After a couple years of increasingly commercially successful electro-industrial music, Front Line Assembly goes sort of metallic on Millennium. It didn’t get them onto Encylopedia Metallum, but the addition of a guitar attack and a more vigorous rhythmic section did a good deal to harden up the band’s already menacing sound. This is really the perfect album for the 1990s – darker and edgier than before, but still pretty much in line with the evolving trends of the decade’s rock/metal scene. On the other hand, this album is over 20 years old, and trends have changed. Does this album still hold up. The problem with asking me such a question is that like the vast majority of the music reviews here on Invisible Blog, this is an album I listened to fairly recently, so my opinions on it are shaded by the fact I never got to live the zeitgeist (If I had, I would’ve been an exceedingly precocious toddler).
Anyways, I chose to listen to Millennium mostly for its industrial metal sound. Compared to something like Ministry’s Psalm 69, the guitars are relatively subtle, and the emphasis is on how they mix in with the established electronic side of the band. Songs here generally fit into a standard pop mold, albeit with elongated, sample-driven bridges that admittedly vary in how much they actually contribute to the atmosphere. “Industrial”, as a genre, sometimes comes off as a genre more oriented towards film enthusiasts, and to be honest it sometimes tries my patience when Front Line Assembly bases part or all of a song off a couple quotes from some film I probably will never watch.
When the band relies more on their synthesizers and other instrumentation (As I was researching for this review, I learned that Devin Townsend provided guitar work for a few tracks), I find myself far more interested. Millennium sticks to a fairly narrow aesthetic, but the songwriting crew is creative enough to push it in a few unexpected directions, most notably the rap-rock crossover track “Victim of A Criminal”. Bill Leeb’s vocals are also a highlight – his heavily processed tones are an important mixture in the band’s multilayered synthesizer attack, and they effectively set the mood by texture alone, even when the lyrics are a bit hamfisted.
Overall, Millennium sounds strong and has enough of an accessible yet versatile songwriting style to succeed, but I’d probably try to edit out some of the filler if I had access to the master tracks. I don’t know why I feel this way about the album when some of the other filler-laden albums I’ve listened to don’t elicit such a strong response, but maybe it has to do with the whole mechanical aesthetic?
Highlights: “Millennium”, “Search and Destroy”, “Victim of a Criminal”, “Plasma Springs”
If I’d went in blind on this album (or deaf, because the music is more important than the cover art), I would’ve expected Charanjit Singh to explore archetypal ’70s disco music on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. Instead, it’s notorious for anticipating the aesthetics and techniques of electronic dance music producers several years later. Between mixing in some elements of Indian classical music, not making much of a commercial/critical impact on its initial release, and then being rediscovered to great fanfare in the current millennium, Ten Ragas was too interesting for me to pass up.
The “classical music” comparison is by far the most important of Ten Ragas‘ many flavors; while India is home to a great many musical traditions, the stereotypical ‘raga’ seems to be the most popular and well known. As far as I can tell, the tracks on this album literally are ragas set to a “disco beat” (more on THAT later), which means plenty of monophonic improvisation over lengthy drones. Structurally, this thing is rigid – every rag begins, proceeds, and ends in a similar if not identical fashion, and Singh generally demarcates this with very specific synth sounds. It does mean that these tracks are mostly interchangeable, even though by virtue of tonality they vary at least a little. I have to admit that I would’ve preferred more variety, but I’ve been known to have a bit of a bias in that regard.
I think most listeners who follow this blog are going to be more interested in the electronic side of Ten Ragas. Singh produced this album entirely with synthesizers and sequencers, most notably the Roland TR-808 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer. These went on to feature in an enormous armada of recordings, and are used here in an archetypical techno-trance fashion. Those who insist on minimalist, repetitive rhythms with an emphasis on evolving sounds will find much to love here. Singh’s emphasis, though, is on the aforementioned lengthy, improvised synthesizer melodies that drive a raga. These are very modal – they never diverges from the scale of choice, and to my understanding there are formal rules being followed here that I don’t know anything about. In the end, the instrumentation makes this sound very much like early house/techno music, especially the rhythm section. The organization, though, is dramatically different, and therein lies the uniqueness of Ten Ragas, and thus your stimulus to keep listening once the novelty wears off.
I don’t know how many musicians have followed in Singh’s steps by explicitly combining Indian classical with modern electronic dance music, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the subcontinent’s exerted a more significant role on the many scenes’ evolution than would be initially obvious from your usual historiography. More importantly, I think Ten Ragas is well executed and musically interesting enough to remain interesting after nearly 35 years, but like many of the more minimalistic and ritual music in my collection, it remains situational listening.
Highlights: “Raga Bhairav”, “Raga Bhupali”, “Raga Malkauns”
More 1990s downtempo ambient IDM buzzword music on Invisible Blog! Compared to the more focused (but still varied) Dead Cities a few years later, Lifeforms is a sprawling compilation of every idea Future Sound of London had in the kitchen sink. It covers enough sonic ground to make describing it as a whole more difficult than it ought to be. Still, this double album is bound together by a few shared techniques, sound patches, and a coherent aesthetic that the retrofuturist types have been slobbering on for a few years now.
One thing I’ve noticed about Lifeforms (which is possibly sort of implied by the cover art) is how organic it sounds at times – it relies heavily on sampled instruments and sampled… samples whereas some of its in-genre competition is more accepting of its own electronic nature (or at least that’s what you’d believe from the more obviously synthetic instruments). Sometimes this borders on soundscapes, but in general FSOL relies heavily on recognizable consonant melodies to drive their songwriting. Possibly unfamiliar sounds and techniques aside, this makes for easy, non-threatening listening; something that you can usually leave on in the background and occasionally marvel at how gradually the tracks evolve into one another. Just keep an ear out for the more menacing second half.
While Lifeforms is “…a primarily instrumental album (with some vocal textures)” just like its predecessor, the overall arc of its two CDs is the opposite of Dead Cities. Here, the second half is more challenging than the first, most likely peaking with the ritual and outright creepy “Vertical Pig”. It should go without saying that I don’t get the same post-apocalyptic vibe, even in this album’s harshest and most intimidating moments. Much of this is due to the increased variety. On one hand, I’d expect more substyles from a double album just for the sake of not boring the listener. On the other, I think FSOL intended to explore and cover as much ground as possible on this album, even if it means that some of the ideas presented get limited attention at best.
In general, there’s at least one good lesson you can learn from the differences between Lifeforms and Dead Cities – you have to find a good balance between quantity and quality. Lifeforms understandably represents the former, and the extra variety makes for a more dynamic experience, but this comes at the expense of having more filler than Dead Cities. This might sound bad, but Lifeforms also has higher peaks of quality than that successor album, which might be a direct result of firing more shots at the listener. This is something critics are going to have to take into mind if they want to directly compare the albums like I just did.
Then again, my review of Dead Cities ended with me jokingly evading a proper rating of how good or bad it was, so I’m guessing it’d only be appropriate for me to do the same here.
Highlights: “Flak”, “Amongst Myselves”, “Vertical Pig”, “Vit”