The 1990s were a strange time for secular rock, especially when the wave of electronic artists gradually infiltrated the mainstream. With the label of alternative rock wearing thin and becoming more about attire than angst, the second half of the decade saw a divide as to where music was heading. Some felt computers revolutionized how we created music while purists insisted authenticity could only be found in live instrumentation. Somewhere between each side of the argument was Death In Vegas and their 1999 sophomore album, The Contino Sessions.
Turning 20 this year, The Contino Sessions still stands head and shoulders above most electronic albums of the era.
Formed in the mid-90s by Richard Fearless and Steve Hellier (later replaced by Tim Holmes), Death In Vegas broke in the US in the fall of 1997. Their first album Dead Elvis dropped during the pivotal time when electronic music was finally being accepted. To put things in proper perspective, earlier that summer The Prodigy’s The Fat Of The Land reached number 1 on the same Billboard chart where Radiohead‘s OK Computer peaked at 21. Rock fixtures such as The Smashing Pumpkins became bored with guitars, David Bowie released Earthling, and Fatboy Slim was on the verge of bringing his 80s flavored techno with Pop.
Despite the acceptance, Dead Elvis wasn’t the kind of music generally found in your local club.
Where most electronica artists of the era expanded upon the structure of New Wave, Death in Vegas was influenced by 60s psychedelia and the avant-garde. The result was far more experimental and organic in nature. Their music often featured electric guitar and distorted bass like Industrial bands, but with the primary focus on the groove. All of which made Dead Elvis one of 1997’s most interesting records. However, as creative as the album was, Dead Elvis was plagued with inconsistency. Despite the lead single “Dirt” becoming a late-night hit on MTV, no other track featured the same abrasive, big beat sound.
Fearless and new member, Tim Holmes corrected this when they entered the studio for what would eventually become The Contino Sessions. By using the groundwork laid out by “Dirt”, Fearless and Holmes knew the only way to make electronic music interesting was to treat it like a living, breathing entity.
What makes The Contino Sessions so unique is how Death In Vegas approached both sides of the genre spectrum.
Traditionally electronic compositions begin with a beat and add layers over the course of the runtime. Fearless and Holmes utilize the same structure, but with live instrumentation. For example, the opening track “Dirge” begins with a simple 2 chord riff for 2 bars. Then the following measure, the vocal hook along with bass. This continues until its spiraling out of control essentially making the entire song a crescendo.
With turntables and synths, this particular structure would be standard fare. But with live instrumentation, the sound is a completely different animal. Surprisingly, even with synths and turntables reduced to sound effects, The Contino Sessions is argubly an electronic record. Elevating the combination of garage noise and digital atmosphere containing sinister vocal lines with lyrics of social decay and nightmares.
Speaking of vocals, The Contino Session boasted a motley crew of guest spots.
Dot Allison, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, and Jim Reid of The Jesus & Mary Chain all turn in eerie, atmospheric performances on their respective tracks. But it’s Iggy Pop on the lead single “Aisha” who steals the album. Iggy confessing he’s a murderer living in a cemetery would be over-the-top by any other artist but here it makes perfect sense. Upbeat moments like “Aladdin’s Story” and “Neptune City” do their part in making the gothic stuff that much more unsettling. It’s that surrealism where Death In Vegas rises above other acts of their genre.
Released in the fall of 1999, The Contino Sessions confused both critics and casual listeners. It was far too electronic to win over mainstream rock fans and far too raw to appeal to the club scene. Death In Vegas were a hard act to peg and 1999 was basically the end of the brief electronic boom. Despite eventually being certified gold, The Contino Sessions and by extension, Death In Vegas, remain under the radar. But just like any cult band, Death In Vegas have a big enough underground following to merit a vinyl reissue.
Thanks to Music On Vinyl, The Contino Sessions is now available on vinyl for the first time since it’s initial release. Making it the perfect celebration for its 20th anniversary.
From the jangly guitar opening of “Dirge”, NASA noise of “Death Threat”, to the vintage B3 organ on “Lever Street”, The Contino Sessions is gorgeous from top to bottom. All subtle nuance is present as if you are there with Fearless and Holmes in the studio. The nature of the format is like hearing it the way it was always intended.
Putting multiple genres in a melting pot is the nature of all indie music. Today, most acts are made up of either duos or single artists recording on laptops or portable studios. Much like Death In Vegas in 1999, artists can approach original songs like an electronic project regardless of genre. Thanks to advancements in technology and lack of major-label pressure, most artists are producers first and musicians second.
In fact, many bands are just now using techniques Death In Vegas explored 20 years ago.
Who knows if Death In Vegas directly influenced today’s artists, but it’s obvious Richard Fearless was ahead of his time. Perhaps that may have something to do with the soft US release of The Contino Sessions back in 1999? As listeners debated the importance of technology, Death In Vegas catered to both sides of the argument. But sadly, the album fell on deaf ears.
With this reissue and the trend of self-producing in today’s music, Death In Vegas’ crowning achievement is getting a second chance to get under our skin. Fearless continues to evolve as an artist and continues to put out interesting music. But none of it explores the seedy underbelly of rock as his first few records. As it stands, The Contino Sessions is a timeless classic of electronic garage goth. And with the Music On Vinyl reissue, it has never sounded better.
Purchase The Contino Sessions on vinyl exlcusively through Music On Vinyl.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.