The Smashing Pumpkins
Pisces Iscariot: Twenty Years On
by James Paton
Released in October of 1994, and sandwiched between the two multi-platinum success stories of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Pisces Iscariot is an incredibly important album from the Smashing Pumpkins, highlighting both the gulf in quality that the band had placed between themselves and their contemporaries, and the immense productivity of Billy Corgan as a songwriter of the highest calibre. Though the material dates from 1989-1994 in terms of its creation, there is a remarkable level of consistency to the whole thing that marks the album as one of absolute significance, not purely in the sense of a retrospective-looking back to see where the band where at that point in time-but rather, among the outstanding work that the band accomplished with their five studio albums (not counting Machina 2), Pisces manages to not simply stand tall, but some fans could easily be forgiven for describing it as their best effort to date.
Pisces was fronted by highly artistic covers that belied the content contained therein (the vinyl, CD and cassette versions all had differing artwork), they were all so out of focus and indistinct, now some may argue that Pisces doesn't flow as a Pumpkins album should, but I would strongly disagree. It is another shining example of the Pumpkins' philosophy, with contrasting sonic peaks of loud, thrashing rockers and troughs of quiet, dreamy acoustic numbers that sit so comfortably together, cut perfectly-in this example- to provide just over fifty-seven minutes worth of near forgotten musical genius. Initial LP copies were even numbered and packaged with an additional 7" that gave fans copies of the "I am One" B-side, "Not Worth Asking" and "Honeyspider II", as if only to hammer home the message to their followers that there was still so much more material that they had yet to discover. And what a wealth of music there still is! The current wave of album re-issues are just starting to scratch the surface of the considerable back catalogue that Pisces, and its successor, Judas O, only managed to dip their toes into.
If the tales of the Mellon Collie recording sessions are to be believed, the band had completed the recording of a gargantuan fifty-seven songs, now one can only begin to imagine just how many Billy Corgan alone managed to write across the sessions for all five original Smashing Pumpkins records, though I would hazard a guess that the total is rather frightening, which assuredly means that there is still so much more that could be released. Yet they can wait for their turn to shine, for this year, Pisces Iscariot turns twenty years old, and having listened to it again now, it is safe to say that this record has lost none of its original power.
The gentle, finger picked opener "Soothe" is a more than tender introduction to the album, being as it is, a song so intimately recorded that the hiss of passing traffic can be heard as they drift by it was recorded as a demo in Billy's apartment after all. Yet it isn't long before the album bursts into life with more rocking numbers "Frail and Bedazzled" (which was heard for the very first time on this album) and "Plume" which James Iha co-wrote with Corgan, his lyrics "my boredom has outshined the sun" probably summing up how an entire generation of misspent youth felt at that exact moment. Originally released as a B-side to I am One, the song signalled a change in tone and style for the band as they moved out of the more 70's inspired rock that dominated their first album, Gish, towards the heavily fuzz drenched and saturated sounds of the epic Siamese Dream.
"Whir," a Siamese Dream outtake (which was also heard for the first time here), really raised the bar for me for the rest of the album to try and emulate, it's a gorgeous acoustic number with a spacey electric lead that drifts effortlessly over the top. It possibly features some of Corgan's best lyrics, softly brushed drums, and an outro that, by Billy's own admission, was ripped off from the band Skunk. Regardless though, it works perfectly, indelibly leaving this as one of my all-time favourite Pumpkins songs. Perfectly complementing this, James Iha's softly whispered vocals and phase drenched guitar propel the song "Blew Away" into the stratosphere, a popular choice among the hard-core faithful, this is one of very few songs that Billy Corgan didn't actually interfere with, and I'm bet he's glad. Iha had a habit of creating such beautiful songs for the band, but they were so few and far between, with "Take Me Down" and the fantastic "Go" from Machina 2 being such prime examples.
The amps get turned up to eleven for the next two tracks on the album, songs that rank among the band's heaviest material, with "Pissant" rocking out in little over two minutes, and while somewhat unspectacular, it certainly gets the job done of setting the scene for the magnificent "Hello Kitty Kat." A passive aggressive master class, Billy's lyrics almost come across as warm and fuzzy compared to the thunderous cacophony of guitars going on behind them, and gasping for air amongst all of the fuzz. This was intended for release on the Siamese Dream album but instead emerged as a B-side on the "Today" single. It's certainly not impossible to imagine it on there though, kicking off with a crashing drum roll from Jimmy Chamberlin and featuring some sterling guitar work, including two excellent solos "Hello Kitty Kat" is a raucous exercise in rock ‘n' roll, but shouldn't they all be?
