Meat Beat Manifesto
Meat Beat Manifesto are a rather odd duck in the larger world of electronic music. They’ve been around seemingly forever, though it was really only in 1989 that they put out their first album. Granted, that’s 31 years ago now, but still. MBM is largely Jack Dangers and a team of backing musicians, vocalists, producers, beat-makers, samplers, and so on. And MBM is legendary. I was listening to their first album, Storm the Studio, the other night and I was struck by the fact that, despite being a product of the 80s, despite being 31 years old, it sounds neither dated nor boring. Nor even cheesy. Over the past 31 years, Dangers has produced all sorts of music, though a distinct sound began to emerge for him around the early 90s, between 1990’s Armed Warfare and 1992’s Satyricon. For the most part, the sound hasn’t changed, though it has evolved and updated. MBM trade in a hybrid of musical forms, as Dangers, et al., have played around with techno, dubstep, dub, jazz fusion (which you would think would be a bad idea, yet, in their capable hands, it is not), drum’n’bass, industrial, and the like. Even some occasionally rocked out pieces. Their influence has been wide and varied, and includes everything from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to the Chemical Brothers. Indeed, Big Beat, which was the flavour of the day for the late 90s ‘electronica’ moment (which included the Chemicals, but others like Crystal Method, and so on) can largely be traced back to MBM.
Subliminal Sandwich, released in 1996, is their fifth album, and it is drenched in a dub and reggae vibe, much more so than their earlier work. That there was a four year break between Satyricon and Subliminal Sandwich is due to an on-going series of legal battles MBM had with their label at the time, Play It Again Sam. The album was largely composed as the band toured Satyricon in 1993. It is also a double album, comprised of two very different discs, though it is very clear that the entire double album is the product of MBM. Disc I is more standard MBM, frenetic beats, heavy sampling, mixed with all the dub and reggae, whereas Disc II is much more experimental and is largely ambient. It is also a long album, Disc I is 69 minutes long, whereas Disc II is 70. For that reason, I have rarely listened to this album from start to finish, usually preferring to play either Disc I or II.
I had been aware of MBM from the get-go, introduced to them on COAST 1040, the alternative music radio station in Vancouver, when I was in high school. Despite being into loud, fast, and heavy guitars (everything from the Dead Kennedys to Soundgarden) and melody (The Smiths, the Cure) and even Irish (The Waterboys, The Pogues), I was captivated by MBM’s music, and I have a vague recollection of having seen them sometime in the early 90s, maybe in Toronto, maybe Montréal. But I could be wrong.
Anyway. Sandwich came out at a point where I was bored with music. In 1996, grunge was over, the Smashing Pumpkins were over. Fugazi was over. Everything was done. There was nothing new under the sun. And then I heard MBM’s version of ‘Asbestos Lead Asbestos,’ I think on MuchMusic, and I was hooked. This was the shit, this was the new sound I wanted. That year, I blasted basically two albums the whole way through, this and Suicidal Distortion’s White Light White Heat White Trash. Glorious stuff.
Subliminal Sandwich starts off with ‘Sound Innovation,’ which speaks to the fact that this was exactly what MBM were up to here, innovating their sound. And thus, the first two tracks, ‘Sound Innovation’ and ‘Nuclear Bomb,’ present us with dub and reggae basslines and vocals, over top of a more frenetic drum beat than one would expect from dub. I remember the first time I listened to this. I have these speakers I bought in 1994 at A&B Sound on Seymour St. in Vancouver. They’re made by a Canadian company, Energy, and they had this wicked bass when I tested them out in the showroom. They cost a lot of money for me in 1994, close to $800, but they were worth it. Listening to this album on those speakers made me realize the brilliance of my purchase, as the bass rumbled and bounced through the tubing and into my ears. I still have them, by the way, 26 years later. In fact, I am blasting Subliminal Sandwich on them right now. Of course, I have a much better amp now, instead of some shitty bookshelf system, I have a vintage 1982 Technics analog amp.
Anyway. I’m not really a gear head, I’m just saying this album requires a great soundsystem.
‘Long Periods’ of time marks a shift in the sound, as a faster, almost jungle, beat assaults us and a sampled voice yells ‘Long Periods of Time’ over the track, and Dangers makes his first real appearance as a vocalist on the album. That segues into the track ‘1979,’ which I always saw as a response to the Smashing Pumpkins track of the same name from their 1995 opus of shite, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Weight of Wankerdom. I thought this in part because the hook of this track has Dangers, over a very Public Image Ltd. c. 1979 track (now that I think of it), in a distant voice (also hearkening back to Lydon’s vocals on Metal Box), ‘I’m stuck in 1979/It’s a crime.’ So maybe it wasn’t a diss to the Pumpkins, but an homage to Jah Wobble-era PiL.
‘She’s Unreal’ has long been one of my favourite tracks, as a sampled sexy voice repeats over and over ‘Give me love so I can kill’ over a thick bassline and trip hop beat. And Dangers chants that, well, ‘She’s unreal.’ There is just something very arresting about this track.
