30/04/20 This week I have been mostly listening to

Future Sound of London – Archived 8 (2015). I have something of a blind spot when it comes to releases that aren’t ‘proper’ albums, i.e. previously unreleased material, special editions with alternative versions of tracks, b-sides, compilations, etc. But the Future Sound of London are responsible for some seminal groundbreaking releases (not to mention some of my personal all time favourite albums) and it seems they’ve been quietly putting out serious volumes of music for several years so I finally decided to check some of it out.

Ordinarily, a series of releases labelled ‘Archives’ would smack of an artist recycling old material that wasn’t good enough for albums and trying to make a few quid. As well as being notoriously reclusive, FSOL operate on no one’s agenda but their own, so I definitely don’t think there’s a risk of that. Like some other artists in their privileged position (e.g. Radiohead) they’ve realised they don’t need to go through the whole rigmarole of record labels, and marketing and hype bullshit – they can cut out the middleman and just transmit music directly to fans. 

It’s daunting trying to find a place to start in their latter discography. There are more than seven releases in the Environments series and around nine in ‘From the Archives’. So this release seemed as good a place as any to begin. And having listened to Archived 8 half a dozen times, I have to say, I’m enjoying it more and more.

The two all time classics, Lifeforms and Dead Cities, were each very different and each album presented a vision for a completely immersive musical landscape. This release can’t compete with that and I think it will always just feel like a collection of tracks. But very good tracks nonetheless. I’ve no idea when each of them was originally recorded or how much they’ve been tinkered with in the intervening years. Forlorn is classic Lifeforms-era FSOL, with the treated guitar line and the chirping and chattering of rainforest noises, Plazmatical is classic early 90s ambient techno, with its pulsing acid line and big bright melody. Opening track, Sorrow starts off sounding the least-FSOL, with its frantic drumbeat. But my favourite of the lot at the moment is Still Motion – with a tempo akin to ‘autonomic’ d’n’b and irresistible bassy melody.

A Reminiscent Drive – Mercy Street (1997). This is the kind of album that I feel could only have been recorded in the 90s. I’m written elsewhere about how much more genre-fied music is now. And not just that artists stick to a specific genre, because obviously that was true in the 90s, but that most of the electronic albums I’m aware of as being highly lauded from the last decade tend to have a very clearly (and narrowly) defined sound palette. Even something like Vapor City that delights in mixing up genres and tempos – that album sounds very coherent and all the tracks have the same ‘sound’. 

Someone made the point in something I read recently about how all fields of expertise (i.e. physics, neuroscience, computer science, evolution, etc) are now so refined that it is almost impossible to become a true expert in more than one field, and that there are no real polymaths anymore. It kind of feels the same in music, though maybe for different reasons.

There are tracks on Mercy Street that sound like they were recorded with all manner of live instruments (strings, woodwind, guitar, organs) as well as electronic tracks produced with synthesisers, samples and drum machines. Yet the whole album retains a wonderous, filmic flow. The French kitschness sometimes sounds like Air, but less electronic, a bit like Pepe Deluxe but less beat-based, and at times a bit like the Future Sound of London but less trippy and tribal. Urbane psychedelia, if you will.  

Opening track, Life is Beautiful takes a gentle refrain on a keyboard, slowly builds lush strings and woodwind, then very gentle percussion and what sounds like a live bass as the track gradually unfurls – just like the opening credits to a film. The perfect way to open an album really. This luxuriant vibe is sustained across the album, the diverse use of samples here and there give the feeling (like with Endtroducing) that you’re tuning a radio to different stations or just watching the world go by from a window on a busy street and seeing all the facets of life. In fact this whole album feels like watching a film, with different characters emerge and reappear as the story unfolds.

I think this style of music became hackneyed quite quickly after it exploded in popularity in the late 90s and it became hard to separate the wheat from the chaff (the visionary from the merely pretentious). I can’t really imagine many electronic artists today attempting to record an album with such a wide-ranging scope as this, or something as unashamedly luxuriant and grandiose – not just in terms of the sound palette but in its attempt to soundtrack all aspects of human life. 

Bark Psychosis – Hex (1994). I came across this album a year or so ago, I think on a discogs list celebrating groundbreaking indie albums of the late 80s and early 90s. It was one of those finds where, once I read more about Bark Psychosis, I had to wonder why I’d never heard of them before. Hex was supposedly the first album to be labelled with the term ‘post rock’, as coined by Simon Reynolds, it received huge critical acclaim but Bark Psychosis disbanded not all that long after. Interesting side note is that two of the members went on to become Boymerang, who recorded one of the best drum’n’bass albums from the late 90s golden age. So I went into this with the attitude of ‘this is music I ought to like’ – no surprise then that I kind of got bored after a few listens and wasn’t drawn back for over a year. 

But returning to it after a long break, and playing it as the accompanying soundtrack for a late night card game, enhanced all the elements I had actually enjoyed at first. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is music that takes itself very seriously. To be honest, I think that’s why I’ve always struggled with post rock in general (always felt like something I ‘ought’ to like). Lots of whispered vocals, and tense brooding atmospherics. But as well as the dissonance and brutal contrasts of loud and quiet, the music is also lush and in some places, bordering on groovy. The rolling bassline and jazzy atmospherics on Big Shot, maybe a the missing link between this album and Graham Sutton and Daniel Gish’s later work as Boymerang.

The Bevis Frond – New River Head (1991). New River Head, by the brilliantly named Bevis Frond, is another album I came across going down rabbit holes on discogs. This is some classic homegrown British psychedelia – it sounds like it would’ve been released in the late 60s, though in fact it dates from 1991. Heralding from the long line of solo, multi-instrument playing, production auteurs,  The Bevis Frond is essentially the work of Nick Saloman, who obviously cares little for fashions and trends – when the rest of the country was raving to acid house, tripping out to shoegaze or dancing to baggy beats, he was resolutely channeling classic pysch, prog and folk.

Maybe in part because it draws from such a classic and recognisable sound, this album pulls off the trick of sounding like an ‘instant classic’ – also no doubt aided by the fact that, as well as shredding like Hendrix, The Bevis Frond can crack out a highly adept pop song when he wants to. 

New River Head contains a mixture of the two: extended jams of frantic fretwork freakouts and a few lovely folky pop songs. He’d be a Diamond is particularly memorable and will be familiar to some, having been covered by Teenage Fanclub and Mary Lou Lord.

Part of this album’s charm resides in how much The Bevis Frond’s personality shines through. I feel like I’ve got a sense of just the kind of bloke he is from the lyrics – the kind of affable real-ale drinking, weed smoking geezer you might get chatting to at the back of a gig, and who’s maybe spent a little bit too much time with his record collection. There’s a kind of earnest naivety, apparent in the lyrics and in some of the musical flourishes. For example, the way the echoe fades out on the word ‘drown’ (on Drowned) ‘I just drown, drown ,drown‘ sounds like someone doing a textbook ‘hippie’ impersonation. But these touches just add to the charm. This album is no pastiche – the Bevis Frond really means it, as you can tell from the heartfelt lament for a lost scene on It Won’t Come Again.

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