Twenty-six years on from their debut single, 19 since the disappearance of Richey Edwards, 12 years on from their first retrospective and only 10 months on from their more acoustic, introverted 11th album, Wales’ finest, Manic Street Preachers, are set to return with one of the best records of their career.
Ahead of the band’s ‘Futurology’ and its triumphant riffery, Clash thought it would be a good time to take a tour through the Manics’ past. From the pomp and arrogance of their early years, through the mid-1990s success during difficult times, up to their latest incarnation, there’s plenty to get to know.
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‘Generation Terrorists’ (1992)
Declaring they would deliver a double album, sell millions and then split up, the band’s debut was a victim of both variable material and early-1990s production. That’s not to say that key singles ‘You Love Us’, ‘Little Baby Nothing’ and ‘Stay Beautiful’ don’t still sound glorious, but there is plenty of lovably dated material here which will baffle those not indulging in a nostalgia trip. The sizeable discrepancy in quality between some of these songs is never more evident than when confronted with the near-perfect ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Despite there being much, much better to come, ‘Generation Terrorists’ remains a remarkable document of ambition, arrogance, bombast and sheer bloody-mindedness.
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‘Gold Against The Soul’ (1993)
Big, bold and bedecked in leather, the precision rock of the band’s second outing delivered several wonderful singles and some unapologetically simplistic cock-rock. The shimmering melancholy of ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)’ and ‘From Despair To Where’ contrast curiously with the execrably titled ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ and the rather too polished ‘Nostalgic Pushead’. It’s hard to imagine it ever being anyone’s favourite record, but ‘Gold Against The Soul’ neatly highlights the band’s capacity for glorious melody amongst some endearingly shameless rock clichés.
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‘The Holy Bible’ (1994)
Emerging into the warm glow of nascent Britpop and accompanied by a memorable Top Of The Pops performance featuring fire and a balaclava, the Manics could not have been more out of step with the times if they’d tried. And you suspect they had. A quite remarkable record, ‘The Holy Bible’ is lyrically and musically dense, forever associated with the subsequent disappearance of the man responsible for 70% of its lyrics. Anorexia, suicide and the Holocaust are amongst the subject matter covered, coupled with the ferocious delivery by lead guitarist and vocalist James Dean Bradfield. The songs were difficult to craft, to perform and, in some cases, to hear, but any uncertainty about how to evolve the sound was put into brutal perspective by what happened next.
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‘Everything Must Go’ (1996)
Amidst the grief for a missing friend, co-lyricist and occasional guitarist Richey Edwards having disappeared in February 1995, the band found themselves unsure of the future. The catalyst for their second phase was ‘A Design For Life’, the demo prompting the trio to persevere and leading to the most beautifully crafted album of their career. Sympathetically guided by Mike Hedges and with an empathetic but not overbearing application of strings, ‘Everything Must Go’ managed to combine the more accessible sound of their early years with the vivid imagery of their previous album. Somehow lumped into the latter stages of Britpop at the time, this record remains one of the decade’s finest releases and is an essential listen.
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‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ (1998)
Preceded by a chart-topping single about the Spanish Civil War, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, the band’s fifth album was a glacial distillation of the anthemic rock that had served them so well two years previous. Misfiring album closer and Hillsborough referencing ‘S.Y.M.M.’ was a rare error, brushing up against eternal favourites ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ and ‘Tsunami’ and the delicate shimmer of ‘Black Dog On My Shoulder’, which more than make up for it. Although a little close to AOR with the preference for mid-paced melancholia, the Manics were now making grown up, actually rather beautiful music. Which, of course, couldn’t last.
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‘Know Your Enemy’ (2001)
As something of a reaction to the success and celebrity they had achieved in the latter part of the 1990s, the band opted for a slightly shapeless, enjoyably eccentric collage of styles. Early R.E.M. rubbed up against shimmering Beach Boys, The Jesus And Mary Chain nestled next to a little Joy Division. It shouldn’t really work and, ultimately, it doesn’t. However, it is a fascinating failure and the fact that it doesn’t quite hang together doesn’t mean that it doesn’t possess a number of notable tunes. ‘The Year Of Purification’ and ‘His Last Painting’ are lost gems.
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Renounced by the band shortly after they’d finished promoting it, but far better than they seem to realise, ‘Lifeblood’ was the true marker of a commercial decline started by those baffled by its schizophrenic predecessor. This is a record with an electronic core, very smooth edges and a heavy debt to the wonders of New Order. ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’, ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Cardiff Afterlife’ are all gorgeous, stately pop songs, with Bradfield in particularly fine voice. Unfortunately, the production didn’t quite translate to the stage, sales weren’t forthcoming and their seventh was quickly and quietly consigned to history.
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‘Send Away The Tigers’ (2007)
While stowing away their previous release, the band dug out an old logo and decided to return to what they knew best. Despite possessing a truly great single in ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, the album as a whole feels like a curiously flimsy imitation of themselves, mostly indebted to a sound pitched somewhere between ‘Gold Against The Soul’ and ‘Everything Must Go’. It got plenty of tired ‘return to form’ plaudits upon release, largely because the huge riffs had returned, but its staying power is minimal and, if you are going to skip anything from their catalogue, make it this one.
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‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ (2009)
Conceived as a substantial musical tribute to Edwards, using lyrics he had left behind, a return to the more angular, ferocious sound of ‘The Holy Bible’ seemed only fitting. ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ with its chorus of “Oh mummy, what’s a Sex Pistol?” was an obvious highlight, but the closing melancholy of ‘William’s Last Words’ is imbued with a subtext that makes it quite shattering. The band’s best record in over a decade, and one of the finest of their career, it is a complex, challenging and even unsettling listen, partly emphasised by the stark artwork by Jenny Saville.
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‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (2010)
Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication”, this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for a joyous listen. Wilfully commercial, it was the band having a final crack at the sound with which they had become eternally, inextricably linked. As a victory lap, it’s a fine achievement and while its initial lustre has faded a little, the majesty of the title track and the Ian McCulloch-featuring single ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ remain obvious. With the statement made, the line was drawn and a new direction was sought.
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‘Rewind The Film’ (2013)
The subsequent incarnation found the band in far more introspective mode. The electric guitar was banished, with any such material put to one side for use on their next outing, while Cate Le Bon and Richard Hawley leant their stirring vocals to ‘4 Lonely Roads’ and the album’s title track respectively. These two significant departures for the band suited them rather well and it seemed that any raging against the dying of the light would be done with a wistful grace. ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ is a particularly curious beast, sparse and subtle, showing their grasp of atmospherics is an equal to their mastery of big riffs, while ‘As Holy As The Soil’ focuses on treasured memories of a lost friend over a piano driven backdrop and with vocals by bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire. As endearingly graceful as this 11th outing was, the talk of a mysterious Krautrock-inspired sibling kept everybody on their toes.
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Recorded alongside ‘Rewind The Film’, but scythed off to form another record owing to such a vastly different feel, these 13 songs are full of emotion, energy and, most importantly, new ideas. Electronic influences seem to fit naturally, nothing seems contrived and even a less than subtle nod to the balls-out rock bluster of ‘Generation Terrorists’ on ‘Sex, Power, Love And Money’ is rendered meticulously. ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ is a tremendous stomp, with guest vocals from German actor Nina Hoss and more than a little cowbell, while ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’ is as slinky as an ’80s pop classic, bedecked with vocals by Green Gartside. For all the talk of having one last stab at the big time four years previous, with ‘Futurology’ the Manics have proved once again that their music really can be as good as their bluster.
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Words: Gareth James
‘Futurology’ is released on July 7th, and will be reviewed online soon. Clash will also have a new interview with the Manics up on these here pages really soon. Find the band online here.
Related: more Complete Guide features