Listening to the new Super Furry Animals box-set, SFA At The BBC, out on Friday via Strangetown Records and Pledge Music, is an experience much like listening to one of those Pink Floyd comps that goes from "See Emily Play" up to The Dark Side Of The Moon. Now, I'm not at all suggesting that the later SFA repertoire is at all as lugubrious as that of the Floyd in the Seventies but, rather, that there's an enormous amount of growth evident here in these live recordings, just between April 1996, when this set starts, and 2001 when it ends (going by the digital version). And that demonstrable and dramatic progression of the Furry sound is thoroughly evident here on this excellent compilation of radio and live sessions.
As the fine liner notes get at, Super Furry Animals were the prototypical Peel band, the sort of live indie stalwarts who could achieve greatness largely with ease in front of a microphone, and who were lucky enough to hit their (first) creative peak during the Britpop wave, when adventurous listeners were finally paying attention to other acts on the home-label of Oasis. Super Furry Animals would have found fans regardless of those Mancs, however, and the first session here, from April Fool's Day, 1996, is a riotous blur (no pun intended), an indication of something unique being unleashed. When Gruff Rhys introduces the rest of the band in his Welsh accent, it was a moment one imagines being the sort of thing to inspire national pride. Other Welsh acts were gaining traction, but none with the sort of inspired creative power of the Furries in the mid-Nineties. "God! Show Me Magic" whips the eardrums like a punk tape playing in a wind tunnel, the players showing their fire right off the bat, while a lyrical-and-lush "Hometown Unicorn" reveals that odd, yet distinctive blend of indie-rock and The Beach Boys that the boys seemed to have perfected even at the start. That these first 4 songs are so amazing shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who had Fuzzy Logic in their collection in 1996.
By the time the band was ready to bring out "Demons" from 1997's Radiator in a session from that same year, it was clear that the group had moved into new territory, the tune the sort of thing that Noel Gallagher wishes he could have written. Similarly, an embryonic "The Turning Tide" from 1998 reveals Gruff Rhys' ability to conjure something direct and emotionally affecting out of disparate elements, bits of folk rock brushing up against hints of progs from Cian Ciaran's keyboards on a number that wouldn't be officially released until 1999.
Around the time of the 2K hysteria, the Super Furry Animals were proudly showcasing more songs in their original Welsh, ahead of the release of the surprisingly-successful Mwng. A run at "Ymaelodi Â'r Ymylon" from that record reveals the carnival heart at the center of the tune, organ swirls suggesting a jaunty day out, even as the melody climbs dangerously higher and higher. The follow-up long-player to that Welsh-language record was the more mainstream Rings Around The World from 2001. From that release, the band trotted out some of the less-obvious choices for Steve Lamcq's Evening Session, offering up a transcendent "Fragile Happiness" that nearly betters the version on the album itself. The same session saw the band finally cave in and provide hard proof of their Beach Boys fandom with an elegant and elegiac "The Warmth of the Sun", Gruff's voice blending nicely with some excellent and understated guitar from Huw Bunford.
The rarities here on SFA At The BBC include not only that Beach Boys cover, but a track called "DX Heaven" from 2000 that sees Cian Ciaran dip into a bag of ambient tricks, for lack of a better description, along with another previously-unreleased number from the same session, "Charge", that marries a Criswell voice-over introduction with the sort of driving riff that Primal Scream were pursuing in the first few years of this century. The cut is shockingly different compared to lots of what else the band was doing back then but it's a blast to hear now, as is a very early version of "Zoom" from 2001 that is nearly a classical composition in its rendition here, the layers precisely falling into place in the piece in a manner that's light-years away from the cuts that make up the first half of this compilation.
Super Furry Animals really sound utterly fantastic on these live recordings, with the individual players here -- Gruff Rhys, Cian Ciaran (interviewed by me at a gig in D.C. here in 2016), Dafydd Ieuan, Guto Pryce, and Huw Bunford -- all operating at the peak of their Furry power. That blend of musicianship (albeit without any muso wankery) and attitude was what charmed about the band in 1996. They managed to blend so many things in such a delightfully infectious way that it seems sort of astonishing now. Listening to these sets from 1996 through 2001, one is reminded again just how versatile this lot was, and just how durable their brand of indie-rock was, and remains.
More details on this and the Super Furry Animals via SuperFurry.com.
[Live photo: me, Washington, D.C., 2016]