One of the archetypal pan-flashes of the early ’90s, England’s small-town-reared EMF — the name is an acronym for Ecstasy MotherFuckers, a tribute to the recreational drug of choice among the British rave crowd at the time — combined teen-idol looks with the faddishly popular dance beats of Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. “Unbelievable,” the signature song from EMF’s debut album, Schubert Dip, became one of the era’s most ubiquitous pop smashes, mixing elements of dance music, rock and rap into a giddy techno-bubblegum confection that brought the hallucinogenic high spirits of the rave scene to the masses. The clever use of samples — a new gimmick to most rock fans — and lead singer James Atkin’s coy, white-boy rapping style added to the band’s enormous appeal in both the UK and America. In fairness to the quintet, and especially its songwriter, guitarist Ian Dench, EMF did write infectiously catchy riffs and Schubert Dip managed to spin off several other hit singles, including “Children” and “I Believe.”
But if Schubert Dip represented the zenith of rave culture’s ecstatic pop indulgence, Unexplained came as the morning after’s ugly hangover. Gone are the frothy techno dance beats and slick pop production. The four songs are nervous and edgy, with Dench’s sinuous, sinister guitar leads and Atkin’s breathy, overwrought vocals. On the entirely inappropriate cover of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” that ends the EP, his wimpy, affected singing style borders on self-parody.
The band’s second full-length album, Stigma, is even darker and gloomier than the downbeat vibe of Unexplained. EMF’s young fans wanted to dance, not explore the band’s existential angst, and stayed away in droves. Moreover, success had left the boys bloated and bleary-eyed; they weren’t fresh-faced pinups from the Forest of Dean, just over-the-hill rock stars without any new hits.
Flashes of EMF’s early techno-pop sound surface in “Bleeding You Dry,” by far the most listenable track on 1995’s Cha Cha Cha. Almost every other cut on this would-be comeback, however, finds the band groping-unsuccessfully — for some new musical direction. Tracks like “La Plage” and “Secrets” bury Atkin’s vocals under dense layers of psychedelicized noise, including such ’60s retro stylings as flute, woodblock and wah-wah. A pair of dreary power ballads segue into “Slouch,” a burst of explosive live-in-the-studio hardcore thrash; the album ends with “Glass Smash Jack,” a feisty Who-like character piece about an aging alcoholic. The album proved to be a commercial failure in England, and didn’t even get a shot in the US.