Essential albums: Future Sound Of London

Despite plenty of moments in the FSOL oeuvre which you might call spacey, they play down any cosmic inferences. Says Gary Cobain: "I'm not interested in that. I think *this* is a weird place. What our music, I think, represents is a weird perspective of this space now. It's like a re-evaluation of yourself in your space, rather than escapism.

Future Sound Of London

country of origin:

Ambient techno, industrial, breakbeat, avant-garde, sound collage

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Accelerator (1992, Virgin)
  • Lifeforms (1994, Virgin/Astralwerks)
  • Dead Cities (1996, Virgin/Astralwerks)
  • Environments (2007, FSOL Digital)
  • Environments II (2008, FSOL Digital)
  • Environments III (2010, FSOL Digital)

Reviewed by Mike G

Since the early 1990's the UK duo of Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans have appeared on the English music scene in a number of different guises. The Future Sound Of London is their best known project, an avenue through which they have channeled some highly innovative electronic brain art.

90's classics

The FSOL project started life as a dance music act, as evident on the often storming debut album Accelerator (1992). It contains their best-known and most commercially successful track - in fact their first ever release - the soaring ambient breakbeat single "Papua New Guinea". Sampling a vocal from Dead Can Dance, the track was one of the first to bridge the ambient-dance divide, anticipating the exotic 90's music of Banco de Gaia, Deep Forest, Delerium and others. It became a huge club hit and over the next two decades was a staple on chillout compilations the world over.

Following Accelerator, ambient, downtempo and experimental elements became a more pronounced part of the duo's sound. Interestingly, despite plenty of moments in the FSOL oeuvre which you might call spacey, they play down any cosmic inferences. As Cobain told David Toop in his book Ocean Of Sound: "I'm not interested in that. I think this is a weird place. What our music, I think, represents is a weird perspective of this space now. It's like a re-evaluation of yourself in your space, rather than escapism."

Two other albums from their 90's period stand out for their fantastic sound design, strange beauty and cinematic atmospheres.

Lifeforms (1994) is the dreamier and more obviously beautiful of the two. Here Cobain and Dougans gamely attempt to create seamless sense of musical line and flow with a mind-boggling array of often non-musical samples, e.g. wind chimes, running water, weird voicings. Given the duo’s roots in dance you could certainly call it techno, but it’s techno which owes as much to the sound collages of avant-garde composer Karl Stockhausen as it does to the metronomic pulses of a Roland drum machine. Lifeforms is a torrent of brilliant ideas, even if they're not always fully realised.

Dead Cities (1996) is darker and more restless, a bumpy, enthralling ride through an apocalyptic urban landscape. Again it shows the group's ability to take sounds sampled from all kinds of sources - from a Vangelis soundtrack to a range of industrial clangs and rattles - and make them every bit as crucial to a track's musicality as a standard chord or bassline. It's also their most consistent album, taking less of a gee-wiz approach to samples and sound effects and more often applying the technology as a justified means to an end. Thus nearly every track has a musical sensibility, even those seemingly devoid of melody like the bizarre industrial/hip-hop hybrid “Herd Killing”.

After the 90's

In the 2000's the duo at first focused on rich psychedelic pop, recording a series of albums under their Amorphous Androgynous pseudonym. Then in 2007 as Future Sound Of London they unexpectedly released Environments (2007), the first in an often superb series of albums on which they wholeheartedly embrace the ambient universe. Each one is distinctively different from the other and they draw at least partly on various archive materials that, for whatever reason, were never previously released.

The generally beatless Environments features two long tracks that masterfully walk the line between melodic electronica and sound collage. In a previous form the music was actually scheduled for release after Lifeforms in 1994. There are some familiar musical fragments which have turned up on other albums by the duo since then, but in no way does that detract from the album's vitality. Musicality and abstraction rarely work so well together.

Environments II (2008) features much shorter tracks, somewhat less abstract and occasionally beat driven, and full of detail, strangeness and wonder. Widescreen machine grooves like "Ice Formed" and "Factories & Assembly" compare with the very best ambient techno of mid-90's Warp Records while adding new and fresh sounds. The likes of guitarist Robert Fripp and pianist Max Richter feature - whether sampled or in-person it doesn't say - and the range of textures and colours within the album's generally icy atmosphere is impressive.

Environments III (2010) once again blends new and archived elements, with the existing material coming from the same recording sessions that produced the Dead Cities album. Imagine that album's haunting landscapes and industrial feel minus its most abrasive and loud moments and you get a sense of its mood. There's an almost classical lyricism to some pieces like the sad piano of "Viewed From An Obscure Angle" and the dark strings on "Sunken Ships". There's still strangeness aplenty, though: dark breakbeats, odd jazzy chord changes, metallic drones and the vivid, restless sound collages they do so well. It's a more fragmented work than its predecessor - 18 tracks in all - but well worth the time.

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