"I flirt with mediocrity"
Sometimes a band just gets it right. Prior to Radiator’s release in August 1997, only Super Furry Animals’ most optimistic and fervent fans would have put good money on the band’s second album transcending the stylistic restrictions of the failing Britpop scene that they were only tangentially associated with. Yet Radiator proved without a doubt that Super Furry Animals were a truly special band, merrily shaking off the last of the poisonous Britpop association with an album that absolutely confounded any expectations that they would suffer from the second album syndrome that had hobbled so many of their contemporaries. Oh, and it’s the first album which featured the artwork of Richard Fowler, a man whose imagery became as synonymous with Super Furry Animals as the band’s own music, so that’s nice too.
With the brief and pretty instrumental “Furryvision” opening proceedings, Radiator immediately shifts gear as the day-glo electronic pop of “Placid Casual” ups the pace, and “The International Language of Screaming” makes it’s case for being one of the great overlooked singles of 1997, with its enjoyable chaos, distorted yelping and Gruff Rhys making his case for being the finest vocalist that the UK had to offer at the time. In three tracks Radiator had gone from chill-out keyboard washes to high-octane pop. As far as Super Furry Animals were concerned, second album syndrome was something that just happened to other, less talented, acts.
Then it happens, as the distorted fuzziness of “The International Language of Screaming” melts away, the full-throttle pace is dropped in favour of the stately, utterly gorgeous, “Demons”. With it’s gorgeous melody, irresistible chorus, blend of guitar and electronic music, and haunting brass, “Demons” is the moment that Radiator reveals itself to not only be a great album, but a truly special one. It is the song which personally convinced me of Super Furry Animals absolute brilliance, an opinion which I maintain to this day, and remains a high point of their live shows.
After the swelling emotion of “Demons” Super Furry Animals smartly allow the listener a few moments to regain their breath by way of “Short Painkiller”, a short instrumental which is little more than a simple but effective twinkling wash of synthesiser. It effectively cleanses the pallet for the triple headed pop extravaganza that is “She’s Got Spies”, a song which turns from soporific dream state to jumping-on-the-spot chorus at the flick of a switch, “Play It Cool”, which again seamlessly blends guitar and electronic rock with a killer chorus, and the wonk-pop of “Hermann Loves Pauline” driven forward by the rhythm section of Gutto Pryce and Dafydd Ieuan. It’s heady stuff, and by the midway point Radiator has by now established itself as one of the great pop albums of the era, and Super Furry Animals as one of the most musically gifted and all out fun acts of the era.
The breakneck “Chupacabras” continues the full throttle high energy fun, and “Torra Fy Ngwallt Yn Hir” gives us the toe-tapping Welsh language pop number which particularly highlights Huw Buford’s guitar work, before some bubbling keyboards from Cian Ciaran indicates yet another change of pace on the album, as Radiator heads towards its less frenetic final third with “Bass Turned to DEAD”. This switch of pace is a smart move, and key to ensuring that Radiator doesn’t become an utterly exhausting listen. The fact that “Demons” had already established that Radiator was an album on which Super Furry Animals were comfortable with a change of pace was a masterstroke, but only one which becomes truly obvious on a slow-burn number like “Down a Different River”, which once again sees laid back verses married to a sonically immense chorus.
“Download” once again sees Ciaran coming to the fore, via a pretty tune which highlights his gorgeous keyboard work and Gruff’s extraordinarily beautiful and soulful voice. It’s Radiator’s most downbeat moment, and one on which they could have conceivably closed the album with. Instead the album closes with the heart-swelling “Mountain Men”, a song which stops just short of being anthemic, simply because anthems can be so crass. The decision to close the album with a singalong that doesn’t require full energy for a now exhausted audience to participate is yet another masterstroke, and is indicative of not only Super Furry Animals’ understanding of album dynamics, but their innate inclusiveness too. “Mountain Men” eventually climaxes with a musical breakdown, with all manner of electronic chaos and relentless drum beats, slowly melting away until you are left with a synthetic doodle right at the end.
Radiator was the right album at the right time for Super Furry Animals. In a changing musical landscape where Britpop was rapidly fading, and acts like Radiohead and The Verve were offering little in the way of levity, Radiator reminded everyone that pop music could and should be fun, and that didn’t necessarily need to be at the expense of musical experimentation either. Between them the Super Furries and producer Gorwel Owen created one of the great pop albums of the late 90s, and signposted the fact that they were one of the truly special bands of their generation.