Relentless as a bionic metronome even 10 years later (especially 10 years later), the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole burns red raw with the fever of neutron dance. To say it is the all-encompassing mother of all album-based electronic pop would be jejune (and idiotic, considering how many great albums came before it, but try telling that to a music press circa 1997 and in the throes of a genuine tizzy). That sort of reverence tends to ennoble the act of list-making at the expense of getting on your imaginary pogo stick and going for a ride. (And we say that with guilt weighing our heels.) “Album” barely has anything to do with the argument, since the disc simmers with the sequencing of a heaven-sent DJ set, and, self-fulfilling single “Setting Sun” aside, tracks have a way of gaining new elements, shedding musical riffs, and otherwise totally transforming like chameleons before the next silicon index mark: the relay race skid-out of “Electrobank” slides into a majestic wash of fuzz guitars and sequenced pollen before ramping into the simulacrum-Stax horn hits of “Piku,” while “Don’t Stop the Rock” begins with assaultive disco octaves before melting into disorienting cymbal rides and asymmetrical 808 claps that ultimately explode into the craggy funk breaks of “Get Up on It Like This.”
So fluid was the sequencing of Dig Your Own Hole that, funny story, I didn’t much care for the album when I first heard it freshman year in college. My roommate had about three CDs to his name, all techno, and rotated them in his PC tower with an obsessive regularity befitting the music. Dig Your Own Hole. The Fat Of The Land. Soundtrack to Wipeout XL. Dig Your Own Hole. The Fat of the Land. Soundtrack to Wipeout XL. Part of my hang-up was that I was admittedly still living inside Innervisions at the time (holding on to it as the last remaining obsession carrying over from high school, aside from eyeing the pecs of passing boys from askance) and couldn’t possibly accept anything less than Stevie Wonder’s compositions as worth listening to.
But also part of the problem was what I perceived as a missing element in all three albums. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I now know what I was missing wasn’t my own fault. My roommate had used his computer CD player program to edit the tracks with the most relentlessly four-on-the-floor bounce out of each album. It was months before I realized, while listening to Wipeout XL on my own stereo system and dozing off while the tornadic undulations of Underworld’s “Tin There” (heretofore un-programmed by roomie’s computer and unheard by my ears), that I loved electronic dance music even outside the pop idiom (i.e. Soul II Soul, Janet Jackson, Depeche Mode) I’d already spent a decade devouring.
Among the songs that my roommate had kept from my ears initially (a song which I didn’t even listen to until long after Surrender changed my initially indifferent attitude toward the Chems) was one of the key tracks of Dig Your Own Hole: “It Doesn’t Matter.” Maybe something about the impenitent boom/chick/boom/chick house-ness of the opening stretch was, next to the block rockin’ drum set beats of the surrounding tracks, indigestible to his hetero goof-hop constitution. But its throbbing gristle would’ve done a lot to help me come out of the musical closet back in 1997. Not just content to unload like a rainbow-streaked whirling dervish, “It Doesn’t Matter” chops vocals into percussion, shrieks with the hysteria (read: emotion) missing in the galvanizing but po-faced “Block Rockin’ Beats,” swaps out uptight snare riffs for a booty-loosening bass drone, and even brings itself back down to Earth momentarily with the decrescendo middle section breakdown you’d be far more apt to hear in, well, house music. Wait a minute. Decrescendo? Dynamics? By God, The Chemical Brothers were making music after all!
While the album truly doesn’t let up until “Where Do I Begin?” (and even that song concludes with the revving motorcycle borrowed from the introduction to The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber”), it’s the one-two punch of “Setting Sun” (a knowing Beatles homage that renders Dig Your Own Hole an entire album’s worth of “Tomorrow Never Knows”) and “It Doesn’t Matter” that give the landmark rave LP its innovative sense of momentum and rhythm—an element that almost no other electronic act, in all their attempts to retrofit their albums with preset dips and valleys, have managed to really master. Those two back-to-back songs, probably the album’s most claustrophobic productions, ironically give Dig Your Own Hole album its breath, its sense that there are humans after all behind the electronic curtain.