The Future Sound of London - Lifeforms - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Future Sound of London - Lifeforms

by Joseph Majsterski Rating:10 Release Date:1994-05-16
The Future Sound of London - Lifeforms
The Future Sound of London - Lifeforms

Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans, working together as The Future Sound of London, or FSOL for short, are rightfully viewed as among the grandmasters of the British electronic scene in the 1990s. And nowhere was their brilliance more obvious than in their second album, 1994's Lifeforms. A double album spanning over an hour and a half of music, Lifeforms saw the band moving confidently into the psychedelic ambience they'd dabbled with under the name Amorphous Androgynous. But while that was a hazy, floating piece of work, Lifeforms is a fully realized, thematically coherent masterpiece. The album is far better when experienced in its entirety rather than as individual songs.

One of the fascinating aspects of this album is how incredibly organic everything sounds for something composed almost entirely of electronics and samples: damp caves, underwater exploration, vast jungles, and all the rest of what the planet has to offer interweave themselves throughout the set. It is only in that way that the clever musical motif can sneakily reveal itself again and again. The music here is like throwing one of everything up into the air and taking a slow-motion video. It's messy, but the chaos keeps forms itself into mesmerizing configurations while falling back to Earth.

'Cascade' sets the table with a rumbling beat, twinkling chimes, crickets, and an eastern flair before unfolding like a flower. There's a sense spiraling slowly into untold depths (or perhaps heights, or both simultaneously) as sampled bits of music ebb and flow. The song is marred by a couple minor issues. One is beat sample that just doesn't mesh, with a scratchy, lo-fi audio quality that doesn't match anything else in the set really. The other is more complex sample that was used by Jonah Sharp, aka Spacetime Continuum, on his live album Alien Dreamtime about a year before this album. I remember thinking it was a bit of a ripoff when I first heard it, but luckily I forgot all about it as I progressed through the subsequent epic journey. The song seamlessly melds into the next, 'Ill Flower', with a low vocal sample that proclaims, "You will awaken now..." as creaky hunks of metal bang around in the background. And it is here that the little melodic motif makes its first appearance, echoing through the void a few times before disappearing again. Then a very serious, almost new agey pad builds up, before being blown away by a bombastic synth beat.

This is where the album really gets rolling. 'Flak', much like the lead track, has a deep, intimate percussive lead that sounds like a heartbeat, soon you're listening to a rickety four-legged robot as it stumbles along through glittering sprinkles of silver and gold falling from the sky. An oddly reverbing, semi-backwards melody wheedles its way in and out of the foreground, sometimes taking the lead, sometimes letting the beats rule. But it eventually provides the outro as it dissolves into mist, and you're left falling off a cliff with the air rushing past in 'Bird Wings'. In this track, the early mix is between the eponymous wings flapping like pages of a book and a supremely intricate circuit board, all wirey synths weaving in and out of each other. It's a bit intense, frightening almost, and so it's something of a relief to arrive at 'Dead Skin Cells', with its gentle piano and layered chirping crickets. It's moments like that transition, from nervewracking to soothing, that make this album so brilliant. And the song acts as meditative break, with slow, languid beats and cute, burbling synths mixed into a dubby middle section before a slow-plucked guitar takes over for the finish.

And here again the motif appears, in its most realized form, in the almost-title track 'Life Forms'. But it's just a small part of the overall song, which, thanks to its frenetic techno percussion, sounds like it would have fit better on the band's first album, Accelerator. And while there's nothing wrong with it, it's nowhere near the madcap thrills found elsewhere. Luckily, the set gets right back into the swing of things with another bizarre, but short-lived transition into 'Eggshell'. Light, airy synths strive upwards towards the unreachable, before being grounded by a delicate, plucking beat and then spaced right back out again by a pair of synth melodies, one probing and precise, the other sweeping and majestic. The beat drops for a windchime and tick-tocking clock fill, then a rock-solid bassline joins the fun. As in many of the tracks, odd vocal samples, mostly moaning and wordless, help paint the landscape, making it feel like a vast, empty chamber underground. And just as its seems like the song is petering out on the tics and tocs, it rises up one final time into its most beautiful form: a giant, powerful synthline tears through the center of the tune, girded by angelic pads and a gorgeous, insistent piano line. But that eventually fades, leaving the clock ticking once again, and the set descends even farther into the depths. With 'Among Myselves', the trickling, echoing water places you firmly in an underground cavern, and the creepy vocal sample about being afraid and drowning adds a nice edge to the music. A shattering blast of synth lasers pepper another transition, and the song warbles around drunkenly, trying to shake off various layers of sludge it's picked up. But finally a very pensive melody wanders in and takes charge, before being joined by a delightful, clickety clackety beat. A desperate wail bursts through in places, and the first disc of the album concludes in a whispery, desolate echo.

