Retrospective Review: Propellerheads - Decksandrumsandrockandroll

When we talk of underrated artists, we often find ourselves gravitating towards those that, really, are already quite famous. But with the Propellerheads, you could make a genuine case for them being the most underrated artist of the last thirty years. Of course, they only released two sets of recordings, one EP and one album.

But Decksandrumsandrockandroll is some album, mixing groovy beats with jazzy and funky instrumentation in an utterly unique style that no-one has replicated since, which is a rare thing. How often do you hear a successful song, only to seemingly hear variations of it for the next two years as lazy writers and producers look to ride the bandwagon? Not in this case. Though they're often classed as pioneers of the 'Big Beat' genre, the truth is that the Propellerheads' sound is extremely distinctive and exclusive. Finding an album of this quality is as difficult as finding a civilised and respectful online debate.

One particular highlight is the album's opener, 'Take California', which is driven by a three-note bass line almost all the way through as the rest of the instrumentation builds and cascades around it. It is an excellent example of how apt the album title is; though much of the album stems from decks and drums, it exudes the same kind of raw energy that rock and roll does. This theme is best exemplified, though, on the album's main single, 'History Repeating', led by the incredible vocals of one Dame Shirley Bassey. This song brings a James Bond-esque feel to the album, which is later backed up with their rendition of the theme to 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', which also a collaboration, this time with popular composer David Arnold. Though this seems like an unlikely pairing, the orchestral elements mix superbly with the grooves of the Propellerheads, bringing James Bond into the modern day (well, the 1990s) in exquisite fashion. Their frequent uses of vocal samples throughout the album are cleverly integrated as well, perhaps best heard on 'Velvet Pants'.


They go full Mission Impossible on the album's closer, 'Spybreak'. Actually, scratch that - full The Matrix, as this track was used in that film. If 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' was a tribute to the classic Bond and spy movies of yesteryear, 'Spybreak' showcases what they had become by 1997 - fast-paced, exciting and action-packed. This is 90's Tom Cruise in music form.

Of course, the whole album isn't quite paced at this breakneck, headbanging speed, with tracks such as 'Better', 'Oh Yeah' and 'Winning Style' slowing it down and making you grind away in your seat. But it's never long before the pace returns; the latter song is immediately followed by 'Bang On!', which is almost heavy metal in its speed, noise and, surprisingly, guitar work. But perhaps the most outright impressive thing about this album is the production. There's no mud, nothing accidentally buried, no sounds that cancel each other out. It's loud and powerful, but also crystal clear. Every instrument, every frequency sits perfectly on practically every track, and that's not to mention all the clever breaks, all the panning, all the tricks that that make listening to this album a pure ecstacy for the ears, particularly when you're wearing headphones. It's a sparkling production job, and so huge credit must go to those who engineered it and mastered it.

Following Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, the Propellerheads disappeared. Where are they now? Who knows. What we do know is that in their brief period of existence, they came and they conquered. That this proved to be the Propellerheads' only album is a tragedy. It showcases a duo who are absolute masters of their craft, to an extent that is rarely, if ever, heard on debut albums. Perhaps they feared that they couldn't top it?

It is frankly outrageous that this album only hit #6 in the UK and #100 in the USA. Albums of this quality are few and far between, and should be revered when they do come along. There is not a single piece of filler on this album; it's all gold. Is this the best album of the 1990s? It's certainly up there. A mesmerising piece of work.