The Story so Far...
By Tony Marcus, July 1995
The History of the Shamen is the story of several different types of evolution. It's a journey across the cultures of Acid House, the psychedelic underground and the Internet to find the words, sounds and songs of the future. And it follows the fairy steps of ancient shamen: tribal mystics who roamed the cutting edges of existence to talk to the spirits and discover the secrets of life.
In their first, mid 80s incarnation, The Shamen were a cheerfully weird and trip-fixated guitar band. Founder member Colin Angus took their name from his research into South American Shamanism. And their first songs, tracks like "Adam Strange" were about as good as drug rock could get, perfectly updating 60s acts like Love or Pink Floyd. By the late 80s they were using breakbeats, samplers, loops and white-boy rap vocals. This was the first evolution: embracing new technology and musical possibility. And like all good ideas it was copied as bands like Jesus Jones and eventually Utah Saints started to do the same.
The Second evolution was when they realised that Acid House and The Shamen was going to be a match made in heaven. By 1988 when huge illegal parties began to reshape England's Musical landscape, Will Sin had joined The Shamen. Will was an old friend of Colin's, they'd worked together as psychiatric nurses, and Will had a real flair for squeezing warm music out of cold technology.
Together Will and Colin rode the rough edges of the dance scene, moving to London and attending raves, illegal parties and underground clubs.
What Colin and Will saw at these parties changed them forever. "I really did feel at that moment that everyone was feeling exactly the same", explained Colin in an early interview, "that this was it, we could take control, we had the power. That's what the 'Move Any Mountain' lyric in 'Progen', is all about. Large numbers of people all with the same vibe. Crowds are pretty sexy at the best of times, but when they're all worked out on designer psychedelics and into this new age vibe it's pretty special, and you do believe you can see some kind of global consciousness-raising transformation." In 1989 Colin held a meeting in his Camden squat where Will Sin, Shamen Manager Charles Cosh, Lighting Designer Chris Craig, Sound Engineer Mr Mr Mann and DJs Stika and MixMaster Morris began to discuss a club/gig fusion that emerged on February 4th 1990 at London's T&C2 as the first Synergy.
Synergy, claimed a manifesto published in Deadline magazine in January 1990, "...is a cataclysmic culture clash on the cutting edge, a riot of colour and sound designed to blow your brains out... indie bands on the dancefloor in communion with the house tribe .... an entirely new type of club where anything can happen".
Everything happened at Synergy. It was the rave to end all raves, a non-stop party that rolled around the UK for nearly two years. It began as an interactive jam between The Shamen and acts like Orbital, Pentatonik, Ramjac and Dj's Stika and The Irresistible Force. By the time it was over The Shamen were the coolest band in Britain and had never sounded so good. New songs such as "Hyperreal" and "Possible Worlds" meshed psychedelic lyrics, dreamy pop hooks and spot-on underground dance grooves. The Shamen suddenly had all the strengths of pop, house and techno but none of the weaknesses. Their 1990 album "Entact" sounded like one of the most coherent and softly magical records ever made.
For five minuets Planet Pop looked like that it was going to belong to The Shamen. "Entact" sold over 100,000 copies and one of the singles, "Progen" was going to be re-released. Everyone knew that it would go straight into the top ten. The anthem of the rave generation was finally coming home. They re-recorded it and flew out to the Canary Islands to film a video. It was there, on May 22nd 1991 that Will went for a swim off the coast of Gomera and was pulled under by a strong current and drowned. For a while it looked as if the Shamen had ended. "Right in the wake of it, those first couple of days after I got the news. I thought, this is it. The Shamen are finished", recalls Colin, "but I realised The Shamen meant too much to me. They mean too much to the people who buy records and they meant too much to Will." When the single was re-released, as "Move Any Mountain - Progen 91" it hit the top 5 and stayed there for over a month. Colin set about rebuilding The Shamen, allowing underground DJ and rapper Mr C to take a more central role and started to work with former Soul Family Sensation vocalist Jhelisa Anderson.
