“Embracing the new eclecticism, they wove together a variety of threads to prove that heavy topics don’t need to be heavy-handed”: Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World bears all the hallmarks of a prog album

Super Furry Animals - Rings Around the World
(Image credit: Epic)

Emerging at the height of Britpop on Alan McGee’s fabled Creation Records with their delightfully quirky 1996 debut single Hometown Unicorn, Super Furry Animals immediately marked themselves down as a breed apart from what was going on around them.

Prodigiously talented and with a fierce intelligence and sense of humour to match, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that these Welsh wonders were in for the long haul. And unlike labelmates Oasis, who found themselves increasingly circling the plug hole of creativity, Super Furry Animals moved ever forward with each subsequent release.

Their fifth album – and first for new paymasters Epic in the wake of Creation’s ignominious collapse – 2001’s Rings Around The World remains their most progressive and commercially successful album to date. Embracing the new eclecticism that developed in the wake of the post-rave world, the band here wove together a variety of threads that included rock, prog, pop, punk, techno, electronica, drum’n’bass and even death metal to create a cohesive statement that examines the human condition.

Critiquing telecommunications, religious fundamentalism and pollution, the album themes feel uncomfortably prescient. But Super Furry Animals have always recognised that heavy topics don’t need to be heavy-handed.

Taking advantage of the bigger production budget on the table, they commissioned videos for every track to release the first-ever DVD album

Coming on with a lysergic haze, this is an album characterised by a mood of levity and occasional absurdity that counter balances its lyrical concerns. Witness Receptacle For The Respectable, which turns from a light-hearted bounce to a distorted growl, while Paul McCartney – yes, really – reprises his contribution to Brian Wilson’s Smile by crunching on a carrot and celery.

Maintaining their tongue-in-cheek approach, they put former US President Bill Clinton’s extramarital scandal under the microscope (‘Another Cuban cigar crisis’) alongside erstwhile Russian leader Boris Yeltsin’s fondness for a tipple on Presidential Suite, which sees fellow Welshman and ex-Velvet Underground founder John Cale tinkling the ivories.

Elsewhere, the title track evokes Hawkwind on a downer while It’s Not The End Of The World blends the theme of extinction with the joys of growing older – all tempered by that quirky sense of humour (‘Turn all the hate in the world to a mockingbird’).

Taking advantage of the bigger production budget on the table, the band not only recorded the album on both sides of the Atlantic, they also commissioned videos for every track to release the first-ever DVD album. Coming complete with additional remixes of every song, the new format also took advantage of the advances of surround sound and home entertainment. And while that sounds quaint to contemporary eyes and ears, this was way ahead of the curve then.

Though bigger stars with bigger budgets have superseded Super Furry Animals, they did it here first. And that’s progressive.

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.