But the second disc feels like a perfect continuation, like a machine revving back up in 'Domain'. Dessicated winds and a blunted, bassed out take on Pachabel's Canon lead the way before more piles of confused vocal samples and echoing, spacey ocean waves wash over the ears. There's a brief sojourn through a countryside filled with wind chimes and chirping birds, then the song slides uneasily into 'Spineless Jelly', which is definitely the most challenging song in the entire set. A loud, pulsing, repetitive synth presses up close and invasive, pushing right into your skull before blessedly giving way to a slightly more friendly melody. But a vocal intones "seven six" while samples get sucked through a hole that's too small, zipping back and forth. All of this madness is pushed aside by an easy-to-understand and fun beat, but the scary noise comes back. It hasn't released its hold quite yet. An even more intricate beat and mega-stoic organ run the show before moving on into 'The Interstat', another interstitial song that just announces itself, spins and glistens for a minute, and is gone.

Then we come to the profoundly disturbing 'Vertical Pig' . After an intro featuring something like a train whistle pan pipe mashup, the song rolls into its center, where the death rattle percussion, moaning voices, and mysterious, plummeting melody combine to create, not imminent terror, but deep existential dread. When you listen to this song, you know you'll be dead and gone one day. But it's so damn cool sounding, you get over that feeling and just move with the rhythm while you can. Another big, booming rocket engine earthquake provides the transition to 'Cerebral', a slow, anticipatory song that opens with a sparsely plucked guitar and then brings in more half-chanted, hypnotic vocals before smoothly, imperceptibly moving into 'Life Form Ends', a reprise/reinvention of the main theme. The more careful, deliberate approach to this version makes it far superior. The beats are thoughtful and intermittent rather than endlessly pounding, and lots of other effects mix in, providing plenty of textures during the ride. But halfway through, the song puffs into nothingness, leaving a long transition along a river through dark passages. Creepy synth breezes streak overhead, and a dangerous synth pulses below as more ghostly quasi-voices echo inside your skull.

'VIT' continues the amazing sequence of sound effects overlapping and blending with each other: a babbling brook and chirping birds are overrun by alarm clocks, cows, a harp, and planes (lots of planes!). It's like spinning across the surface of the Earth and seeing the wilderness one second, farms the next, and the insides of urban apartments (or flats, if you prefer) the next. But after a moment the song settles down and stomps forward purposefully like a robot with a broken leg: big stomps followed by the groan on metal on metal and squirts of high-pitched effervescence. The second half of the song reorganizes itself through shifting veil of electronics into something of a steampunk decompression. Another funky transitory zone ends up focusing on a repeating snore sound effect, of all things. Then...

Earlier I said the album must be experienced as a whole, but one song is so outrageously genius that it works all on its own. 'Omniprescence' is yet another glorious mashup of both music and sound effects, sounding like a coffee shop on the Moon. Gentle percolations blend with silverware-flavored percussion, and a variety of big synth lines blow through at different points, before wild stuff like opera wails get thrown into the later iterations. Amazingly, despite all its flourishes and flairs, the song comes close to a standard structure, with charming iterations of the melody continuously giving it more vitality. It's absolutely the standout track of the entire double-disc bonanza. It's followed up by the crunchy goodness of 'Room 208', a song with a rather cheerful synth lead and numerous helper melodies to lend a sense of playfulness to the music. And just to keeps things interesting, it finishes up with a lovely harp section competing with clucking beats.

'Elaborate Burn' is just that, a long, drawn-out piece of connective tissue meant only to ease into the final track. Flutes and muted keyboards get rolled over by ultra-spacey effects and scattered synth bits. Then we slide onces again into an outdoor scene, with frogs and crickets next to a stream. 'Little Brother', the finale, starts slow with a hand drum and electro surges, but brings in a twitchy tambourine beat mixed with more aquatic action. The final minute of the album is woodwinds, gong pipes, and rattling chains, creating a strangely unsettled conclusion, as though the rest of the album had been pulled into another dimension and only a stringy little piece was left at the end. It leaves the listener wanting more, even after an hour and a half of music.

It would be incorrect to say Dougans and Cobain topped themselves with this set, since it was only their second and was utterly unlike their first, and since it led to many more fantastic pieces of music in the following years. It would be accurate to say that they never quite matched it; they came close with ISDN (and Dead Cities in places). The pair switched gears into psych folk in the early 2000s, and their efforts were generally panned. Luckily, they later released a series of albums called From the Archives that were culled from their earlier recording days, so fans had plenty more material to enjoy. Still, Lifeforms is without a doubt their masterwork.

Comments (3)

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You know how everyone is doing that '10 albums that changed your life' thing on social media right now? This would be in my top 10. I already owned their first album and The Orb's UF Orb but this pushed me onto more electronic music.

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Absolutely! This easily makes my top ten for that category. I was going through an extremely difficult and complicated time in the late 1990s, and groups like FSOL provided a comforting backdrop in a weird way.

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I had a lot of trouble sleeping in the late 90s and I'd put this on headphones to help me sleep, worked every time. I don't think it gets enough recognition when people talk about the best ambient albums.

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