Whilst being forcibly removed from their inner-city headquarters of Faster Studios in Cardiff, by the demands of developers, and moving to the tranquillity of their custom-made Door To The River studio on the outskirts of Newport, Manic Street Preachers rediscovered a treasure trove of previously unreleased archive material, relating to their second album Gold Against The Soul, including demos and a seemingly endless amount of photographs taken by the band’s long term trusted collaborator, Mitch Ikeda.
As always with the Manics, it’s a divisive record with a deep schism running between the band, who saw it as somewhat of a faux heavy metal embarrassment almost immediately after it came out, and their fans who maintain that it is a true classic rock record loaded with some of their best riffs and praise it for its hard edge. Fortunately for the fan community, uncovering of the archive has prompted a re-evaluation of their much self-maligned second LP, and led to the release of a spectacular remastered deluxe reissue which includes a magnificent 120 page A4 book of photos taken by Ikeda, whilst recording and touring, plus scans of original lyrics sheets complete with 2 CDs, the first including the album and B-sides and previously unheard demos, live tracks and remixes on the second. The remastered album is also available on vinyl.
When making the announcement for the re-release, Manics bassist and current chief lyricist, Nicky Wire reiterated their misgivings for second album Gold Against The Soul, stating “It’s kind of misunderstood and unloved by us.” It’s a slightly strange reaction, seeing as it achieved chart success, hitting Number. 8 upon release in the summer of 1993, and included such strong singles as ‘From Despair To Where’ and ‘Roses In The Hospital’, both of which have enjoyed regular rotation in their sets ever since their inception, plus fan favourite ‘Sleepflower’ – arguably the lost single which reappeared during their last tour after years of vocal public demand.
Maybe it’s the opulent feel of the decadent album, that was recorded at the luxurious Hook End Manor studio in Reading, for an estimated £1,500 a day, and took its cues from classic rock. In contrast, this was a time when grunge had just taken over the world, producing stripped-down no-frills rock records that were selling in their millions, having been produced on a shoestring budget in some crap Seattle squat. Or perhaps it was tarnished by the impossible targets they set themselves. The plan to play pop at its own game had seemingly failed, as they neither infiltrated the mainstream with a hedonistic cocktail of glam punk and situationalist sloganeering, sold 16 million copies of debut LP, Generation Terrorists and then split up as promised nor become anywhere near a household name on their second attempt. Such hyperbole created such huge expectations that were impossible to live up to, and could only ever lead to disappointment, for the press, the listeners and perhaps even the Manic’s themselves. Their dangerous gambit to be purposefully out of step made them seem like a costly irrelevance to heads at Columbia Records, and the label began considering dropping their costly asset, threatening their very existence as a band, which is likely why they were so keen to put it all behind them.
Returning to Gold Against The Soul today, opening song ‘Sleepflower’ still stands up as a killer barrage of riffs. A far cry from the apologetic, fey shoegaze sound and baggy Madchester hippy revival that was abundant at the time, and still has a satisfying snarl today. It could easily have been a single, as could tracks ‘Yourself’ recounting vain recriminations and ‘Drug Drug Druggy’ that now sneers at braindead hedonism with renewed venom.
Fortunately, the singles they did select remain as examples of their most powerful work. James Dean Bradfield’s impassioned cries on ‘From Despair To Where’ are perhaps his best ever vocals, ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh)’ transforms sorrow into a rapturous anthem, and the painfully poetic ‘Life Becoming A Landslide’ revealing the lyrical prowess of Richey Edwards. Stuck in lockdown, ‘Roses In The Hospital’ seems to take on resonance as we are reduced to expressing our sympathies of loss through tokenistic online gestures. Mournful yet defiant, it is the true essence of the album.
The final three songs see the Manic’s dare to indulge their metal fantasies with ‘Nostalgic Pushead’ raging against the seedy side of the entertainment industry, ‘Symphony Of Tourette’ is not a million miles away from Metallica and the concluding title track exposing the grim realities following the collapse of working class mining communities, whilst escalating to an almost cinematic finish.
There are striking parallels with the political landscape at the time of Gold Against The Soul with current affairs. At the time of release, Thatcher had recently been deposed and given way to the ineffectual John Major, mirroring the unceremonious way Theresa May was dumped last year, in favour of Johnson’s current buffoonery. The many years of cruel and indifferent Tory rule, then and now exacerbated the causes of misery addressed on the record, adding to the problems of marginalised regional poverty, elderly loneliness and existential crisis as we are distracted with dwindling satisfaction of commodity fetishism. As Gold Against The Soul calls out from nearly 30 years ago, we are still left with a resounding echo of grinding futility that rings true today and sadly seems to remain relevant for a long time to come.
