Classic Album Review: Leftfield – Leftism (1995)

Written by: Paul Horsman

Dark and danceable. Why Leftism remains a club classic two decades on. 

Leftfield - LeftismTimeless albums have a rare thing in common; that initial fearlessness to bring something new to the turntable, without it then sounding dated.

It’s not a term typically used when describing albums rooted in club culture, perhaps because dance music is founded on what feels fresh at the time. There’s no denying that elements of acid house, jungle and big beat still sound fantastic… but they’re coated in nostalgia, taking us back to a place in which they first emerged. It’s unusual to discover a dance album that sounds just as relevant today as it did decades ago.

But it’s not impossible. In 1995, three acts released debuts that have now earned that status. Tricky’s Maxinquaye remains a hypnotically seductive listen, with enough sonic curve balls to prevent it from getting stale. Portishead’s Dummy has similar DNA, its cinematically intense atmospheres still difficult to define. Yet, as enduring as they both are, they’re not exactly albums you can dance to. Leftfield’s Leftism is the exception.

Often lumped with other releases from electronic contemporaries (Chemical Brothers, Underworld et all), Leftism has proven to be a more resilient beast. Futuristic, slightly alien and a bit of an artistic talking point; the clue was on its cover sleeve all along.

Neil Barnes and Paul Daley, the pair behind the group, came from punk origins. Yet the key to Leftism’s longevity is that it never really settled on one single genre. Dabbling in trance, tribal house, dub, ambience and breakbeat, the duo soaked up their influences and created something else entirely.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on opening track Release the Pressure. It begins stirringly, like an awakening in space, before beaming down the velvety reggae tones of Earl Sixteen. As each minute layers sound after sound, the quest for peace and unity leaves you with an impression there’s a cosmic fuse out there waiting to be ignited.

If Release the Pressure sets the scene, then Afro Left transports the action directly through the speakers. Featuring a berimbau instrument, ramblings in an unspecified language, and thumping beats taken straight from a murky underground club, it’s designed to be danced to under fierce strobe lighting.

Melt steals back some breathing space with five blissed-out minutes, followed effortlessly by the siren call of Song for Life. But there’s no danger of Leftism losing its edge. Even Original, its most sultry and marketable song, is peculiar enough to avoid any coffee table tastefulness.

As we reach the half way mark, the tempo swiftly shifts up a gear, particularly on Space Shanty and Storm 3000. But the standout, of course, is Open Up.

Dark and furious, this lead track is shaped around a formidable weapon… former Sex Pistols frontman (and butter campaigner) John Lydon. Burn Hollywood Burrrrrn he rages as if the entire future of humanity depended on it. A guest vocal it might be, but it’s the best thing he’s ever committed to on record.

We’re then grateful for the calmness of 21st Century Poem, concluding what’s essentially an expertly paced album.

Anyone with their brain cells still intact will agree that Leftfield was also electrifying live. Back in 1996, the group managed to crack Brixton Academy’s roof with a sound system to match their sonic ambition. Keep that in mind as they celebrate Leftism’s 22-year anniversary with a UK tour.

To coincide, the album has also been reissued with dynamic remixes of each track. Not that these new additions are necessary. Leftism got it right first time around.

More classic albums:
Beatles – Revolver
Joni Mitchell – Blue
Primal Scream – Screamadelica

Author: Paul Horsman

Paul likes writing. And music. It’s unclear whether he likes sharing his suggestions with others or simply likes unleashing an ugly critic within… but we allow him to write about music on The Void.

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