The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole (1997) – Album Review

Ambitious and at times overblown, Dig Your Own Hole is the Chemical Brothers’ sophomore album and their magnum opus. The title is supposedly a reference to ketamine, and the deep dark trips one can take on the psychedelic dissociative. To continue this analogy, if Dig Your Own Hole is ketamine, then the drug experience celebrated by their riotous debut, Exit Planet Dust would be ecstasy. (Although it’s worth noting that ‘dust’ is not a reference to drugs, but rather the duo’s name-change from the Dust Brothers, following legal action by US production duo of the same name). And the third instalment in the trilogy – the luxuriously hallucinatory Surrender – would most likely be a tribute to LSD.

Anyway, not to get bogged down in drug references…as with all good music, although it can be enhanced by drugs, being off your head is not a prerequisite for enjoyment. So rather than a drug trip, or any kind of journey, I like to see Dig Your Own Hole as being a performance from start to finish – a fantastical great gig in the sky. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were born indie-kids, and although they cut their teeth DJing, Dig Your Own Hole is the fullest realisation of their vision for the Chemical Brothers as a band in the  classic sense, following in the mould of rock behemoths like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

The sleeve notes always introduce the Bro’s as ‘the players’, and by featuring a series of magnetic guest performers – Tim Burgess, Beth Orton, Noel Gallagher, etc – they neatly sidestep the small issue of not having a lead singer. Their visual aesthetic stays true to this ideal – witness the guitar-toting hippie couple who look like they’re hitch-hiking to Woodstock on the cover of Exit Planet Dust, and the front cover of Surrender, featuring a screen-printed version of a photo taken at the Great British Music Festival in 1976. 

Original image: ‘Jesus Amongst the Fans’ by Richard Young

More than anything though, the Chemical Brothers achieve their vision through the music. Although frequently touted as pioneers of the ‘big-beat’ genre, on DYOH the Chems draw on everything from 60s psychedelia, 70s funk, to 80s old-school hip-hop, to 90s acid rave, catalysing it into something that, while nodding to its origins, was thoroughly futuristic and forward-looking. From the clouds of smoke that presage the intro to Block Rockin’ Beats, parting like the gateway into a mysterious portal, Dig Your Own Hole pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the final echo of clarinet on the Private Psychedelic Reel dies away. In reality, a little over an hour later, but what feels like a lifetime in the internal universe created in the album.

As well as being home to some of the band’s best known (and chart-smashing) singles, Block Rockin’ Beats and Setting Sun, DYOH contains multitudes besides. There’s the set within a set that opens side B of the record with It Doesn’t Matter, running through a 20 minute thrill ride of relentless beats, robotic voices and blaring synths. This format mirrors the mini-set contained with Exit Planet Dust that charts a course of screeching acid-lines and funky drum hits from Three Little Birdies Down Beats, through Fuck Up Beats and Chemical Beats before taking a breather at Chico’s Groove. 

Another nod to one of the album’s influences can be found on Elektrobank, and the sample of Kool Herc hyping up a crowd (who judging from the audio are waiting to watch the Chemical Brothers). Often cited as one of the founding figures of hip-hop, Herc was one of the first DJs to employ multiple turntables, mixing together the instrumental ‘breakdowns’ of different tracks to form a continuous breakbeat mix, over which his exhortations to get the crowd dancing were a proto form of rapping. In itself, Elektrobank is overly long and attempts too much; in this sense it serves as a microcosm of the entire album – a long intro building to explosive eruption, then psychedelic detour, finally played out by extended outro.

An overt nod to the album’s psychedelic origins is of course Setting Sun, the first Chemical Brothers’ track to feature Noel Gallagher, which shot to number 1 on its release. Characterised by a thunderous breakbeat and piercing buzz-saw synth as well as Gallagher’s filtered vocals, the track is a barely concealed homage to Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles’ ground-breaking psychedelic classic from 1966.

Following her turn on Alive Alone, the beautiful closing track on EPD, Beth Orton appears again on the come-down anthem, Where Do I Begin. The track begins as a mournful ballad, as Orton recounts waking up hungover in a stranger’s bed, unable to ‘even focus on a coffee cup’, and builds to a euphoric life-affirming crescendo, before descending into pure noise and destruction. There’s no denying it’s an absolute belter, but along with Elektrobank, the track’s refusal to end is another mild symptom of DYOH’s bloatedness. 

All this can be forgiven though, for along with contemporaneous releases such as Leftfield’s Leftism, Underworld’s Second Toughest and Prodigy’s Jilted Generation, the Chemical Brothers proved beyond doubt that dance acts could record genuine albums. Unfortunately, in my view, they never sounded the same after Surrender and couldn’t seem to regain the flow state in which they recorded those first three trailblazing albums. Come With Us – Surrender’s eclectic but tepid follow-up – just sounded like it was recorded by an act trying to imitate the Chemical Brothers, and the less said about Push the Button, the better.

I was fortunate enough to witness their incendiary performance at Glastonbury in 2019; if a gig can ever be described as life-changing then this one could. I don’t know how much of the performance was truly ‘live’ or whether they were just pressing a big button marked ‘Play’ and waving their arms over some keyboards – and frankly who cares. It was an audio-visual tour-de-force from start to finish; the psychedelic internal world created by Dig Your Own Hole come to life on a grand scale. The set featured several cuts from their most recent full-length, No Geography, which was reportedly recorded on the same gear used back in the day for Exit Planet Dust. But while I’m sure it’s a decent enough album, having seen it brought to life by 50-foot day-glo michelin-men dancing in clouds of violet vapour, I’m not sure the home listening experience would cut it.

Nope, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be happy spinning Dig Your Own Hole and going back for annudda-one-of-those-Block-Rockin’-BEATS.

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