Sadly forgotten by many, this week marks the twentieth anniversary of a groundbreaking piece of ambient music. The Future Sound of London‘s second full album (if you don’t count the Tales of Ephidrina side project from the previous year) was entirely unlike the first, and was truly exceptional.
It opens with the electronic chirrups and chirps of the exceptional Cascade, previously reviewed in its full forty minute form here. In an era when electronic music was only just becoming the norm, FSOL essentially threw all the rules out of the window and created a beautiful, ethereal sound, in a way that nobody else ever quite had before. There had been plenty of attempts, but Lifeforms succeeds in ways that their predecessors had only dreamed.
With just over ninety minutes of ambient music, this double album seems to weave its way, dreamlike, from jungle to ocean on some far flung alien world. Ill Flower washes its way into Flak and then Bird Wings, each bringing slightly different elements to the fore.
The rippling piano arpeggio of Dead Skin Cells seems to mark a change – after four tracks the album is beyond its introductory phase, and we’re ready for something a bit more familiar. Still heavily washed by otherworldly soundscapes, the piano and drums seem to gently guide us on a path towards civilisation.
Which, by the time of the title track Lifeforms, we have very clearly reached. The human voices and huge pad sounds are joyous, uplifting, and part of a quite wonderful piece of music. This mixes into Eggshell, with its melodic percussive sounds and bizarre warped electronic wizardry. Finally, the first half of the album closes with the slightly disturbing beauty of Among Myselves.
The science fiction theme of Lifeforms becomes altogether more sinister with the second disc. It’s a little more abstract and less melodic, so it may require a little patience at times, but having set the mood with the first disc, you should be ready for it by now. After the brief but strangely very familiar introduction Domain comes the exquisite and entirely disturbing Spineless Jelly.
It is difficult to talk about Lifeforms in the past tense – in many ways it sounds every bit as contemporary as it ever did. That is to say, not very – the otherworldly qualities of it somehow place it entirely outside time.
The middle part of the second disc is entirely ambient, with the quirky electronic infrastructure of Interstat mixing into the very gentle panpipe sounds of Vertical Pig. Then Cerebral introduces a bizarre processed guitar sound. Life Form Ends channels the earlier title track, but this time with added warped technological backing amongst the tribal chanting.
Vit brings things very much back to earth, with a touch of feedback, a lot of 303 acid noises, and some very familiar sounds – was that a cow sample? Perhaps this weird alien world has some kind of synthesised earth captured within it? Or maybe it is earth after all? Or maybe it would help not to think too hard at this point.
There’s something particularly compelling about Omnipresence, as it brings together many of the themes that we’ve enjoyed over the previous hour or so of music. This is, for better or for worse, a long album, and the reminder of quite how brilliant it has been is very welcome. The three tracks which follow – Room 209, with its retro bass stylings, Elaborate Burn, and the brilliantly titled Little Brother wind things down to a very gentle close.
So Lifeforms is an album which can be enjoyed on many levels – within the music are hidden depths and ingenious plot twists, but beyond that, if you have a little imagination, lurks a compelling science fiction story which is every bit as good as any Hollywood movie.
For some reason Lifeforms does not seem to be available directly from the FSOL website, but you can find it at other download stores instead. You can also read the Beginner’s guide to The Future Sound of London here.