Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Super Furry Animals: An unconventional pop paradigm

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The Super Furry Animals (Photo: Steve Gullick)
Gimmicks - even good ones - rarely have their desired effect on music fans. You wear a single sparkly glove, change your name to an unpronounceable symbol, study the Kabala, or travel with an entourage of Harajuku girls … and inevitably, your outlandish antics just end up as late-night monologue fodder. Musical purists know better: No self-respecting band would dress up in yeti costumes to perform, gatecrash British music festivals in a bright blue tank, or tether giant balloons shaped like diabolical bears outside their venues. No band with any hope of ongoing success would release a single with 52 repetitions of the "f" word, or record Paul McCartney chomping on some roughage for a "carrot and celery rhythm track." Except, of course, for Super Furry Animals.

St. Paul, Minn. — This Welsh quintet has been making mayhem and music for more than 12 years. And although their elaborate stunts have garnered the attention of the curious, it's the group's catalog of carefully crafted psychedelic pop gems that's earned them the undying love of critics and fans worldwide.

Formed in 1993 in Cardiff - and considered a part of the mid-nineties Welsh movement that also produced 60 Foot Dolls, Catatonia, and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - Super Furry Animals initially wrote and performed all of their songs in Welsh. But, not long after releasing their first two EPs, vocalist Gruff Rhys, guitarist Huw Bunford, drummer Dafydd Ieuan, keyboardist Cian Ciaran, and bassist Guto Pryce realized they'd need to switch to English to succeed outside of their native country. So despite cries of treason from the Welsh press, they recorded and released their full-length debut, 1996's Fuzzy Logic, in English.

SFA honed their harmony-heavy, hooky sound and evocative lyrical style over the course of an additional six studio albums - including 2000's Mwng, an all-Welsh recording that inverted many expectations about the group. Mwng became SFA's most commercially successful album in the U.S., and is considered by some critics to be their most accessible work. However, it was 2001's Rings Around the World - an album of layered melodies, lavish production, experimental soundplay, and outlandish imagery - that brought them to the fore of modern popcraft.

Rhys' resonant bass voice and pleasingly rounded pronunciation make him a hypnotic musical storyteller, weaving together images of outer space, embittered lovers, and political scandal with casual ease. 2003's Phantom Power followed, presenting a kaleidoscopic blend of sounds and influences, from the haunting harmonies and minor strains of "The Piccolo Snare" to the danceable thrum and shout-along chorus of "Golden Retriever." Their most recent release, 2005's Love Kraft, may be less frenetic than previous albums - presenting more succinct tunes with fewer cacophonous layers - but it still packs a pleasingly poppy punch.

Despite disparate sounds and subjects, there are a few unifying factors in the Super Furry catalog. Musically, you have Rhys' distinctive vocals and the group's penchant for Beach Boy harmonies. Visually, you have the contributions of Cardiff-based artist and graphic designer Pete Fowler, who has created art for nearly all of the Furries' album and EP covers. Fowler's designs reflect the band's name back at them, presenting a cast of animal-monster hybrids who live out the stories within the songs. Regal horses, grinning skulls, and googly-eyed aliens, his creations are equal parts whimsy and depravity - cute cartoon critters with nefarious intentions.

The group has experimented with other visual compliments to their work; they commissioned and released animations for every song on both Rings Around the World and Phantom Power, and often project elaborate video montages during live performance. But Fowler's art has been with them since their sophomore release, and is likely to endure alongside the music.

After more than a decade of recording and performing, Super Furry Animals could be pegged as grizzled rock veterans. But the Furries show no signs of slowing down or snoozing on their laurels. They will no doubt continue to confound and delight audiences with songs about everything from love gone wrong and the evils of war to alien invasions and rampaging dinosaurs for years to come, even if they have finally matured beyond the yeti-suit days.

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