Brian Dougans and Garry “Gaz” Cobain came together in the early 1990s to form an out-there techno duo called the Future Sound of London. Their albums Accelerator (1992) and Lifeforms (1994) were universally loved and hugged and held dear by critics and electrofreaks worldwide, and 1996’s Dead Cities was a forward-looking, if not quite as iconic, slab of cyberpunk. And then nothing. For a very long time.
As far as I can tell, there were two things standing in their way. The first was a monstrous psychedelic bubble, a DJ mix tape that they made that had so many bizarre samples and cool-ass juxtapositions that it, A) could never possibly be released, given sampling laws, and B) changed the way the two thought about the kind of music they were making. They started examining themselves and the assumptions they had made about their careers.
The second thing was that Gaz Cobain started feeling sick for no reason. Doctors told him he was fine, buck up, pip pip, etc. But he still knew something was wrong, and he started traveling around the world, seeking ethnic and hippie wisdom. Dougans would receive tapes in the mail of new songs, and knew where Cobain was because of the credit card statements, but overall it was unclear if they were ever going to work again. By the time Cobain figured it out in Mexico (mercury poisoning from the fillings in his teeth), they had both decided that they needed to depart from the FSOL formula. They had already been listening to lots of psychedelic music and Indian ragas, but they also started to indulge some of their less fashionable impulses: Supertramp, ELO, and John Barry soundtracks. Cobain went back to writing songs on acoustic guitar, the way he had before they had been thought of as technoboffins, and they started pulling in some outside musicians to finish off these songs in the way they thought they needed to.
And that’s why we have The Isness now in 2002. This is a fascinating record that doesn’t quite work in all places and, in others, seems to work all too well, and maybe too well for their own good. If they have the courage to follow up on the sound that they more or less invent here on a few tracks, the future could be bright indeed for FSOL. If not . . . well, then they’ll have to go back to the old drawing board, now, won’t they?
We get the idea early on where they’re going with this with the opener, “Elysian Fields”. This is a lovely propulsive piece with sampled sitar and Bollywood strings right alongside classic rock guitar by Mike Lucas (a former Beefhearter) and Stinky Rowe and some slamming drum sounds. It sounds fresh, refreshed, and we start liking FSOL Mark II.
Sadly, this is all exploded in the next track. “The Mello Hippo Disco Show” has a great depressive echoey sound laden with brass and strings and choirs both live and sampled, it sounds like Pink Floyd and Tricky all wrapped up together—what could be wrong? Well, the lyrics. Apparently, Cobain equates “psychedelic” with “throw any damn thing in there and put a sitar on top and people won’t really care what you’re singing”. This was what some freak-out music did, to be sure—but only the bad boring stuff. This is meandering wank with no real destination: “She’s hiding from the yo-yo / It’s a real no-no / Life with Jo Jo”; sure it could end up going somewhere, but it doesn’t. The “la la la la” section at the end is more profound than anything that has come before, and I was hoping that the whole thing was a piss-take—but then we get the deathless line “Mumbo jumbo slow fellatio” repeated as if it’s supposed to be important, and it’s ruined again.
But all is forgiven as they hit their stride on the next few tracks. Don’t believe the Internet or even the promo CD insert booklet—the next real song is “Lovers”, not “Osho”, and it’s the soul for real. We get some wah-wah guitar—where have I heard that riff before?—and some wild bongo work and some great sitar and a screaming soul female vocal sample—oh, yeah, that’s from the Shakespear’s Sister album Hormonally Yours, same place they got that guitar line, thanks guys—and then we’re rockin’ to some funk-rock guitar and keyboard lines—it’s funky and we like it muchly.
“Go Tell It to the Trees Egghead” follows, and it’s what I was talking about before: a brand-new direction for rock music. This swinging gentle pastoral thing rides an easy tabla beat and marries slide guitar and sitar and meandering flute and prog synth and toy zylophone and an “electric accordion” line and harmonica and blues licks—it’s chocablock with beauty and ease and newness. This template is followed later with “Guru Song”, the snippet called “Osho” (now in eighth position), “Meadows”, and “High Tide on the Seas of Flesh”, which is pretty much all of the above with doom-laden pulses and pizzicato strings and sounds like a Dead Cities outtake. Really, it’s as if they’ve hit gold—it sounds like nothing else out there right now. They really better make tabla- and sitar-master Baluji Shrivastav part of the band; his double-duty work is indispensable to their sound.
But there are a couple of problems. The epic closer, “The Galaxical Pharmaceutical”, is a 15-minute combination of bad Floyd and “Major Tom”-era Bowie, all paeans to “Mr. Spaceman” and “Mr. Policeman” (that latter from “Life on Mars”, what?) and ending with “The spacecraft has been programmed for me”-type stuff. It sounds great, but the lyrics kill it. This is the same fate that “Divinity” avoids through sheer dint of sincerity. Wed to a guitar line that sounds exactly like Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song”, Gaz sounds like crap here spouting off about how “One day you will find / Inexhaustible ecstasy”. But FSOL has taken his guitar/voice performance from 1998 and added millions of instruments and a lovely harmony performance from Christene Charly, and, dammit, it ends up working and being beautiful and perfect. I hate getting suckered in like that, but it’s really quite great after all.
So mixed marks for this record. The instrumental things, maybe 60% of the record, win by a mile, and only one of the three sung songs works at all, albeit spectacularly at that. But maybe Cobain’s all done with the psychebabble, and maybe Dougans can rein him in on future projects, and maybe they can follow up on the Indian/delta/techno thing they’ve invented, and maybe their next album will be as crucial as Lifeforms. In the meantime, The Isness means that FSOL is back as a force to be reckoned with . . . it’s a great fun album, as long as we’re not indulging in that “mumbo jumbo slow fellatio” shite. Eh, Gaz?