The band reunion once considered impossible became possible this year when the original The Smashing Pumpkins announced they were getting back together after almost 20 years. Well, kind of. The line up includes Billy Corgan on vocals and guitar as usual, James Iha on guitar, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, but founding member and bass player D’arcy Wretzky continues to be absent since leaving in 1999. The fourth member is long-time Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder, while Jack Bates is the touring bassist. Staunch fans of the pre-‘Machina’ albums era might need time to evaluate this. The unification buzz was followed by news of a tour and a new album, ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun’.
For those in the dark, the foursome splintered over 1999-2000. The band name was exhumed in 2005 by Corgan, Chamberlin and collaborators, then it became just Corgan and others from 2009. Perhaps that career trajectory was doable, given he is the lead singer and songwriter, and the last record, ‘Monuments to an Elegy’, was generally well-received. However, it sounds like Corgan, Iha and Chamberlin were missing each other’s creative company and are trying hard to avoid the individualist attitudes which played a role in their demise.
So, when recording their latest effort, were they going to pick up where they left off all those years ago or were they going to try something new? If you run through the list of new rock albums, you’ll find many of the 20 and 30-year-old bands are returning to their roots musically, and SP is one of them, happily joining the nostalgia party. ‘Shiny’ sounds like a toast to their career, and fair enough too, given the band says they’ve never properly celebrated their success since forming in Chicago 30 years ago.
Could they hope to replicate the brilliance of their first three records? For those releases, they had some of the brightest producers in the business, such as Butch Vig (Nirvana ‘Nevermind’) on ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’ and Flood (Nine Inch Nails, U2) and Alan Moulder (NIN) on ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’. It was clear they’d need someone special to hone their revived energy. Enter Rick Rubin, the producer they worked with on the ‘Adore’ cycle and the man responsible for the production of acclaimed albums from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Slayer, System Of A Down and a host of others. The music was recorded at Shangri La Studios, Malibu, California and was going to be two, four-song EPs; an idea later scrapped in favour of an eight-song LP.
To reintroduce the newly intact Pumpkins to the world, the band chose ‘Shiny’s’ first hard rock song, Solara, as the first single. The excitement builds immediately with a chugging riff, Corgan’s nasally vocals and the punchy drums, which shift quickly into rousing grungy guitar. With this outlook that everything old is new again, the listener might wonder if Solara can reach the aspirational heights of their best heavy tracks. The excitement is dashed when the chorus hits and Corgan’s over-the-top delivery becomes a jarring juxtaposition to the rest of the song. This issue crops up again on the second hard rock track, Marchin’ On, which is very capable in an instrumental sense but is stunted by Corgan’s histrionic singing. A redeeming feature is the cranky riff just after the halfway point, which might’ve been a solid backbone for a ninth song but was unfortunately put in the rubbish instead of the recycling. All is made right on the third and final hard rock track, Seek And You Shall Destroy, which is mysterious yet simple, jumping between sinister riffs and upbeat choruses.
On the softer side, there’s Alienation, a song that despite its virtuous instrumentation, cannot be saved by the structureless wavering. Travels is a sleepy number punctuated with rhythm guitar that steals the limelight. It’s very pretty. Knights of Malta is a cloudy, drifty track and is the album’s most multi-layered. It’s got the usual instruments, along with piano, touches of vocal manipulation, and violin cradling a female gospel voice on top of Corgan’s. This could easily slot into a road trip playlist if the asphalt was swapped for a cumulus. With Sympathy has a wonderful pastel guitar strum that reverberates through the track and is complimented by sweet bass notes, perfectly pairing with Corgan’s voice. Finally, we come to Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts), which rises above everything else. It is quintessential Pumpkins, with its ability to tap into both the nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. We’ve missed that 1979 sound.
‘Shiny’ is a fine glass-clink to the past. If they followed through with their EP plans and used the best five songs here, it’d be easier to exclaim with conviction that ‘The Smashing Pumpkins are back!’
Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun is out November 16 via Martha’s Music under license to Napalm Records. It can be ordered here.