An outfit of deft and charming fusionists, the Super Furry Animals arrived like a crisp clipper wind in the middle 1990s, honing a mélange of folk, electrobeat, art-punk, late-’60s West Coast pop harmonies and classic rock melody that, despite occasional bursts of out-and-out weirdness, blossomed into a bracing, joyous achievement: by the end of the century, they were a masterful modern rock and roll band. Springing from the invigorating 1990’s Welsh music scene — whose key figures included the Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and 60 Ft. Dolls — the Furries often sing in their native tongue, but mix languages as effectively as musical genres, as comfortable with acid babble and UFO bleeps as with sweet melodies that could have come from the Hollies. Guitarist and chief composer Gruff Rhys (who briefly led a band called Ffa Coffi Pawb), drummer Dafydd Ieuan, keyboardist/sampler Cian Ciaran, bassist Guto Pryce and guitarist Huw Bunford knew each other from the Cardiff club scene and originally planned to become a techno band. But it wasn’t long until their shared musical vision led them to something far more creative.
The title of their first EP, Llanfairpwllgwngyllgogerychyndrobwllantysiliogogogochynyg ofod (in space), may have been an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, but the record is dominated by straightforward guitar tracks and contains only a dash of the electronics and roaming-the-backwoods psychedelic folk that would fully explode later. The four songs are sung entirely in Welsh, but Rhys’ tripped-out burble on “Fix Idris” requires no translation.
Moog Droog follows a similar template — four songs, three in Welsh — but the shimmering “Pam V” shows the band already pushing outward, with swirling electronic accents and a near-Madchester bassline pasted onto a melody that would have suited the Incredible String Band. The EP includes their first English-language song, the galloping “God! Show Me Magic,” which simultaneously evokes Danny and the Juniors, The Beatles and Chrome.
Signing to the enthusiastically supportive Creation Records, the band further extended its tranced-out psychedelic splendor on Fuzzy Logic. The Furries stretch out here, establishing a rampant genre blend through such songs as “Hometown Unicorn” (in which the Furries retell an alien abduction urban myth), a retooled “God! Show Me Magic” (which sailed into the British Top 40) and the delicious surf deviance of “Bad Behaviour.” Evidence of the band’s chemical influences emerged in “Something for the Weekend” (“First time I did it for the hell of if / Stuck it on the back of my tongue / And swallowed it”) and “Hangin’ With Howard Marks” (a wink to a self-confessed pot-dealer). Despite a few overindulgent missteps, it’s still an ear-catching debut. The 2005 reissue adds five bonus tracks.
The Man Don’t Give a Fuck swipes “they don’t give a fuck about anybody else” from Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids,” turning it into a percolating anti-establishment rant that hit the British charts. As good as the band was at that point, the synthesis they achieved on Radiator still came as something of a shock: electrobeats gurgle, guitars stab and soar, strings and samples descend like mist — yet nothing seems out of place. The songs touch on everything from asthma relief and Che Guevara (“Hermann Loves Pauline”) to mythic South American goat-suckers (“Chupacabras,” a song later covered by the Groovie Ghoulies) to the “People who lie / Are the ones that get by / In the corporate rush to devour the new” (“Download”). The album is both soothing and invigorating, evoking both Nuggets and Black Grape — vibrant and wonderfully weird, it’s an SFA landmark. The 2005 reissue adds five bonus tracks.
Following the delicious, drugged-out Ice Hockey Hair EP (four songs) and Out Spaced — a clearinghouse of 1994-’98 B-sides, single tracks like “The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” and cuts from the first two EPs — SFA amazingly took the Radiator approach one step further, achieving their most original, effective amalgam yet on Guerrilla. Digging deeper into electronic beats, they meld synthesizer whoosh to kaleidoscopic guitar lines to create soaring, open-spaced pieces — “The Door to This House Remains Open,” “Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Home),” “Keep the Cosmic Trigger Happy” — that nestle happily next to totally wired rockers (“The Teacher,” “Night Vision”) and come-down beauty (“The Turning Tide,” “Northern Lites”). The band’s artistic peak. The 2005 reissue adds five bonus tracks.
mwng (“mane”), the band’s first all-Welsh language work in five years, caught some fans off guard, but it delighted the powers that be in SFA’s homeland, where the band was honored by the government for what became the best-selling Welsh-language record ever. That the two-disc set contains haywired, electronic ‘n’ psychedelic folk as well as an impossibly catchy paean to ELO (“Ysbeidiau Heulog”) is just icing on the cake. The 2005 reissue adds an entire disc of rarities.
Around the same time, SFA had a typically off-the-wall musical encounter, remixing unreleased Beatles material given to them by Sir Paul McCartney for a project which eventually saw the light of day as part of the Liverpool Sound Collage. Macca then returned the favor by appearing on Rings Around the World, audibly munching a carrot (a reprise of his contribution to the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables”) on “Receptacle for the Respectable.” Led by the wonderfully pure-pop “(Drawing) Rings Around the World” (think Steve Miller in space), this is SFA’s most sprawling (and, consequently, uneven) work. It’s also one of the first albums ever released simultaneously on CD and DVD, the latter containing a video/animation piece commissioned by the band for each song.
Phantom Power (also issued on CD and DVD) is more streamlined, refining the group’s thoroughly distinctive meld of pop melody, rock guitars and burbling electrobeat. From the swaying psychedelic glow of “Hello Sunshine” to the urban soundscapes of “Slow Life” and “Valet Parking” to jabs at USA politics (“Liberty Belle”) and culture (“Venus and Serena”), the record brings SFA into the new century still hitting on all creative (and chemical) cylinders.