20 Years Ago: Stereolab Expand Their Sonic Universe With ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’
Although Stereolab had released three excellent albums before it, Emperor Tomato Ketchup was the band’s Big Bang. Formed in London six years earlier by Tim Gane (guitar, keyboards) and Laetitia Sadler (vocals, keyboards, guitar) they didn't become true post-rock pioneers until they released their fourth album in 1996.
The first three albums by the fiercely independent Franco-British outfit are utterly idiosyncratic, largely consumed with drone-heavy experiments that mix the Velvet Underground and Krautrock pathfinders Neu! with sunshine-pop vocals and '60s moog-pop touches. As compelling as the initial findings of that experiment turned out to be, Stereolab pretty much had that sound down cold by 1994.
This left the band with three choices: They could split up, continue plowing the same sonic soil or bust into something entirely new. Fortunately, they settled on the third choice. They enlisted the services of Tortoise drummer John McEntire as co-producer, putting themselves on a path to post-rock glory.
McEntire had already helped put the genre on the map with his own band’s self-titled 1994 debut, slaying every rock 'n' roll trope that dared to cross their path. He was a perfect choice to help Stereolab get out of the guitar-heavy 4/4 groove that had become their stock in trade. In the interest of that endeavor, he helped them not only expand their ambitions, but also their instrumental arsenal. Where their previous albums operated on a standard rock lineup of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, the band were outfitted with some shiny new toys for their fourth album. Marimba, vibraphone and even a string section soon became part of their palette and would play an important role in defining what would become their signature sound.
Where their earlier albums deployed a motoric beat that makes the music feel as though it was constructed on the Autobahn (the highway, not the Kraftwerk album), Emperor Tomato Ketchup is where Stereloab took leave of the ground altogether, making music that seemed more at home among the clouds.
The band kiss their lockstep rock beats goodbye from the very first cut, “Metronomic Underground,” operating on a slinky funk drum pattern paired with a syncopated, minimalist bass line. All the while, a hypnotic latticework of incantatory vocals hovers overhead as a swelling squall of overdriven guitars and keyboards slowly rises.
The string section that opens “Cybele’s Reverie” serves further notice that this is not the Stereolab of old. With Sadier’s French lyrics gliding overhead, the track shifts back and forth between Sean O’Hagan’s chamber-like string arrangements and a ‘60s sunshine-pop vibe.
“Percolator” lays a stark vibraphone line, angular string parts, a cartoonish analog synth and busy bass over the jumpy, 5/4 rhythm and “The Noise of Carpet” arrives with the most conventional rock feel of the record as thick guitar licks stomp and churn, driven by a an almost punk beat. Of course, even during Stereolab’s most rocking moments, Sadier’s French vocals and the group’s squawking synthesizers always keep things from sounding too hidebound.
The title track from the album (named after a 1971 Japanese avant-garde film) is a case study in the Stereolab’s brand of maximinimalism. The guitar and drums slam home the same simple beat with an almost maniacal glee for the entire song, while burbling synth lines and skittering mallet percussion work things up to a fever pitch.
Meanwhile, “Monstre Sacre” occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, making for the album's moodiest moment. The minor-key melody, swooping string line and melancholy vocals have an engagingly creepy quality, like the lost soundtrack to some late-‘60s Hammer horror flick.
By the time you arrive at the album’s final track,the pulsing and ominous “Anonymous Collective,” Stereolab have left their former identity far behind, fully embracing a new, multi-faceted musical vision. And during a fraction of a second after the last notes fade, the band use an errant electronic zap that rises up to end the album – it's as if they're announcing that the transmission has come to a close on whatever planet these otherworldly characters call home.
Even though such like-minded bands as Pram and Jessamine were following roughly analogous paths at the time, it was Emperor Tomato Ketchup that would emerge as one of the milestone post-rock records of the mid ‘90s. And somewhere out there, the artists who the world would come to know as Battles, Deerhoof and Broadcast were probably paying close attention.