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Thread: UNKLE - "Psyence Fiction": one of the most underrated albums of the late '90s

  1. #1
    Killer Bob claaa7's Avatar
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    Aug 2005
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    Default UNKLE - "Psyence Fiction": one of the most underrated albums of the late '90s

    for those who don't know UNKLE was a conceptual "anonymous super group" headed by Mo'Wax founder, A&R and executive producer James Lavelle. throughout the years Lavelle realized his vision of the concept group and the sounds he strived for by inviting various producers and members to help him out create what he was looking for. after a string of 12"s and EP:s for his label under the moniker original collaborators Tim Goldsworthy and members of Tokyo crew Major Force was replaced by DJ Shadow. Shadow was riding high on the acclaim of his now classic debut "Endtroducing" and the (almost) equally impressive B-sides collection "Pre-Emptive Strike" which ushered in a new area of instrumental Hip Hop production which saw the rise of the instrumental Hip Hop album produced as vocal free journeys into sample based atmospheres.

    Shadow and Lavelle created "Psyence Fiction" in 1998 as a fictional group, represented in photos and on album covers as two cartoon drawings of two alien type beings and while Shadow handled the musical composition, sample flips and turntable work Lavelle invited the guests and oversaw the concept, etc. UNKLE was without a doubt a true predecessor to other eclectic "fictional" groups with a heavy eclectisism rooted in Hip Hop such as Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modelling School and Deltron 3030. Shadow's lonely soundscapes, imaginative melodies, distorted boom bap excursions and collaborations with everyone from Kool G Rap and Beastie Boys' Mike D to The Verves' Richard Ashcroft, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Badly Drawn Boy created a 60 minutes disc that still to this day sound original. Add the heavy use of science fiction themes and movie samples from flicks, TV series and video games (including "Star Wars IV: A New Hope", the arcade game Galaxian and "The Twilight Zone) further instilled this notion of going through a journey of the mind.

    To me this is certainly among DJ Shadow's most accomplished works. Probably only "Endtroducing" surpasses it and with tracks like "Lonely Soul", "Chaos" and the "Drums of Death" series the eclecticism and the compositional flare of mixing his tried and tested sample extravaganza with live instrumentation like string orchestras could make a case for even that being debatable. Yet it was probably this genre-bending and defying of expectations that have kept it as somewhat of a curiousity in the Shadow catalouge. That and the fact that the low profile of who really was behind UNKLE is responsible for many casual listener still not having a clue that DJ Shadow produced the entirety of this album as a full-blown member (another page lifted by Damon Albarn for his work with Gorillaz - let the music for speak itself). One thing is for certain, had it not been for this album I doubt he would have started experimenting as heavily with subverting the sound of his acclaimed debut album so soon after its success - for better or for worse. After this album Shadow left the group behind and while Lavelle kept up the UNKLE monikor, inviting new musicians and producers, they would never again reach the incredible heights of this first disc. If you haven't heard it before I very strongly recommend it, but be sure to put it through a good set of headphones and listen front to back. Check out some choice cuts below:

    The opening track "Guns Blazing (Drums of Death Pt. 1)" is one of the hardest and illest Kool G Rap records of the later '90s. the murderous production certainly maks the name of the track justice and having G Rap's 100% delivery so heavily distorted was a work of genius. Reminds me of the way KanYe would open up "Yeezus" with 'On Sight' so many years later.

    like any good movie you need a strong main title theme, a leitmoif if you will. this is where the credits would go after the opening scene heard above. really nice atmospheric outer space ish with Shadow really doing his thing.

    Anyone else remember The Verve who had that popular track "Bittersweet Symphony". not a favorite but when you add DJ Shadow production, mix in some Hip Hop vibes and keeps the emotion high with lush string and a really good performance by Ashcroft this is a truly remakable piece. This was included during the end credits for the DiCaprio movie "The Beach" where you might recognize it from.

    Another excellent very moody piece that i think would have fitted in well with the documentary 'Dark Days' about the homeless people in NYC who take up refugee in the tunnels for the subway during. Shadow of course made the music for that although only one new composition but i think this was actually in it. Either way it's got a really moody, dark feeling which will provide you with several strong images if you close your eyes while listening. A 12"/CDs single and the European pressing of the album featured an alternative version of this joint called "Unreal" featuring the same production but a brand new vocal performance by Ian Brown of the Stone Roses. Both versions pretty much work equally well though i give a slight edge to the instrumental.

    As the sequel to the album opener with Kool G Rap, Mike D's contribution to the series might not be half as raw but that doesn't mean it's still RAW. Once again the music is distorted, agressive and lo-fi in the agressive drum and bass treatment while Mike D gives a good job of channeling his later Beastie Boy. Another hit is the most rocking track on the album, the distorted guitar monster "Nursery Rhyme" (a track so intense that Lavelle and Shadow allows for a 10 second unaccompanied breather following the albums end). in other words you could make a case for close to any song on the LP being amongst the stand outs.

    Any fans of this one here?

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  2. #2
    PRODIGAL SUN sickdog's Avatar
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    Was a big fan of this album back n the days. And almost all Unkle catalogue was dope. Gotta give a spin for this gem again.

  3. #3


    yeah, i listened to it a lot during the early - mid 2000s when i was getting into dj shadow and "instrumental hip hop" more generally. some great tracks on there.

    listening to this stuff now makes me want to go back and revisit all those albums.

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