Thursday, 8 December 2011
Review: The Future Sound Of London - Environments 3
I'm not entirely sure why I've been listening to Environments 3. I just had a sudden craving to listen to it, and it's been almost a year since I last gave it an outing. It's funny, because I love the FSOL and own almost everything they've put out, but I very rarely play any of their albums. There rarely seems an apposite moment to give Lifeforms or ISDN a spin, as dark and dense and weirdly brilliant as they are. The albums I do play tend to be their newest two - Environments 2 and 3, which a lot of people probably don't even know exist. Critical coverage of the band seems to exclusively focus on their past output - you'd be forgiven for thinking "pioneering '90s electronica act..." was part of their name - and the only new FSOL releases I've seen in shops are their various Archives compilations, which are just collations of unreleased material and/or their early dance records under various aliases, back when they'd churn out techno EPs because they knew they could make £2k a pop.
Although you can buy them on Amazon, the Environments series seems to be released and distributed through the FSOL's own label, which is maybe why they don't get into the shops. It's a shame, because I honestly believe the band is as good as ever - and Environments 3 in particular may be the best album they've ever released.
Environments was the great lost FSOL record - it was mentioned in the inlay of Lifeforms but was never released, and cropped up on countless Essential Mix and radio broadcast tracklists. Near as I can tell, "Environments" was just a generic name given to anything they knocked up in the studio to use in their radio shows that was never intended for release. Eventually in 2007 the band decided to "remake" this lost album and put out what was basically a poor pastiche of their '90s sound. Trippy, creepy sampledelica but with no real controlling idea, just a mess of odd samples and textural weirdness. For whatever reason, they decided to make it into a series - Environments 2 was totally new material and sounded nothing like the old stuff. It was also awesome. Then came Environments 3 which is possibly even better. This one does have a link back to old FSOL material, apparently being based on outtakes from Dead Cities, in much the same way Tales Of Ephidrena was based on material cut from Lifeforms. Honestly though, this album sounds nothing like Dead Cities for the most part. Some samples are reused - A Glitch In Cellular Memory is basically a reshape of My Kingdom, the guitar part at the end of Accompaniment For Melodious Expression is from some old FSOL track I can't remember right now, and so on, but the techniques, the mood and the sound are all radically different.
It's really tough to describe the sound of this album. Obviously it's ambient and experimental, but that says absolutely nothing. The band seem to be going in a much more neo-classical direction than their old samplescapes, with their time spent as an extravagent neo-prog rock band obviously reflected in more live instrumentation, and the collabs with composer Max Richter have rubbed off with lots of minimalist piano and occasional string flourishes. In fact, synth sounds are at a bit of a premium on the album - there are lots of electronic textures and processing, but Dead Cities was heavily electronic, with lots of drum machines and bleepy malfunctioning electronics sending sparks flying everywhere. The impression here is more of grand, lush classical compositions that have been warped and broken up and brought together into a semi-coherent sonic dreamscape. I guess it still sounds post-apocalyptic, but more in the sense of finding the ruined super-structures of a once-proud ancient civilisation in the sands of some desolate desert planet. You can see the outlines of traditional order and opulence, but everything is now fragmented and triumph has been greyed out to echoes of melancholy. It reminds me of the Salvador Dali painting Les Elephants with those creepy, spindly-legged elephants striding pointlessly across some post-apocalyptic twilight landscape, enduring Alexandrian monuments to an empire long since dead and forgotten.
I'd probably say this is one of my favourite albums, actually. Certainly it's my favourite from the Future Sound Of London, who are one of my favourite acts. The one thing that could potentially hold it back from 10/10 greatness is that when I'm not listening to it, I can't remember any particular passages from it, but that's probably because I've still only played it three times and it's not exactly a pop album. It's such a dense, ever-shifting album too. There are 18 tracks and some of them are very short, so it's not like a lot of ambient and electronic music where you've got five or six minutes of loopage to let an idea sink into your head. This album sounds different from anything else I've ever heard, even by the band themselves, and yet it's still recognisably "the FSOL". It shows an act still pushing their sound after 25 years in the business. Nobody knows about it either, which gives me the warm glow of hipster exclusivity. So fuck it, it's getting the 10/10. There's an Environments 4 promised in the inlay of this one, and I can't wait.
Genre: Ambient neo-classical dreamscapes.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10