This was the third evolution: the transformation from underground dance group to one of the most powerful and positive pop bands on the planet. In July 1992 they released their single, "LSI" and followed it with a stream of hits: "Boss Drum", Phorever People" and of course their long running number one "Ebeneezer Goode". With it's cheeky chorus of "Ezeer Goode, Ezeer Goode", the song soundtracked and smiled at the experiences of an entire generation.
Accordingly their "Boss Drum" LP entered the Album charts at number 3 and stayed in the Top 40 for a further 27 weeks. It was also a hit LP across the planet selling over a million copies in the UK, America, Australia and Europe. But if you listened carefully "Boss Drum" wasn't just another Pop record. Running through it's lyrics was a mesh of references that connected dance music and rave cultures with ancient Shamanic and tribal practices. Cult writer, biologist and thinker Terence McKenna, a Timothy Leary for the 90's, explained everything on the track "Re:Evolution" over a swirling ambient -trance groove. McKenna drew connection between plant psychedelics, human evolution, all-night dancing and eco-consciousness.
Now the fourth evolution: into Virtual Space, the Net and deeper, more mature musical expression. The Net with it's estimated 40 million users has already shown it's respect to The Shamen. There is an area on the Internet called "Hyperreal". It's an enormous archive of information about rave, electronic dance music and psychedelic chemistry. One of the coolest on-line spaces available, it's been named after a Shamen track and uses a sample of the graphic from the "Hyperreal" Single sleeve.
The Shamen have their own Net-space called 'Nemeton'. "We've always seen ourselves as an 'information' band'" explains Colin, "so it was a natural step to connect to the Internet." Nemeton offers Shamanic literary resources, a discussion group, virtual meeting places and the chance to preview samples, sounds and video clips of forthcoming Shamen material. Future plans include setting up ISDN links between Nemeton and Shamen gigs to broadcast sounds and visuals onto live on-line gigs. There's also a piece of software on Nemeton devised by Colin that's designed to turn DNA sequences into midi code. It basically transforms the protein structures that determine human life into electronic music. There's a track, "S2 Translation" featured on their new LP that's been generated by this software. "The program is really for molecular biologists", Colin explains, "allowing them to download any DNA sequence from Genbank and 'listen' to the resulting protein".
The new LP is called "Axis Mutatis". It's title refers to the tree of life, an ancient symbol that links the underworld to the earth to the heavens. "The Axis Mutatis" explains Colin, "is the archaic symbol of cosmological unity and this motif can be found in nearly all Shamanic cultures. Shamanism forms an unbroken tradition of magic-religious thought, ritual and art starting in the upper Palaeolithic (being only the second oldest profession on the planet) and proliferating through nearly all cultures in time via the archaic, antiquity and right up to the present".
Mr C describes the new songs as "adult orientated pop", recognising that "Axis Mutatis" songs are deeper and more complex than "Boss Drum". The lyrics on the LP covers issues like the Criminal (in)Justice act, earth's deepening eco-crisis and various aspects of Shamanic culture. Sounds slide from jaunty pop to atmospheric dubs and spare, Black Dog style syncopation. The effect is to create a multi-dimensional electronic music that ripples like silk: widescreen pop with the atmosphere of an epic film. The Album also comes with a limited 75 minute instrumental mix CD, a journey from meditative ambience to the deeper, voodoo techno of Mr C's underground Plink Plonk dance label.
So The Shamen are back. They've just played a well received headline gig at Glastonbury and have a new vocalist, former Soul 2 Soul star Victoria Wilson James.
When you look over their career it becomes clear that the Shamen always get there first. Whether it's Acid House, Rave Pop, Terence McKenna, Eco-awareness or the Internet. The Shamen always predict and prefigure what's about to happen in both cutting-edge, pop and youth cultures. Because as anyone who's studied shamanism knows that from the dreams of Shamen all our realities begin. "The Shaman is the archetypal hero", concludes Colin, "the outsider at the centre of the world, and at the centre of the world, at the intersection of all possible worlds, is the Axis Mutatis".