Without a doubt, Super Furry Animals are one of the most imaginative bands of our time. What other 7-year-old pop groups have released six LPs in two different languages, toured the European festival
Without a doubt, Super Furry Animals are one of the most imaginative bands of our time. What other 7-year-old pop groups have released six LPs in two different languages, toured the European festival circuit in a techno-blaring tank, and released a complete "visual album" on DVD?
SFA became the sole owner of that resume July 23, the date the Welsh quintet released their major-label debut, "Rings Around the World" (Epic), simultaneously on DVD and 5.1 surround-sound CD in the U.K., to a No. 3 bow on the U.K. albums chart. After wrapping production on the album in January, the group commissioned several independent filmmakers to create "visual representations" of the album's 13 songs and filled out the DVD with bonus tracks, remixes, and assorted SFA folderol.
"We wanted to make something more cinematic," says lead singer/guitarist Gruff Rhys, "and we've been doing a lot of our shows in surround sound over the past three years, so we felt we should mix the next album like that as well. And then we made the DVD; a chance for us to indulge in all our listening fantasies."
Nominated for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Music Prize, "Rings Around the World" has yet to find a label home in the U.S., but it's high on Epic's priority list across the pond. Sony U.K. chairman/CEO Rob Stringer, a longtime fan, has high hopes for the latest Super Furries project:
"To work with bands like [SFA] these days, to be perfectly honest, is a rarity," Stringer said. "They've got more ideas than most bands. And on this record, I think they've focused them better than they ever have."
To wit, Rhys concedes that first single "Juxtapozed With U," a sexually charged electro-anthem, is one of the happiest songs he's ever written. The track is having early success on both BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2, covering both 16-24 and 30+ demographics.
The rest of the fare on "Rings Around the World" ranges from calming, meditative opener "Alternate Route to Vulcan Street" to the uplifting orchestral pop of "Shoot Doris Day" to the inscrutable centerpiece "No Sympathy," a seven-minute adventure that begins as a gentle acoustic ballad and ends in a full-scale techno freakout. And don't forget the catchy, but equally convoluted "Receptacle for the Respectable," which features esteemed guest Paul McCartney lending his rhythmic expertise by munching on carrots and celery.
The Super Furries had worked with the former Beatle on last year's "Liverpool Sound Collage" (Capitol), and at the band's behest, McCartney returned the favor. His culinary choice of instrumentation is a bit of a homage to the Beach Boys' 1967 track "Vegetables," on which he contributed similar chewing noises to the rhythm track, in the spirit of the song's subject.
"Rings" also features guest appearances by fellow Welshman John Cale of the legendary Velvet Underground, who plays piano on "Presidential Suite," and Sean O'Hagan of the High Llamas, who lends his arranging talents to the album's plentiful string sections.
SFA's career to date has been quite a trip. The quintet gained a substantial following in the late '90s on the strength of three albums and a b-sides compilation on once-ubiquitous British indie label Creation. But upon that label's dissolution in 1999, the group retired to the countryside of its Welsh homeland and recorded the pastoral, Welsh-language "Mwng" on a small budget, releasing it on its own spontaneously created Placid Casual label.
After that record surprisingly hit No. 11 on the U.K. charts on its way to being recognized in the British House of Commons as the biggest-selling Welsh-language album of all time, Epic picked up the group and set them on the way to a big-budget album that is the Furries' most ambitious to date, combining the best of their past endeavors into a remarkably cohesive whole.
Among the band's arsenal of promotional tools is an album-specific Web site, ringsaroundtheworld.co.uk, which offers streaming samples of album tracks, b-sides, and DVD films, as well as contests and message boards.
To give fans an up-close preview of "Rings," SFA recently performed a series of U.K. promotional shows at which they played afternoon acoustic sets, attaching all their song titles to tiny balls and drawing them at random from a bingo machine to determine the playing order. The group also played "Rings"-focused surround-sound sets, and held DVD screenings and DJ club nights during the weekend events.
Rhys said the group plans to take that unique gig format to Japan and Europe soon, and hopefully touch down in North America for some shows later this year.
But although Epic is working "Rings Around the World" in most of the world's territories, the U.S. remains unclaimed. Stringer notes the group has final say in this realm, and is currently shopping the project to a number of labels.
"Obviously I'd like [the album] to be on a Sony label," he says, "but we have an agreement in our contract that they can put it on whatever label they choose."
Whoever picks it up is going to have quite a monster on its hands. Even given their storied past, the Super Furry Animals' fifth album may just be the one that cements their place in rock's annals. Just ask Stringer:
"I think it's a work of staggering genius."