The long awaited follow-up to 1995's multi-platinum 'Leftism' has been three years in the making. Leftfield didn't disappear entirely - you'll recognise 'Phat Planet' from the recent 'stallions in the surf' Guinness ad.
As a display of sheer firepower it was frightening. Back in June 1986, Leftfield closed their UK tour with an all-nighter at Brixton Academy that, quite literally, raised the roof. Previous dates had been characterised by the sheer power of the duo’s specially assembled speaker stacks. This was the sound system as offensive weapon. Brixton was even louder – so deafening that the bassbins shredded not only your intestines but the Academy’s walls. Plaster cracked and flakes floated down on the revellers below. Some musicians still persist in throwing furniture out of windows. Structural damage? Now that’s rock’n’roll.
Dance culture has changed out of all recognition since Leftfield almost brought the house down. ‘Leftism’ was the first album to profit from dance’s mass acceptance, arriving in early 1995, just as clubbing was becoming the leisure option of choice. It sold 700,000 copies in this country alone.
Unfortunately for Leftfield, they’d been and gone by the time dance was made compulsory. More problematic is the fact that dance crossovers are now no longer a big deal. Dance has achieved what it always wanted: parity with rock.
Leftfield have responded with an album that’s darker, harder and cleverer than its predecessor. The insistent rush of ‘Leftism’ is long gone and there are few concessions to the high-energy fizz that characterises much of this year’s biggest dance records, from Basement Jaxx to Shanks & Bigfoot. Nor is there any ambitious fusion of styles in the manner of the Chemicals’ ‘Surrender’. ‘Rhythm And Stealth’ is simply precise and pared down, with greater focus on the dub flavours Leftfield have favoured ever since 1992 single ‘Release The Pressure’.
Ominous, skanking opener, ‘Dusted’, featuring the impressive current UK hip hop hope Roots Manuva, establishes a strident tone that matches the machine-tooled beats. A comparative lack of lyrical dexterity ("My struggle remains / but my inside gains") hardly matters in the face of Leftfield’s obsession with making everything, from rhythmic undercarriage to brief, whizzing sound effects, seem huge, imposing, immense. When the same attack is applied to more dancefloor fare, like the crunching ‘Phat Planet’ and metronomic ‘Double Flash’, they hit upon a sound that is intimidating, physical and utterly exciting.
Even the most accessible moment, first single ‘Afrika Shox’, is hardly gentle. If features original rap space cadet Afrika Bambaataa ranting about the Millennium ("The past has got to stop / The future’s got to rock") over streamlined staccato beats. The overall effect is like being harassed by some hugely charismatic street-corner lunatic.
Leftfield have emerged from hiding unfazed by recent events. They’ve, seemingly, paid little mind to the Chemical Brothers Number One singles and the Prodigy’s global expansion. Instead they’ve opted for the same bloody-minded commitment to excellence and the kind of unmistakable signature you get with Massive Attack. Devoted big-beat fans and anyone eager for passing trends (trance, Phats & Small-style bubblegum house) might be better off elsewhere. Leftfield are a class act. If in doubt, play loud, but keep an eye on your plasterwork.
**** (out of 5)
review by Gareth Grundy
Q & A
Leftfield’s Neil Barnes on 9th Century calendar protocol and why every band should have a building-destroying sound system.
Will your new live show be as loud as its predecessor?
"We hope so. Gigs should be an experience, something you talk about afterwards. Most bands and promoters don’t seem to care what it sounds like out on the dancefloor. I went to see Mogwai, but I felt sorry for ‘em, because it should have been blasting out."
Are you still banned from Brixton Academy?
"It’s more the sound system than us personally. It did cause problems. Plaster came off the wall. But in France our DJ was surrounded by police. They have more severe noise restrictions over there."
Were you bothered by watching peers like the Chemical Brothers winning global acclaim in your absence?
"No. We’ve been in our own little world for the last few years. I don’t know if we crave that kind of success. It’s great to see the Chemical Brothers play Woodstock, but it’s not for us. We’re happy not having our name splattered everywhere. [Laughs] Mind you, that might be because we haven’t made a record in five years."
When you made ‘Afrika Shox’, Afrika Bambaataa is reputed to have shown up with half of the Zulu Nation [Bambaataa-led hip hop gang]…
"Yep. It was the Belgian branch, even though we were in London at the time. We just went with the flow. Then we got Bam to come back on his own, which is unheard of, apparently."
The lyrics ("The year 2000 / It happened yesterday") suggest he’s done his revision on millennial conspiracy theory. Did he share any of his ideas in conversation?
"I had a discussion with him about the Millennium just being a celebration of culture. But he wasn’t having that. He’s very knowledgeable about the Christian calendar. Apparently there were synods in Europe in the 9th century. They didn’t start from nought, they started with Year One instead. So it’s actually 1998. He knows all about this stuff. He’s done a lot of reading."
(nicked from 'Select', dated October 1999)