B-sides are often prophetic, hinting at what is to come, and the first disc wraps up with a complete collection. ‘Patrick Bateman’ was written before the rest of the LP and as a precursor shows the direction they were headed. Taking self-indulgence too far with metal clichés and poor attempts to shock with lyrics like ‘I fucked god up the ass’ and even a kids choir, thankfully it didn’t make the cut although it is a guilty pleasure of mine.
‘Comfort Comes’ has the savage angular stabbing guitar that would characterise their next record, The Holy Bible, with ‘Us Against You’ and their takes on The Clash’s ‘What’s My Name’ and McCarthy’s ‘Charles Windsor’ seething with caustic outrage. Even their cover of Happy Monday’s ‘Wrote For Luck’ sounds less like a club classic and more of a threat.
There were also clues of what was to come in the more distant future ‘Donkeys’, ‘Are Mothers Saints’ and ‘Hibernation’ have the domestic empathy, heart and humanity that runs deep through Everything Must Go – they also have a remarkably similar tone to 1996 B-sides ‘Dead Trees and Traffic Islands’ and ‘Dead Passive’ which suggests to me a certain inevitability of heading in that direction, despite their brief 1994 post-punk detour.
As thrilling as it is to revisit the often under-appreciated second record, most devotees like my myself will be more excited by the second disc containing the unheard demos, the most of which were recorded at the Manic’s favoured luxurious Surrey haunt; the Georgian manor House In The Woods studio plus a handful from the initial Impact Studio sessions in Kent. It’s striking to hear just how complete the songs are, even in their embryonic stage, which is impressive considering how much the Manic’s had been touring, following the release of Generation Terrorists, just eight months before in some cases.
It’s interesting to reverse engineer the songs to hear how they came to the final, now so familiar, completed stage. For instance, in previous interviews drummer, Sean Moore has hinted at some of the mad sonic experiments that went into the creation process, and the use of pots and pans on ‘Sleepflower’ is more apparent, ‘From Despair To Where’ has the alternative lyric: ‘A mirror fails to leave a memory’ in the first verse, and thankfully they have layer dropped the ‘oohs’ down in the vocal mix, saving it from sounding like a ‘90s daytime TV soap theme tune. Also, there has been some prudent pruning of the wild lead guitar noodling on ‘Roses In The Hospital’, since it was first tried out in Kent, which almost became an awkward Bon Jovi clone rather than the classic single we know and fucking love today. No demo of ‘Yourself’ but the live performance from Bangkok is suitably simmering with fury, and I would bathe myself in a bath of bleach to have been there.
Feeling a bit tagged on at the end, yet still necessary for the sake of completion, are the remixes. And while none are exactly bad, few do much to really re-interpret the songs in any meaningful way for a club audience, and just bang on an undanceable beat behind the vocal track that now feels very dated. The definite exception to this is The Dust Brothers’ – now better known as The Chemical Brothers – ‘La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh) Vocal Remix’ which roars with raw energy and reworks the anger into an absolute banger.
Manic Street Preachers have always been masters at crafting their own narratives, and each new re-release is so spectacular and comprehensive it makes me wonder if there is any appeal to anyone outside the hardcore, and I’m doubtful if the book will be picked up by the casual listener. But then, we Manic’s fans are a particularly fanatical breed, largely due to the‘you’re either with us or against us’ mentality fostered by the band themselves, engendering a feverish loyalty and devotion that is rarely seen anywhere else. In fact, I dare say with the DIY spray painted political slogans splashed across chests, sweat drenched feather boas, kohl eyed boys and girls plus displaying more leopard print than Vera Duckworth; Manic’s fans can claim to be a distinct subculture of their very own (but that’s a different discussion for another time). No doubt, the scum superior will be lovingly pouring through the exquisite pages and gorging them themselves on the delights of the demos for a long time to come – though a DVD of live performances from the time would have been welcome. Significantly, it seems that the band have exorcised the needless shame they have always seemed to carry for their second album, and finally given Gold Against The Soul the respect it deserves
Gold Against The Soul is out on 12 June.
Pre-order the deluxe set HERE.
Photo: Alex Lake