Clash Magazine September 2006
The Past, Present and the Future Sound of London
Time slips through the fingers as easily as silk panties. Music connects time like the silky threads of a spider's web. Up is the same as down if you're travelling in the opposite direction and the past, if we turn it upside down, could very well be the future. Welcome to Teachings From The Electronic Brain, a retrospective audio-montage that maps out the complex labyrinth of time, space, motion and sound described by The Future Sound of London. Two men, six years, twelve records. A whole bunch of past. Oodles of future.
The Past & The Future Sound of Manchester
At certain times and certain places, the past catches up with the present and the future reveals itself as cultural spasm. Mid-80s Manchester was one such convulsion - or rather series of convulsions - industrial funk lurching into post-punk body-slamming Balearic goosing Madchester eating out indie rock bitch-slapping acid house in a kaleidoscopic frenzy oloured by saliva, blotters, white doves.
Garry Cobain and Brian Dougal were amongst the masses heaving to the sounds created by local heroes like The Smiths, New Order, The Chameleons and other influencial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Back then they were just two students - electronics (Garry) and computer science (Brian) - with their own musical itch to scratch.
"It was Fabric [Records] that lured us both to Manchester," recalls Garry, the loquacious, vivacious and - by his own admission - high maintenance - section of FSOL. "I loved bands like The Chameleons and The Smiths and wanted to get involved in music. I just knew something would happen if I went there and within four weeks I joined a band I heard rehearsing in a studio and stayed with them for a year. Shortly afterwards I met Brian."
Their time in Manchester, formative as you like, passed in a blur of green suits, wild parties, funky diodes, cheap student digs, mesmerising studio equipment, hot knives and seminal dance records. In keeping with the times. The pair set about crafting short, intense tunes that catered to the nation's burgeoning dancefloors. They recorded under names - Smart Systems, Art Science Technology, Mental Cube, Humanoid, Intelligent Communication, Yage, Semi-Real - that smelled of cleverness, artificiality and the future.
Their first major success - or rather Brian's, since Humanoid was chiefly his project with Garry coming on board later - was 1992's "Stakker Humanoid" - a seething acid house record culled from an album Brian had created for a fractal video company. The tune, originally released in 1988, was re-released in '92 and tickled the Top 20. By then the pair had renamed themselves as Future Sound Of London and dropped Accelerator, a debut album that pushed techno into new spheres of consciousness, one populated by pulsing rave waves, flickering ambient moods and giant dub squalls. Their lead single "Papua New Guinea" - a psychedelic trip through dub, flutes, breaks and chants - scored them a second, even bigger hit.
The Past Sound of The Future Sound of London Virgin snatched the duo up on the back of "Papua New Guinea" and gave them free reign to create what they wanted. They moved to London, adopted a new monkier (Amorphous Androgynous) and sired the startlingly freeform, bravely free-floating Tales Of Ephidrina, an album unafraid to sample everything from Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ to Predator; as FSOL they made the even more ambitious and ambient double CD Lifeforms.
"When we did these albums, especially Lifeforms, the journalists all trooped through saying, 'ah, so you like Brian Eno?'" chuckles Garry. "We were actually a lot more punk than that. We didn't like to take from the past and in fact were quite discourteous to it. Only later did we realise there is hidden mystery and knowledge buried there that has been lost in our race for the future."
The duo's forward-thinking vision was etched into the FSOL name but it was also inherent in their approach to production and performance. After Accelerator they became increasingly detached from the bombastic/simplistic formulas of techno, retreating into abstraction and embracing all manner of innovative technologies from 2D/3D visual imagery to ISDN technology.
Under the name Far Out Son Of Lung the duo released - and quickly deleted - material culled from various digital broadcasts they had made to radio stations and art spaces. These recordings, and the subsequent 'semi-live' album ISDN - a slightly unhinged and quietly minatory exploration of Dadaist improvisation, jazz shapes and indulgent soundscapes - took them even more towards the peripheries of not just electronica, but music.
The next FSOL album, 1996's Dead Cities, was an apocalyptic riff on urban decay that moved from terrible rage to ineffable beauty. With the mightily industrial dance track "We Have Explosive" the album all but returned the pair to their roots. The band that had rejected the image-ledexcesses of rock for the egoless urgency of techno, the bombast of dance for the quietlude of abstraction, now rejected the ethereal anonymity of electronica to return to the rage of human drama and cult of personality they had kicked out at from the beginning. They had turned and started running in the other direction. The future became the past; the circle closed around them; there were no exit signs.
""We Have Explosive" was basically the end," says Garry. "It was a protest song against the fact that I thought we were a much deeper band than others thought we were. We had started out as something unique, and had been loved as something more than just a dance band. But suddenly the record label was all pie charts and men in shiny shoes wanting to market us in a certain way. That record was us stepping up to the keyboard one afternoon and saying, 'these people are fucking idiots, let's see if the fuckers can digest this'."
Shapeless & Sexless: The Rise of Amorphous Androgynous "We Have Explosive" ironically became one of FSOL's biggest hits. But Garry and Brian still felt they had to take time out. They made (separate) transformative pilgrimages to India. Garry's trip in particular quickly became a voyage of physical and spiritual renewal after he discovered he had been being slowly poisoned to death for several years by mercury fillings in his teeth.
