Death In Vegas - The Contino Sessions
Appearing at the end of the nineties, Death In Vegas’ The Contino Sessions was one of a slew of records marking a change in creative direction from light to dark. As with Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, it was as if club culture had turned sour. If these works still showcased an electronic element, any remnants of the good times were smouldering amongst the wreckage of violence, paranoia and addiction.
It is from there Dot Allison’s “la la la” vocal on opening track Dirge calls. Seductive yet deadly, this is the sound of a harpy luring a man to his death. Immediately evident was that DIV were now primarily a ‘rock’ (rather than dance) act. In fact, amongst the bass, handclaps and increasingly heavy guitar, the only tie to ‘dance’ music was a sort of spiralling electronic noise. Those looking for any of the sun-kissed dub/reggae scattered over debut Dead Elvis were in for a shock, although in retrospect there is a short run of Chemical Brothers-style beats ‘n’ guitars tracks (including brilliant single Rocco) on that album which hinted, albeit slightly, at what would come next.
In addition, The Contino Sessions was the first album to demonstrate what wonders DIV could work with guest vocalists. In fact, with a couple of tracks here, Soul Auctioneer and Aisha (featuring Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and Iggy Pop respectively), we are given something closer to spoken narration. Both are jaw-dropping performances. Soul Auctioneer, track two, is best described as narcotic trip-hop, with squalling guitar and lyrics like a William Burroughs nightmare (“there are hands in my pockets, pulling at my spine... eggs bearing insects, hatching in my mind”).
Death Threat follows this up with feedback, surges and sinister electronic noise that suggest nothing less than machines trying to wipe out the human race. If it is arguably the album’s scariest moment, this is no mean feat.
Instrumentals, or near instrumentals, make up two-thirds of The Contino Sessions, and marked a giant leap forward in structuring after the meanderings on Dead Elvis. Indeed, Flying is perhaps the best track here. Seven minutes long, its charms are subtle, taking a few listens to appreciate. Beginning with high-pitched noise and an instruction to “Close your eyes”, it settles into a relaxed, bassy rhythm. Rattly guitar textures reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s Venus In Furs are added, until, around the four minute mark, the track lives up to its name and takes off, seemingly attempting to emulate a drug rush. The tension and detail in the journey amaze; this is apparently a band favourite.
Iggy Pop’s biggest chart success to date, Aisha starts with the confession, presumably to a soon-to-be victim, “I think you oughta know... I’m a murderer.” It culminates in an astonishing succession of animalistic yelps and grunts (even if the heavy guitar template feels vaguely routine by this point).
Lever Street begins with a door opening and closing, sheltering us in a place of (relative) calm, although you can practically hear the tears fall. It’s a gorgeous interlude of strumming guitar and plaintive keyboard (emulating a church organ).
Aladdin's Story follows on nicely, for the most part sounding like the lazy backing-track to a lost 60s soul record (with added exotic saxophone), before dropping off to an almost funereal ambience and the gospel refrain of “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows the sorrow”. As on Flying, the vocals are made more effective by being used sparingly.
Broken Little Sister (featuring The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Jim Reid) is the sole weak point, a formless, ultra-gloomy track enshrouded in feedback.
As if anticipating the direction of their next album Scorpio Rising, closer Neptune City drags The Contino Sessions some way into the light. Underpinned by a constant drone, it bursts with percussion and eastern sounds, marching on with the weight of an elephant to a joyous, horn-fuelled climax.
At just nine tracks long (and totalling 48 minutes in length), the record might be seen as short. However, this tightness works in DIV’s favour; they maintain here an exceptional intensity. It could be the soundtrack to your most vivid nightmares, but, fear not, The Contino Sessions stands as one of the best albums of the 1990s.