This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Stereolab – “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” (Duophonic, 1996)

This month’s selection is a cult album of the highest order regularly cited by critics as one of the best albums of the 1990s (and in some cases ever) and universally heralded as Stereolab’s “high water mark”, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” is an album made up of disparate influences and elements that have been masterfully combined into a coherent and thoroughly digestible whole. Their fourth album saw the band not only consolidating all their earlier achievements but pointing the direction forward into more diverse and often more difficult territory. The album stands apart as the band were able to overcome the difficulties they faced in putting together such a complex and uncomplimentary sound and still coming up with great results.

Stereolab formed in London in 1990 out of the ruminants of guitarist Tim Gane and vocalist/guitarist/keyboard player Laetita Sadier former band McCarthy. They named themselves Stereolab after a department of Vanguard Records that demonstrated ‘hi-fi effects’ and set up their own label Duophonic to release a series of DIY 12”’s which would quickly gain much attention both for the band’s unique droning minimalist krautrock sound and the striking artwork they came packaged in. In 1992 the band signed to Too Pure Records and started to expand their line-up to include vocalist Mary Hansen, drummer Andy Ramsey, bassist Duncan Brown, keyboardist Katherine Gifford and multi instrumentalist Sean O’ Hagen (ex-Microdisney and future lead of The High Llamas). As the line-up expanded so the music evolved with a new lounge music influence making itself felt on “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” EP (1993) and the band’s political lyrics being scrutinised by the UK music press. Critics have often cited Marxist ideas in the band’s lyrics; however though the band has admitted in interviews to their lyrics being political they have refuted the idea that they are Marxist. “In a 1999 interview, Gane stated that “none of us are Marxists … I’ve never even read Marx.” Sadier herself has mentioned that she has read very little Marx.”

By the time the band released “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” in 1996 they were firmer established in the indie charts in the US and UK and had built a cult sized following across Europe. Their sound had expanded further with the poppier exploits of “Mars Audiac Quintet” and their work for Charles Long’s art exhibit “Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center”. However, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” would take the band even further out of their comfort zone because as Gane said, “otherwise it just sounds like what other people are doing” and Sadier, “you trust that there is more and that it can be done more interesting.” The album incorporates influences from hip-hip, funk, lounge music, French pop, and Gane’s person obsession – hi-fi effect records. The idea of a conventional ‘guitar’ band is almost completely abandoned in favour of a more flexible approach to sound, structures, grooves and arrangements. Stereolab were unafraid of using both cool reference points krautrock, funk, hip-hop and the decidedly unhip lounge music, French pop, hi-fi effects records and Burt Bacharach. As Gane put it, “to be unique was more important than to be good.” Produced by Tortoise’s John McEntire the album is multilayered but also loose and limber, not bloated by its extra detail but enhanced by it. From the opener ‘Metronomic Underground’ with its low slung funk groove and psychedelic build of Moog washes over the band evolving looped sound to the distorted alien garage rock sound of ‘Noise of Carpet’ and on to the ‘Cybele’s Reverie’’s swooping string quartet and the bouncy title track with its playful synth lines everything flows and works even though it really shouldn’t. The band’s impossible melting pot of intersecting influences somehow coalesces into some of the unique and genuinely brilliant music. Gane’s encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage music technology and techniques definitely gives the album an edge of many of Stereolab’s contemporaries e.g. Th’ Faith Healers, Quickspace, Pram, Laika etc. The sound of “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” is full of little tricks from the use of round panning (the guitar jumps quickly from left to right as the riff plays) on the guitar riff of ‘Tomorrow is Already Here’ to the delay applied to whole mix of ‘Les Yper-Sound’ causing it to lurch in and out of time towards its conclusion. In fact, the band animate the album using many unusual but brilliant use of the studio, guitar effects and analogue synthesizer that make the sound 3D (for want of a better word) and perfectly compliment the album’s retro futuristic artwork.

The album explores ideas of how consumerism has changed the world in a negative way causing society to feel confused and lost as capitalism forces them away from what Sadier believes society was built that is to quote “What’s society built on, its built words, built on words, built on work” (‘Motoroller Scalatron’) and “Originally this set-up was to serve society now; the roles have been reversed that want society to serve the institutions… alienation” (‘Tomorrow Is Already Here’). This is a theme that runs through the album and helps bind it together conceptually.

Since the album’s release it was unexpectedly included in the book ‘1001 Albums: You Must Hear Before You Die’ by Robert Dimery and Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s and as previously stated in universally heralded as the band’s “high water mark”. Though it’s difficult to pin point any direct influence “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” was had, Stereolab themselves spearheaded and inspired many forward thinking and similarly retro futuristic bands including Broadcast, Pram, Add N to (X), The High Llamas, and more recently Lali Puna, The American Analog Set and there’s even a hint of their sound and approach in “Underneath the Pine” by Toro Y Moi. 15 years on “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” remains as vibrant and vital as it did upon its original release!

Spotify playlist:

Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup