Born out of the febrile Manchester rave scene (which they alighted upon during their university days), The Chemical Brothers (Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands) became one of a small group of electronica acts to straddle the 90s with their all-conquering live performances and a slew of hits. While some of those acts fell by the wayside – or just simply lost their way – the best Chemical Brothers songs have seen them regularly come up with the goods right up into the current era of EDM stadium shows.
The Chems started recording in 1992 as The Dust Brothers, the name pinched from the LA hip-hop producers who helmed Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay. Almost immediately, the British duo created a buzz, delivering independently released EP tracks such as the intense, acidicly growling ‘Chemical Beats’, as well as remixing acts such as The Prodigy, Leftfield & Lydon, Primal Scream and Manic Street Preachers, plus Bomb The Bass’ ‘Bug Powder Dust’ (with appropriately trippy rapper Justin Warfield riding the “windowpane” acid). They also had their first encounters with fellow Manchester scenesters The Charlatans around this time; their remix for ‘Nine Acre Dust’ starts with a psychedelic blare before clearing into razor-sharp hip-hop beats and then building into an indie-dance monster.
They later similarly blessed the work of Oasis, Fatboy Slim, Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, Saint Etienne, and even Kylie Minogue, as well as whacking out prominent DJ mixes. The Brothers ruled the developing big beat scene, which took the UK’s critically acclaimed trip-hop sound and injected it with a dose of something strong, resulting in a slower and funkier feel that drew in audiences bamboozled by the spiralling tempos of other dance genres. The Chems’ dirty bass, scuzzy guitars, battering beats and slicing cuts fitted in just so.
In 1995, the Brothers brushed the dust from their shoulders (under threat of legal action), and opened up their chemistry set for Virgin, issuing debut album Exit Planet Dust as the newly re-christened Chemical Brothers. This included excerpts from previous singles and slung in instant classics that immediately stood among the best Chemical Brothers sons, such as the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink opener ‘Leave Home’ (with its rallying call, “The brothers gonna work it out”), which came across like a Chems DJ set in miniature. ‘Life Is Sweet’ utilised all their big-beat skills but added a distorted Tim Burgess (from The Charlatans) on vocals, and the album also introduced the world to the talents of regular collaborator Beth Orton, representing the group’s softer underbelly. The duo hence started a tradition of bringing in big-name guests and talented newcomers, which would serve them well in turning what had already been a highly promising specialist dance act into a serious mainstream album act.
By 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, the duo weren’t far from the centre of Cool Britannia, as evidenced by their first collaboration with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who was alternately reversed and dropped into a sonic well over the raging, buzzsaw-like guitars of ‘Setting Sun’, which continued The Chems’ explicit interest in psychedelia with its notably Beatles-esque bent. However, many fans still held the duo’s instrumentals up as examples of the best Chemical Brothers songs, and the title of the album’s bruising opener, ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, epitomised the style for which they were most well-known.
1999’s Surrender continued the combination of top-level collaborators and brain-melting instrumentals. It featured New Order’s Bernard Sumner and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream on the EBM update ‘Out Of Control’, as well as Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, sounding typically beautiful on the sedate ‘Asleep From Day’. Noel Gallagher also returned on ‘Let Forever Be’, and the brothers let rip without any need of assistance on the tremendous, lurked-out, electro-influenced ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’. Here we go again!
Three years later, Come With Us appeared as many of the “superstar DJs” referred to in ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ were falling out of favour, but The Chems pushed on. Once upping the production ante, they delivered a clutch of thumping club tracks, including the colossal, circling title track. They also bagged yet another high-profile guest vocal from The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, and brought back Beth Orton for the tender, folk-influenced ballad ‘The State We’re In’. Push The Button followed after another three-year gap, delivering more guests than ever, and scored with ‘Galvanize’, the creeping, fervid, Moroccan-tinged collaboration with acclaimed rapper Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest) which provided the album title. Elsewhere, Tim Burgess reappeared, alongside Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke and The Magic Numbers, while a highlight came in the form of the funky, lightly dubbed-out ‘Hold Tight London’, with vocals from Anna-Lynne Williams.
The Brothers embraced the new rave scene of the mid-00s when they invited Mercury Prize winners Klaxons to guest on 2007’s We Are The Night. Midlake’s Tim Smith and The Pharcyde rapper Fat Lip also made appearances, while the album included one of the best Chemical Brothers songs to harness the summer: the delightfully chirpy, melodica-led ‘Das Spiegel’. The Brotherhood compilation followed, limited copies of which included an extra CD featuring the duo’s Electronic Battle Weapon promo series of dancefloor delights, which gifted us the pounding, thrashing ‘Acid Children’ (aka ‘Electronic Battle Weapon 7’).
In many ways, it set the scene for 2010’s Further, which featured a plethora of bangers, such as the amped-up, robotic – yet sweat-inducing – ‘Horse Power’. The Chems’ first full (and dynamic) soundtrack followed, for Hanna (2011), with its atmospheric theme, while 2015’s Born In The Echoes brought the duo back together with Q-Tip, as well as drawing in Beck (for poignant closer ‘Wide Open’), St Vincent and Cate Le Bon.
After some relative silence from the group, ‘Free Yourself’ appeared in the autumn of 2018. Marrying robotic vocals with ear-blasting assaults and heavy bass, the song served as a timely reminder that The Chemical Brothers continue to provide one of the most interesting catalogues in dance music. We can hopefully expect plenty more before they truly exit Planet Dust; the best Chemical Brothers songs could yet be ahead of them.
The deluxe 20th-anniversary reissue of Surrender is due for release on 18 October and can be pre-ordered here.