[5 October 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Future Sound of London first gained American exposure on the soundtrack of the Brad Pitt film Cool World. If you remember Cool World, then you know just how long Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain have been making music together: 15 years. FSOL were one of the acts at the forefront of the original English techno explosion of the early ‘90s. They released some classic material into the ‘90s, but their artistic and commercial peaks came a decade ago, and their recent releases have been lackluster.
Cue Teachings From the Electronic Brain, a career retrospective including singles, album tracks, and material recorded under FSOL’s alter ego, Amorphous Androgynous. FSOL’s albums, especially their best ones, were interconnected mood pieces, so it’s inevitable that this non-chronological collection sound fragmented. Even so, it’s always engaging and reminds you how compelling Dougans and Cobain were at their best. Though it goes heavy on the electronics, FSOL’s music comes across foremost as multicultural and organic, the missing link between Dead Can Dance and Aphex Twin.
Dougans and Cobain always embraced both the excess and inclusiveness of 1970s progressive rock. This open-minded approach allowed them to tiptoe right along the line between genuine atmosphere and new age dross. There are plenty of soft synthesizer chords and Native American-style flutes, but the overall impression FSOL make is one of immersion in a big, wet, wondrous, and sometimes scary swamp.
“Papua New Guinea”, FSOL’s first single—the one that’s on Cool World—is an all-time classic, a sublime meeting of deep dub, breakbeats, and interstellar synth effects. And like “Expander”, the other inclusion from debut album Accelerator, it’s a red herring. You’d be hard-pressed to call anything else on Teachings more than mid-tempo. Instead, lumbering yet dub-influenced rhythms, intricate synth layers, and jazzy touches come into play. The lumbering, flute-heavy “My Kingdom” sounds a bit dated, but the double bass on “Smokin’ Japanese Babe” and lonely trumpet of “Far-Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman” (quite possibly the most groovy song title since Pink Floyd’s “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict “) juxtapose with the tense synths for an effect that’s startlingly evocative.
Both those tracks are from 1995’s groundbreaking live upload ISDN, while 1994’s sprawling, near-ambient set piece Lifeforms is under-represented by a pair of single edits. Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser’s voice has little effect on the title track other than to provide a talking point, while the weightless sci-fi of “Cascade” has lost none of its ability to transport you to another place and time altogether.
That leaves 1996’s Dead Cities to carry the bulk of the weight, not a bad think since it was FSOL’s most ambitious, challenging, and rewarding work. Sounding just like its title, Dead Cities found rhythms and soundscapes in pre-millennial urban decay, a Steve Erickson novel set to music. The near-industrial clang of “We Have Explosive”, ear-tickling “Tomorrow Never Knows” rush of “Yage”, and the baroque beauty of “Glass” provide some of Teachings’ best moments.
Sadly, Dougans and Cobain never came close such sustained near-genius again. Devoid of the right inspiration, their material could sound pedestrian, as evidenced by the Amorphous Androgynous material and the single cut from 2002’s underwhelming The Isness.
The Future Sound of London’s ‘90s albums are darn near essential to an understanding of what all the excitement over techno was about. If you must limit yourself to one disc’s worth, however, this is the one.