” in which a strident pulse drives itself to its logical conclusion before dissipating into several minutes of murky noise.
Dark Days/Light Years either marks a turning point for Super Furry Animals, or it marks a necessary detour into experimentation; it is too early to tell. Whatever the case, even long-time fans can forgive these Welshmen for retreating from their usual Beatlesque hooks if it means the result is nearly sixty minutes of head-bobbing stereophonic bliss.
Ryan Harrell. HighStreet. Cleveland