The Super Furries are back to save the universe. Rings Around the World, the Welsh five-piece's fifth album, is indeed an epic; the songs and styles are complicated, but always keep sight of the band's signature Super Furry charm. This album makes clear the band's evolution, furthering the utter splendor we heard on their previous release, the Welsh-language Mwng. Rings... brings a flawless combination of the jangly punk-pop sounds we heard on Radiator in 1997 with a sonic dreamscape of strings, samples and smooth beats that's neither obscure nor unwelcoming.
The songs on the album are part of a larger project this album has also been released on DVD in 5.1 Stereo Surround Sound, complete with videos for each track by relatively unknown, arty filmmakers (the film for "Run! Christian, Run!" is based on a series of quotes and factual excerpts from Christian history inspired by "mind control sex cult" The Ministry of Truth; "Shoot Doris Day" is directed by Peter Gray, the band's resident hairdresser). Also included are a number of other conceptual goodies such as bonus tracks, remixes by Force Unknown and Kid 606, and interactive links. While making the most of the latest technology, the Super Furry Animals demonstrate that they definitely know how to put a major-label budget to good use.
After the demise of Creation Records, the band signed with Epic, a subsidiary of Sony, which meant significantly more money to record Rings. So while the album may initially smack of overproduction and studio trickery, you ultimately (and thankfully) become lost in beautiful, bold, self-aware and completely absorbing songs.
Rings' intended themes are earth-bound: wreckage and waste, both human and environmental. It's about our mental environment and its pollution ("Presidential Suite" refers to Monica and "naughty Billy") as much as the pollution of our land and our atmosphere. The track "It's Not the End of the World?" tells of a rural farmer who saw an atomic bomb in the distance and blissfully thought it was the most beautiful sight in the world. The Super Furries have indulgently embraced a collision of musical elements; what we hear is a jarring, yet surprisingly seamless, mix of sounds and exceptional songwriting.
Though a conceptual thread runs through the album, the band have too clear an idea of who they are and what they're doing with Rings to have it cast under the negative shadow of the term "concept album"; they refuse to adhere to any worn-out proggy notions. In fact, though they are completely devoted to their music, they never seem to take themselves or their music overly seriously.
SFA best embody the idea of Juxtaposition Rings Around the World as an album celebrates modern life while deriding and pitying it. Despite this, it won't leave you feeling depressed; the album is infused with some appallingly catchy and absolutely delightful pop sounds. The rhythms are danceable, the harmonies heroic and ambitious; the orchestrations melt in your brain, slowly, lingeringly, leaving you wanting more. SFA know that, and consequently a song like "Receptacle for the Respectable" will begin with some swingy pop, move to a shouty choral bit complete with horns and Hammond organs, and then abruptly break into a bewildering mess of death-metal roars. This track, however, ain't over until it fades out with sounds that can only be described as coming from a malfunctioning Star Trek craft. You may get the feeling that the Super Furries are going out of their way to be difficult, but it soon becomes abundantly clear that while not altogether conventional, their music is certainly accessible.
Lyrically, Rings Around the World is poetic, hilarious ("I'll just binge on crack and tiramisu...") and simple. The Super Furries have always maintained the ability to be poignant and clever, even using clichés like "people never stay the same" (in "Shoot Doris Day") to their advantage. The band never lets you forget that though they're playful, they also mean what they're saying. The single "Juxtapozed With U" may well be the new anthem of our time. Gruff Rhys' Vocordered alter ego sings "You've got to tolerate all those people that you hate," over a Latin-tinged orchestra of strings and various bleepy machines. The result is an unexpectedly pleasant and right good pop song that you might soon hear at a shopping center near you.
The Super Furry Animals are showing off, and they know it. They merit our attention, and they know this too. This album is lush and complicated. It's smarter than you think it is at first listen. It's got some killer sections where all you can do is sing along and wish your harmonies were as beautiful as theirs. It will also wrench your heart more than you might want to let yourself admit. This album is of our time, but ultimately timeless; the Super Furry Animals have put out their best work to date while reminding us that the universe is indeed worth saving.