Re-assessing himself and the world around him, Garry returned to London a changed person. Music remained a tool for psychic exploration, but the trajectory was more cosmic and spiritual now, a healing tool as much as entertainment. After a lengthy spell apart, Garry teamed up with Brian again to embark on a different journey - one that, rather than being discourteous to the past, excavated its mysteries.
"FSOL had always been a beautiful balance of technology, spirituality, femininity, masculinity, light, dark, melody and disharmony - the fight eternal between Brian and me," says Garry. "I represent most of the feminine things, the melody, the softness; and Brian, to oversimplify things dramatically, represents technology, machines and programming. He can be quiet aggressive without me. Around 1997 we were way too cool. I felt hugely restricted because in many ways FSOL had always been Brian's game in that he had always worked out the parameters of it while I threw my creativity at it, and gave it the balance it needed. But after Dead Cities things changed. I needed to sing and bang and hit things. I wanted to be a silly and wear flares and let loose.
If FSOL was Brian's game, the reformed Amorphous Androgynous project was indubitably Garry's. The latter learned the sitar, started to sing and prance around on stage, and took Brian - slightly reluctant but intrigued all the same - to a more rock-orientated place that referenced the heady, hippy philosophies of the 60s and 70s, but used some of the tracks and twists of FSOL to avoid any overtly sterile revisionism.
In 2002 they released The Isness, a 'modern progtronic rock opera'. Bloated and ballsy the LP deservedly received mixed reviews. Though unmistakeably an Amorphous Androgynous project, the record label caused chronic confusion by releasing it as an FSOL in America - something Garry and Brian remain deeply unhappy about.
Last year's Alice In Ultraland, in contrast, was a much tighter (though equally 'out there') project, featuring an impressive live band.
"I admit that part of Amorphous Androgynous was about me wanting to sing thirteen minute songs about gnome-loving set to a background of electronic noise," dead-pans Garry, "but really it's more about the freedom of psychedelia; the 'fuck you and your short pop songs' spirit. The song form has just become too limited. And when I say 'psychedelic', it's not a reference to 60s music but to the basic outlook of a child, which we all have. I think this is the only salvation now. Dance music taught us how to use the studio in a new way, but we have to now take that knowledge and move on with it. This stuff, electronic music, is now dead. It's a process that is ongoing. We have to take hold of the past and go forward with it..."
The Future Sound of The Future Sound of London? Has the past caught up with the future? Or is the future catching up with the past? Things are different now, there's no doubt about that. Garry has repaired to the "Lake District of France" with his partner, while Brian has immersed himself, his wife and two kids in an 800 acre forest in Somerset - in a church that stands at the intersection of nine leylines. Not bad for the half of FSOL who doesn't claim to be a hippy.
Despite the recent emphasis on Amorphous Androgynous, FSOL never died. 2001 saw the release of the successful Papua New Guinea Translations album, and while Teachings From The Electronic Brain wil be regarded as a Best Of, it's no funeral hymn, swansong, nor cheap, no-brainer comp, as might initially be supposed. In keeping with their idiosyncratic vision, Brian and Garry offer an album that includes key singles but emphatically ignores any anthological clichés.
Sure it begins with "Papua New Guinea", but any chronological structure ends when track two beings with the delicate neo-classical strains of "Max" - a track written by composer/pianist Max Richter (who also worked on The Isness) for Dead Cities. Other inclusions are "Everyone In The World Is Doing Something Without Me", "Yage", "Expander" and "My Kingdom"; "Cascade" and "Lifeforms" appear in their single (not LP) versions; and there are, bafflingly, even a couple of Amorphous Androgynous tracks - "Mountain Goat" and "The Lovers".
"We had hits," says Garry, "but they weren't conventional hits. What we wanted was more of a re-introduction to FSOL rather than a retrospective."
"The label wanted to just put out a collection of tracks, but we freaked out," says Brian, FSOL's taciturn half, a man of many thoughts and few words. "We've always been pretty protective about our music and there was no way we were going to let them cast us off as some dinosaur dance act from the past. We took control, and it has been a very interesting project in that it has made us look at the FSOL archives again and see how we have changed. Amazingly, we found we had lost a lot of the tricks that we used to use all the time as FSOL and that has made us start to look at the project again..."
Teachings From The Electronic Brain is thus a signpost pointing in two directions at once. It reminds us of what was, while simultaneously directing us towards the future. In the sense that time, like the sun and the moon, is cyclical, Teachings... is also both sunset and sunrise.
"It's time to get back," confirms Brian, who is also all set to re-release some of his early Zeebox recordings as well as some industrial noise recordings. "We disappeared into the Amorphous tunnel for a while but I have always felt that FSOL was important and that we should look at it more than one time. There are some dreams we had but never managed to achieve and nowadays there are more possibilities and more money around for those kinds of things. I've rebuilt my studio down here in Somerset to emulate more or less exactly how it was during the FSOL days. It won't be the same sound of course, but it will be the same spirit. the future, I think, has finally caught up with us..."
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