When Sneaker Pimps dismissed their intoxicating singer Kelli Ali after just one album — the brilliant trip-hop masterpiece that is Becoming X — I was devastated. There were two bands I was obsessed with at the time, Garbage and Sneaker Pimps. And the idea of Sneaker Pimps sans Kelli was as absurd as the idea of Garbage without Shirley Manson. Equally horrifying was the fact that Chris Corner would be handling Sneaker Pimps’ vocals from now on. I was aware that he was one of the group’s founding members, of course, but he was a DUDE. Imagine if Shirley was booted from Garbage and Butch Vig decided to become their singer. It was insane. But when I found Sneaker Pimps’ second album, Splinter, in the import section at Newbury Comics on Newbury Street in Boston one day in 1999 I couldn’t help but buy it. I was expecting a trainwreck, but curiosity had often lead me to buy albums I didn’t think I’d like and many of them had become favorites. Much to my surprise, Splinter was fantastic. Actually, it was beyond fantastic. It was entirely brilliant. Corner’s spectral voice was ripe with dark emotions and as haunting as Marilyn Manson’s. It only took me two listens to fall head over heels in love with it.
Sneaker Pimps would go on to release one more album, Bloodsport, in 2002, but it didn’t move me in the way that Splinter did. It was more of a rock album than Sneaker Pimps’ previous releases and I found myself wishing it was more in the trip-hop or electronic vein. That said, I still liked it more than most albums released that year. It just didn’t rise to the status of becoming one of my all-time favorites. Two years later, Chris Corner announced that he would be moving forward as a solo artist under the name IAMX, pronounced “I am X,” which was a reference to Sneaker Pimps’ album Becoming X. Corner stated that he no longer felt like he was in the process of becoming X, but, rather, that now he simply was X.
The Unified Field is Corner’s fifth studio album as IAMX and it’s a bit of a departure from the previous IAMX albums. Where the first four were a blend of trip-hop, darkwave and electro-pop, The Unified Field has something of a rock vibe. It’s also a much more organic album featuring at least a dozen live instruments including classical instruments such as harpsichord, glockenspiel, celesta and vibraphone. The Unified Field also differs from the previous IAMX albums because this time around Corner opted to collaborate with other people, rather than making the album entirely alone, something he’s stated that he never again wants to do. To that end, he co-produced the album with Jim Abbiss, who co-produced Sneaker Pimps’ Becoming X and went on to work with artists such as Adele and Arctic Monkeys. He also recruited his former Sneaker Pimps bandmate Liam Howe to handle synth programming.
The title The Unified Field refers to the scientific theory that a universal consciousness links everything in the universe. In terms of music, Wikipedia states that it can refer to the “unity of musical space” created by “the free use of melodic material as harmonic material and vice-versa.” This might lead one to suspect that The Unified Field is a bizarre sci-fi concept album but I am reasonably certain that it is not. That said, it does take one on quite the magnificent journey, something that becomes obvious while listening to the gloomy and entrancing opening track “I Come With Knives.” It begins with what could be the sound of an alarm clock going off then a woman whimsically sings a chorus in German. (Corner is German and lives outside Berlin.) “The paradox of our minds, much to believe, too much to deny,” are the first words Corner sings, his voice solemn and his lyrics poetic. The song cleverly mixes gothic-sounding glockenspiel with raw, stabbing guitars, chugging drums, ominous synth and an assortment of other sounds that come together to create a deliberately disturbing picture, not unlike the album cover. “I never promised you an open heart or a charity, I never wanted to abuse your imagination,” goes the chorus, which Corner practically screams. “I come with knives!”
Most of the songs on the album carry the same gravity. “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t feel,” goes the dreary chorus of “The Unified Field,” Corner’s ethereal vocals nearly drowned out by the jittery, furious beat and deep bass guitar. The most disturbing track is easily “Screams,” a vivid tale of child abuse and drug addiction with layers of dark, cold, hypnotic beats that simultaneously verge on industrial and dubstep. “When the sex dripped on her lips mixed with teardrops, daddy’s little girl became erased,” Corner sings almost matter-of-factly, but when he reaches the chorus he bursts into chilling, emotive falsetto: “I hear screams!”
“My northern heart weighs like a stone,” Corner sings at the beginning of the not quite down-tempo “Sorrow” where blaring horns and howling sounds conspire to paint a bleak picture. “Sorrow, you are my life, everything my heart desires, show me your beautiful anger,” goes the goth-worthy chorus of the song that seems to sum up the album perfectly, making one wonder why it wasn’t the title track.
I would argue that there’s beauty in the melancholy of all of the songs on the album, but if one track stands out as being the most beautiful it would be the ballad “Quiet The Mind.” “Hold back the melancholy, hold back the fear, darling,” Corner sings, his voice soothing like morphine, slow like honey. And while “Under Atomic Skies” has a thunderous and menacing snare drum that comes at you like a punch, there’s no denying that its mix of bittersweet vocals, acoustic guitars and colorful vibraphone is glorious. These songs are the sweet dreams among some of the most vivid and mesmerizing nightmares one could ever hope to witness. Listening to this album is truly a trip. It’s like experiencing a week’s worth of hallucinations during a single hour. It’s not for the faint at heart, but if you’re one who can embrace darkness and the strange then you should find it very rewarding.
Check out the creepy Michel Briegel-directed video for “I Come With Knives,” which we suppose is NSFW. Also, it does include actual knives, so it might be triggering for some…