And that segues right into ‘Asbestos Lead Asbestos,’ a remake of the great World Domination Enterprises track, even featuring Keith Dobson of that band. This track has always arrested me. I don’t remember the video, to be honest, my introduction to this album, I don’t remember it all. But the lyrics are always in my head, and were even more so as I entered grad school at Simon Fraser University and took a course with Mark Leier, the labour historian there. As part of our larger discussions, we talked about the geography of industrial development and working class neighbourhoods, particularly in Canada, but also, by default, in the UK and the US. And so, the lyrics of this song speak to the struggle of the working classes to survive. The second verse always just nailed it home, very hard, for me:
And it won’t be us cause we’re the smart ones
Asbestos lead asbestos
Motivated, public school, we live on the west side
Equal opportunity, except if our pedigreed dogs
Don’t like the smell of your children.
In Vancouver, to boot, the east side was the working classes, the multicultural immigrant neighbourhoods. The rich native-born Canadians lived on the west side.
I always took ‘Assasinator’ as an homage to the Upsetter, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, though I am sure it’s not. Or maybe it is. Does it matter? This is also a heavy dub-influenced track, the fat bass line over top of a stuttering drum line, and a sampled Jamaican vocal.
‘Cancer,’ which comes at the of the first disc, track 16 of 18, has always felt to me the companion piece to ‘Asbestos Lead Absestos.’ Driven by a trip-hoppy beat, big bass, and a distorted harmonica wail, a sampled voice tells us that ‘this is cancer, a warning sign.’ True, Dangers’ lyrics don’t really reflect ‘Asbestos Lead Asbestos,’ but my grandfather died on Christmas Day 1998. Of cancer at the age of 73. He worked in the front office of an asbestos mine in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, which, of course, contributed to his early death. At any rate, the music of this track, minus the samples, would not have been out of place on a Portishead album.
Disc I ends with ‘We Done,’ which is, of course, the point of the song, this disc is done. Over a big fat bass line and a more hip hop than trip hop beat, a sweet sampled female vocal tells us that, well, ‘we done.’
And then ‘Disc II,’ which starts from a 1950s or 60s sample, the kind the Beastie Boys also made great use of, where an authoritative male voice offers advice about how to listen to music with the greatest amount of sonic enjoyment. In this case, the droning voice tells us all about the fascinating world of audio frequency equalization. This is the track and we move directly into ‘Mad Bomber/The Woods,’ which is a bass heavy, foreboding and forbidding electronic track. There is no other way to describe this, other than to say it also would not have been out of place on PiL’s Metal Box. Lydon probably wishes he wrote this track. It is also 10.17 long. And yet, it doesn’t drone, it doesn’t wear out our patience, nor does it wear out its welcome, even as it moves from the ‘Mad Bomber’ to ‘The Woods’ part of the track, which is a more esoteric, ambient part, minus a beat.
‘The Utterer’ is an almost industrial beat, throbbing bass and angry drums, with computer noises overtop that sound kind of like R2D2. This is one of my favourite parts of Disc II, as the song fades just after the five minute marks with the drums, but not the beat, fading away as the song fades into a sampled voice telling us about flies and the sounds of their wings.
‘United Nations (E.T.C.)’ is really the only track on Disc II that could’ve been on Disc I, as it features a muted Dangers vocal over top of a pulsating beat and big bass line, before it, like all other tracks with a beat on Disc II fades into ambient noise.
In 1997, I was at a protest in Vancouver against APEC, as Canada began to get involved in mindless globalization on the back of a largely disastrous series of trade deals, first with the US and then NAFTA, with both the US and Mexico. These were disastrous as far as I was concerned because they strangled the working classes of Canada. I know this for a fact, my old man was a welder. And so this form of globalization was, to my mind and the minds of many, a brainless form, devoid of any concern for the actual people of Canada, only profits for corporations. And thus, we protested. A riot broke out at the University of British Columbia. Pepper spray was unleashed on the protesters by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And that night, our Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, when asked about the pepper spray, pretended to not understand and responded to the reporter, ‘Me, I put pepper on my steak,’ and broke out in a grin as the room laughed along with him. I wasn’t hurt, I was ok from the event, I got out before the pepper spray, as did my friends, for the record. And so, the 39 second track, ‘Tear Gas’ is my momento mori of that day.
Disc II ends with one of my favourite electronic music of all time, ‘Simulacra,’ an 8 minute long opus that begins with what I’ve always presumed to be chatter between Houston and NASA astronauts.
As the track slowly picks up speed, with this constant noise that sounds almost like a broom and various odd electronic sounds, we get the first pulses of the bass, each note played a bit longer, and then consecutively and then slowly it builds up into a steady bassline, though very slowly, around the 2.12 mark, it coalesces and the synthesizer builds up, higher and higher, until the 2 minute, 30 second mark, and the drums kick in with this fast-paced beat. And then for the next six minutes this pulsates on, until the drums fall away, then the synth lines, and then the bass, and we are out drifting in outer space.