Sometime in the mid 1990s when the novelty of grunge wore off in the mainstream, a new sensation began to emerge. Electronica. Not ‘dance’ music, but still relatively set up the same way. Most of these acts were made up of two or three guys, one with a turn table and the other with a computer of some sort, throwing samples out left and right backed by a synthetic beat, seasoned with laser sound effects and other robot noises. For every action there is a reaction though right? Just like in the late 80s early 90s, mainstream rock became stale and kids looked to the underground and found groups like Nirvana and Soundgarden, edgy, brooding, interesting, and for the lack of a better term, ‘alternative’, the same could be said for this new electronica genre.
Artists like The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, and Prodigy put their spin on electronic music by coming from a much darker place. The sound had all of the beats, blips, and beeps of night club music only with a slightly more ominous flair. Acts like Fat Boy Slim and Daft Punk brought the same kind of appeal to the fold only with a more pop edge, bringing electronica music mainstream. A new ‘alternative’ was born. It was almost unanimously accepted in the pop world instantly, but it was a much harder sell to the rock world. Rock bands toying with synthetic beats and loops were nothing new, groups like Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM and Ministry had been doing it for years, and groups like New Order and Depeche Mode, years before them.Only Industrial music mostly used the same format of standard hard rock groups with guitars, bass, vocals along with their electronic layers. This new ‘electronica’ scene was much different as where most of the songs relied less and less on vocals and more on ambience and soundscapes. It was dance music, but dressed up as something totally different.
Then we have groups like Death In Vegas, a duo from England who was bent on making an electronica record for those who hated electronica records. It was sometime in early 1998 that I came across their state-side debut single/video “Dirt” on MTV at 2am (the best time to be introduced to new music on that channel) The video, directed by the experimental Andrea Giaconne, featured thick distorted bass from an actual bass guitar, and a very tasty guitar riff coupled with some random Country Joe Woodstock samples and larger than life electronic beats. The video itself was both mesmerizing and horrifying just as the song was! A terrifying, sharp toothed, multiple armed, woman lipped the samples, along with images of pigs with bullseyes painted on their backs, laughing Priest. Soldiers destroying a giant Las Vegas lit cross. Nightmarish creatures daisy chaining. Guerilla terrorist playing soccer. A funeral in a desert. Impish children. My fragile 15 year old interest was peaked! I had to find this album! The next day I found a single copy at ‘Camelot Music’ (Remember those stores? wow, I’m showing my age!)
Expecting to hear an album’s worth of industrial-esque beats, when I bought the record the next day, I was greatly disappointed. Instead of hearing something that would probably eat my soul, the first track sounded like a smokey, 1960s jazz song jam. After hearing the album all the way through, it dawned on me: while “Dirt” was the only real rock-vs-techno song on the album, I was listening to something very special. A record so anti-pop, avant garde, and unique, it demanded that it become a staple of late night listening sessions. Even after all these years and millions of listens, “Dead Elvis” remains just as interesting as the first time I gave it a spin and scratched my head.
One of the greatest things about “Dead Elvis” is the fact that no two songs sound like they come from the same band. Oh and yes, I said ‘band’. There are plenty of samples, loops, and computer flavor to be had throughout the record, but there is also just as many live instruments. From guitar, live drum kits, bass, piano, organ, sitar, flutes, the list goes on. It’s a very organtic electronica album. Opening the album is the jazzy “All That Glitters” which I already talked about, then it flows right into a the eerie, sleezy “Opium Shuffle” that somehow blends reggae with gothic new wave. Next up its the cheerful, 1960s organ anthem “GBH” followed by the albums’ only throwaway track “Twist & Crawl” which is more electronica-meets-reggae that’s never visited again on the album (or the rest of the band’s catalogue) Up next it’s the lead single “Dirt” only this time sounding even more stylized from it’s music video counterpart thanks to an extended ending and more time spent on that delicious bass riff.
The second half of the record takes a plot twist, and becomes completely instrumental and almost ambient down-tempo jams, aside from one two punch of “Rocco” sounding like the soundtrack of a possible zombie apocalypse, and “Rekkit” sounding like the theme song of self-aware machines taking over the world. Next up is “I Spy” a sitar jam that starts off sounding as if it was from a late 60s Hammer movie then evolves into a 007 escapade if Bond was played by Count Dracula. Next it’s the strange, atmospheric, ambient chill track “Rematerialized” a groovy bass guitar jam session featuring a string arrangement and what sounds like a voyeuristic recorded telephone conversation of a teenager complaining about her parents, lightly in the background. Then it’s “68 Balcony” that features a clean guitar sample layered behind all sorts of creepy samples, building up tension from start to finish leading into the album’s closer “Sly” that gets even weirder and eerie. It truly is an adventure for your mind and ears.
With so many different styles and sounds mashed together, “Dead Elvis” shouldn’t work at all. There has to be a thematic formula in order for an album to become a cohesive experience. Throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, would make any other album a cluttered mess, but here, it works so well you don’t know what to expect with every song. The only rule that seems to be apparent with this album is that no two songs can sound the same. A rule Death In Vegas follows from opening to closer. I don’t care for two songs “Twist & Crawl” because it comes off weak compared to the genius of the other songs, and “Amber” because it’s just experimental noise with no real rhyme or reason other than to act as bridge between two other good songs.
“Dead Elvis” is one of my all time favorite albums for that reason. If you are looking for something unlike anything you have ever heard, by all means pick up this album. I recommend the American version because it has a couple extra songs that weren’t on the original UK pressing. You can tell them apart by album covers. The UK version was a print of multi-colored Elvis faces pasted on a white background and the American version is a blue tinted picture of a tattoo artist, doing some ink on what the 15 year old version of myself was convinced was a boob, but upon further inspection, just looks like an arm. All around fantastic album full of chills, thrills and everything in between.