Released in August 1998, just as the Britpop boom was reaching its zenith, UNKLE‘s debut album Psyence Fiction might have marked a departure from the largely hip-hop sound associated with other Mo’Wax cuts, but was one of the most captivating albums of the late 90s, drenched in dread and lingering paranoia – perhaps of the new Millennium to come?.

Produced by the then-UNKLE line-up of James Lavelle and DJ Shadow – prompting many to view it as the latter’s follow-up to Entroducing – the album featured contributions from some of the biggest artists of the time: Badly Drawn Boy appeared on Nursery Rhyme/Breather, Richard Ashcroft featured on Lonely Soul, Ian Brown guested on Be There (released as a ‘bonus track’ to the album) and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke lent his sombre tones to Rabbit In Your Headlights, the album’s penultimate track.

In fact, both Ashcroft and Yorke recorded their vocals for the album before their respective bands’ biggest albums to date – The Verve’s Urban Hymns and Radiohead’s OK Computer, both released in 1997.

While it was in part chaotic, as collaborative projects go, it was a game changer – without Psyence Fiction, perhaps we would never have had Gorillas, Handsome Boy Modeling School or other experimental projects.

Like many, I first came across Psyence Fiction through the video for Rabbit In Your Headlights, which was on constant rotation on late-night MTV at the time, generally shoe-horned between Chris Cunningham cuts for Portishead or Aphex Twin.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the video featured a parka-wearing wanderer in an underground traffic tunnel, mumbling various expletives before enacting poetic revenge on the unsuspecting motorists.

Psyence Fiction was also the first release proper for UNKLE – Lavelle had previously worked alongside Tim Goldsworthy and Kudo from Major Force on The Time Has Come EP, which was little more than a side project on its release in 1994.

The Mo’Wax story began in 1992, when Lavelle, then eighteen years old, founded the label with €1,000 borrowed from his boss at Honest Jon’s Records in London.

Six years later, the label gained recognition in the UK music industry for nurturing young talent, as it emerged from the jazz scene of the early ’90s to explore new musical territories by blending genres like jazz, instrumental hip-hop, electro, techno, and drum & bass, breaking away from conventional categorisations.

“I’ve always wanted to bring together the different types of music that I’ve grown up on, to intertwine them to the create something that people my age can get into,” Lavelle said in a press release to launch Psyence Fiction, adding that the release was the “Apocalypse Now of albums – cinematically, problematically and epically”, such was the labour of love involved in putting it together.

Lest we forger, at the time of the album’s launch, Lavelle had also made a name for himself as a prolific remixer, reworking tracks like Radiohead’s Planet Telex, The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, Edwyn Collins’ Downer, and Beck’s Where It’s At, as well as being actively involved actively involved in discovering new acts and shaping the visual presentation of Mo’Wax.

That visual presentation was on full display with the ‘Psyence Fiction Survival Kit’, issued in advance of the album, which featured two vinyls, a 12″ packed in a ‘Gatefold Expanding Diorama’ (which featured four tracks) and a 5″ Pocket Disc featuring Nursery Rhyme parts one and two. An assortment of stickers completed the package.

As the back of the 5″ record put it, ‘Don’t let the small size fool you… the sound is amazingly big!’

As The Vinyl Factory put it a few years back, to mark the 20th anniversary of Psyence Fiction, “Despite its flaws – relating largely to a scattershot approach and lack of overall cohesion – it feels today like the kind of crazy, alt-star-strewn mash fest that it is.

There’s a scrappy let’s-put-on-a-freakin’-show-and-see-what-happens mentality to it. A let’s-break-the-rules-and-not-give-a-fuck-all attitude.”

What other force could have brought forth such an album if not for Lavelle’s unwavering determination? The spirit of Psyence Fiction needs to be rekindled for a new generation, even after more than twenty-five years have passed.

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