In true Pumpkins style, the album switches tone rather sharply and drops into the gorgeous, shimmering little psychedelic number that is "Obscured" itself another song that made its way onto the "Today" single for its first release, despite it dating back to 1991, where it was initially recorded during the Gish sessions and intended for release on 1992's Lull EP. Truly, "Obscured" is a testament to Corgan's song writing guile, the lead guitar work is understated yet mesmerising, and the whole composition builds up to an unexpected burst of feedback that brings the song to a close. Genius.
I once had a friend who told me that she hated the Smashing Pumpkins and that "Landslide" was the best song that they had ever recorded. Needless to say, when I pointed out that it was a cover, her claims only seemed-to her-to have become even more justified. I couldn't understand how someone could dismiss the band so easily, but I can easily see why she thought their version of "Landslide" was just so damn good. It's because it is. A strong vocal performance from Corgan (it's not often that I'll say that), beautiful lines of finger-picked guitar, subtle screeches of string noise and a wonderful, overdubbed solo make this, for me anyway, the ultimate version of the song. So, my apologies go out to Stevie Nicks, though I'm sure that she'd probably agree with me anyway. While we had already seen a softer side to the band represented on the previous two albums, it didn't seem to have had the attention that it deserved prior to Pisces which proved that Corgan was as well versed in writing and performing syrupy sweet, delicate compositions as much as his ‘70's inspired, boisterous and angst ridden excursions into self-loathing.
"Starla" is one of those songs so oft referred to as "Corgan Epics." Frighteningly, it was originally released as a B-side to "I am One," despite its ten minute running time and gorgeous backwards guitar overdubs that remind me so much of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, yet I don't know why. Almost an exercise in prog rock, the song takes its listeners on a journey through the realms of glistening psychedelia and hard edged rock, with a screeching guitar solo from Corgan that probably ranks as one of his best, and certainly one of his longest. Taking the listener out of the warm acoustic and bongo-backed middle section that featured lyrics that Corgan apparently wrote down on the back of an envelope, towards the song's eventual climax, where it is replaced with another burst of overdubbed backwards guitars. Jimmy Chamberlin's drums kick in once more to steer the song into oblivion, and take listeners towards the album's final stretch. It's easy to understand why this B-side made its way, over the following two decades, to become a firm fan favourite and a phenomenal treat to savour in the band's live sets.
"Blue" opens with the gentle tolling of wind chimes before D'arcy's bass kicks in and the song begins proper, driven along by Jimmy's ever brilliant drumming towards the halfway point where the songs changes moods quite dramatically, slowing to a crawl for the sombre outro as Corgan pines "stay with me for a while." Structurally simplistic, one can see why this song never made it onto a "real" album, yet there's still something about it that you just can't quite put your finger on. This is followed up with "Girl Named Sandoz," which was first released on the Peel Sessions EP, and is a loud, dirty, and quite loose sounding cover of The Animals' classic. A relaxed performance of great riffing, tons of feedback and a superb solo combine to make this a Pumpkins classic, sort of.
"La Dolly Vita" was a B-side to the Gish single "Tristessa", a smooth, beautiful classic and a fitting way to-almost-round off this brilliant album, being both "as cool as ice cream" and "as true as blue sky." It's no wonder that Corgan rather fondly remembers this one. While the band came under some criticism for their apparent indistinct songwriting and penchant for flashy instrumentation in the early days, a claim that I would not support anyway, here is yet more proof (if there even needed to be some) of Corgan's belief in the music, of putting the song first. "La Dolly Vita" is very much an understated excursion into the twilight domain of the Smashing Pumpkins, and it is a brilliant one too.
Brought to a close with the Siamese Dream reject, "Spaced," a short psychedelic number that is marked by Corgan's heavily treated chattering, it seems to like more of an experiment in audio manipulation than a piece of song writing, yet it succinctly brings the album to a satisfying conclusion. Thus paving the way for the twenty-eight song behemoth, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to follow it out of the gates just over a year later, this of course, which would in many ways become the band's greatest artistic, as well as commercial success. Yet Corgan didn't release a re-mastered version of Pisces for no reason, it as an important album within the Pumpkins' oeuvre, and is recognised not simply as a collection of songs rejected from the mainstay studio albums, but as one in its own right, and even after twenty years, it has lost none of its magic. Now how many studio albums released in the nineties will we ever be able to say that about?
Also see our review of Smashing Pumpkins' declining years
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