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Frank Fontaine

Cardiff Bute Park

A huge, red, inflatable, demonic, cartoon koala bear towers 40ft above this leafy, secluded patch of city centre greenery. Now there's something you don't see every day.

As marketing gimmicks go, it's not quite a match for the techno-tastic tank which the Super Furry Animals lugged from festival to festival last year, though perhaps a little more subtle and sensible. SFA might have grown up, but they're still thinking big.

Hence this Sunday afternoon mini-festival inside a huge fenced-off marquee in Cardiff town centre. Except the fence is only yards from the tent, so several hundred ticketless fans and curious passers-by have gathered to soak up the communal vibes. It's a free festival from now on, people.

Support-wise, eclecticism is the watchword. First there's the walloping no-fi Sonic Yoofisms of URUSEI YATSURA: in a dank Glasgow basement, yeah; on a sun-kissed riverside idyll, however, no thanks. Then London's multi-limbed rap'n'roll collective LO-FIDELITY ALLSTARS crank up a mob-handed racket of hit'n'miss splenetic splendour.

Messy but energetic.

Of course, THE FALL have always been an honorary Welsh band. Their curmudgeonly yowls, sawn-off riffs and garbled torrents of invective seem to have directed generations of misguided locals down the stony path towards resounding commercial failure. Hooray! Since then, of course, a new era of Welsh crossover pop has dawned, but grandad Mark E Smith is still making no concessions to melody, accessibility or showmanship. He turns up, he shouts about porridge and plumbing and the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire for an hour, he pisses off. On one level, magnificent. On every other level, truly horrible. As ever.

So to the main event. Watching Super Furry Animals is like a queasy, rocket-powered trip into the Teletubbies' universe - they even have appropriate names like Gruff, Oink and Tinky Winky. This is drug-fuelled punk rock surrealism par excellence.

Sometimes they're the burly big brother of Gorky's: all flinty falsettos, shivering electric piano and sudden minor chords. They've got mushroom-powered Welshadelic weirdness in abundance on the towering anthem to alchemy that is 'Focus Pocus', and introspective rural whimsy bleeding from every autumnal strum of new second album stand-out tune, 'Demons'.

At other times they're a Welsh Blur at their most obtuse, ramming pissed-up singalong music hall attitude into art school smartypants and then trying to referee the ensuing cultural punch-up. It's here in the herky-jerky Sparks-meet-Slade spasms of 'Something For The Weekend', and in the deceptively low-key lovelorn waltz of 'Gathering Moss' as it suddenly boils over into a psychotic fairground-pop meltdown finale.


Occasionally they are even a lumbering space rock behemoth of quite unimaginable proportions, piling on the wiggly tempo changes and whoosing Moog effects for 'If You Don't Want Me To Destroy you' and the bubbling prog-punk switchback of 'Calimero'. In such moments SFA are a slightly too ungainly and clever-clever for words - whichever language they choose to sing in this week.

Put simply, there are at least five great bands - and two or three rubbish ones - fighting for dominance inside the bubbling swamp of pungent majesty called Super Furry Animals. Fortunately, though, the combo which generally breezes through while all the rest are pounding shit out of each other is the turbo-chugging, anthem-rocking outfit behind current single 'The International Language Of Screaming' and another new album highlight, 'Torra Fy Ngwalt Yn Hir'.

Here the Furries simply lock chiming guitars and high-pitched harmonies with all the clear-eyed, soaring grace of labelmates Teenage Fanclub. And in heart-tugging gems like 'Hometown Unicorn', they update tired pop cliches for an age of motorway service stations and itemised phone bills in a beautifully unaffected manner: the green, green grass of home may be buried under concrete leisure centres these days, but it's still home.

Beneath all the murky camouflage and wacky theatrics, this is SFA's inner strength. There is heart and - oh yes - soul at work behind their shape-shifting confusion, a sense of quirkily personal meanings being communicated without compromise to bland universalism. As with Mansun, they combine blazing energy and a seemingly bottomless well of grand tunes with a commendable refusal to shrink-wrap themselves to obvious rock'n'roll conformity.

Don't be taken in by huge, inflatable koala bears. These animals may be furry, but they're still spiky around the edges.

Stephen Dalton, New Musical Express 2nd August 1997

Isaac Newton



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