In 1999, the second album from Death In Vegas was something of a plot twist. The Contino Sessions with it’s seedy layers of live drums, droning guitar riffs and an assortment of spotlight guest vocalist, it was a stark contrast to their 1997 debut album Dead Elvis which featured more relaxed, down tempo grooves with the added kick of goth rock style. With such a departure in tone and feel, many wondered where they were headed next. The answer surprised most fans. Not because it was yet another departure, or an experiment that took listeners on an even wilder ride, but because it actually took a few steps backwards. But in saying that, going backwards in style doesn’t exactly mean a bad thing, The Contino Sessions was (and remains) one of the most interesting records of the 90s, so to go back to what worked for that record and expand upon it, would mean the listeners could theoretically go further down the rabbit hole. In 2002 they released Scorpio Rising.
Starting things off, the opening track “Leather” begins with a loopy sample of feedback that could easily signal an 80s-esque electronica track, but instead we are greeted with a straight up rock n roll flavored, two chord jam with a garage drum beat and delicious guitar accompanying a synth, sounding almost too pop for Death In Vegas standards. “Leather” fades into the second song on the album, “Girls”. Not only does it set the tone for the rest of the record, but it just may be one of the strongest tracks on the album. “Girls” expands on the same riff from “Leather” but on a more organtic level that grows as the songs goes on. The third song on the album “Hands Around My Throat” features Nicola Kuperus of the electronica act ADULT on vocals, and sets into motion what makes Scorpio Rising such a gift and a curse: guest vocalist.
Liam Gallagher, Hope Sandoval, Paul Weller, Susan Dillane, and Nicola Kuperus all make vocal contributions to the album, but unlike the bizarre couplings on The Contino Sessions, that seemed to use the vocals as some sort of an instrument, here the songs cater to the guest vocalist’ style. “Hands Around My Throat” doesn’t stray too far from what ADULT was known for, neither does Paul Weller’s appearance on the Gene Clark cover “So You Say You Lost Your Baby”. Even the album’s title track that features Liam Gallagher, while being far more droning and experimental, wouldn’t be too far fetched if it had appeared on an Oasis album of the same era. While there is no problem with showcasing the best of each of the guest vocalists, sometimes it feels more like a compilation album rather than a cohesive record from Death In Vegas themselves.
With that said, it doesn’t mean Scorpio Rising is a bad record, it just lacks the sleazy appeal of their first album, and the sinister attitude of the second. Most of the songs are upbeat and charismatic. The dark and gritty places that set Death In Vegas apart from their 90s electronica counterparts such as The Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim, are all but missing on this album, and replaced with flavorings that flirt with being pop. Something that was missing from previous records, and actually makes Scorpio Rising the most accessible in their catalog. So much so, that plenty of these songs have been featured in films such as “Lost In Translation” tv shows like “ER” and even commercials for cellphones and Sony products. With so much emphasis on being accessible, some fans wondered if Death In Vegas had lost the very edge that made them so special in the first place.
All of that uncertainty pretty much disappears when the final song on the album starts. “Help Yourself” clocks in over ten minutes and closes the album on a beautiful note that seems to bring everything together and make perfect sense. It’s one of two songs that features Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval on vocals, and pretty much justifies the purchase of the entire album, even if you are not a fan of the direction the band went with. The breathing organ, the whispy Sandoval vocals, the explosive string arrangement is not only the most solid song on the record, but the most ambitious track Death In Vegas has ever done in the career, before and since. There is something so haunting yet beautiful about the track, I’ve actually found myself getting almost emotional while listening to it.
Scorpio Rising may not be the best Death In Vegas record, and most certainly not the most interesting, but it’s still a solid album that takes the listener on a journey that most mainstream artists fail to do. There is no ominous shadows or seedy undertones to crawl under your skin, but there is something here for just about anyone who has never given this band a chance. If you haven’t checked out Dead Elvis or The Contino Sessions in fear that Death In Vegas is too dark, this is the album for you. If you are still not convinced, at least give “Help Yourself” a listen, look me in the eye and tell me it’s not beautiful. I dare you.