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”
Today’s “Anatomy of VGM” feature is brought to you by the original Japanese version of Sonic CD’s soundtrack. I might do a separate feature on the completely different American soundtrack someday if I feel up to it.
I’m not much for Sonic CD’s bonus stages, but the soundtrack is one of the best in the entire series. Imagine the best aspects of the Sega Genesis entries’ music (good pop songwriting, genre variety, a strong ear for consonant melody) given an entire CD’s worth of streaming redbook audio to stretch out and experiment with, and you should have a good idea of why this game’s music turned out as well as it did. Both of this game’s composers (Masafumi Ogata and Naofumi Hataya) had cut their teeth on more limited sound chips for arcade and console hardware, and that experience served them well when it came time to pen this game’s tracks.
The most obvious gimmick here is that each of the main stages has four separate versions of its music; one to accompany each time period you can explore in-game. These generally hew close to each other in terms of overall arrangement, although the “Bad Future” versions tend to convert the frequently upbeat and peppy arrangements into darker and/or more aggressive styles. The music for the first stage (“Palmtree Panic”) is a good example of this, rewarding the player for not correctly altering the past by turning its sunny, Latin jazz theme into a menacing techno track that even manages to recontextualize its own content in such a way that the quoted phrases come off completely different than they would otherwise. In short, it’s a good example of the composers creatively turning limitations into new and creative techniques even when the technical limitations have been lifted.
Besides the attractions provided by extra space, there’s plenty of other fun and well-executed ideas strewn throughout this soundtrack to keep your attention. Comprehensively describing them all would make this entry far longer than it should be, although I’m certain that someone out there has published an extremely detailed analysis of the OST that you could peruse if such is to your liking. With that in mind, two points stand out – first, the heavy use of sampling, especially vocals, in what is generally an instrumental soundtrack. That was nothing new in 1992, but it still adds depth and texture to the listening experience. There’s also a clear influence from contemporary, bleeding edge EDM, and while yet again this was already a well explored vein of inspiration for many video game composers at the time, it does stand out for a series whose primary muse these days appears to be hard rock (read: Crush 40).
While some people have criticized Sonic CD‘s OST for being relentlessly hyperactive and maniacal, anything so much as a nod in that direction is a plus in my book. The cartridges that surround this game offer very stiff competition (and arguably most of the Sega Genesis Sonic games have better gameplay), but this pulls ahead and still holds up well today, at least for people of my general musical tastes.
I told you I was going to go the route of the filthy casual in future Autechre coverage (even though I ended up listening to Confield too); and to be honest, I went on a huge binge after experiencing LP5. This longer-than-some-studio-albums EP is certainly interesting, and it falls straight into a brief period of especially ambient and downtempo work by this band. Given that Garbage is supposedly culled from the detritus of Autechre’s 2nd studio album (1994’s Amber), you can imagine how this content might share some mood and mind with its full length counterpart, but where Amber was occasionally too subdued for its own good, the balance here is better.
Garbage is vintage accessible Autechre at their finest, even managing by virtue of its reduced length to avoid the filler problem that plagues most of the band’s full lengths. Everything here is warm, analog flavored, with plenty of the reverb and delay effects that seem to be emphasized on the band’s early material. Like your average Autechre album (or for that matter, a nice swathe of electronic music), the tracks here rely very heavily on their choice of sounds to distinguish themselves; compare this to musicians who don’t change up their instrumentation on every track. Furthermore, the average track here yet again emphasizes slowly evolving soundscapes over especially rigorous sound structure. In general, you should not expect huge sound/structural differences from Autechre’s trademark sound.
If you ask me, Garbage also features something of an inter-track narrative that isn’t present on most of the band’s material. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but over time the material on here progresses from being rhythm and progression oriented to complete ambience and repetition by the time the last chords of “Vletr” fade away. I can’t really think of any other albums by the band that have that level of long-term cohesion, although some of the EPs come close (1995’s Anvil Vapre in particular). This makes for a very different experience than the rest of their discography when you listen to it in full. This is, more than anything else from Autechre, something you should sit down and listen to in one go, which at the very least is more convenient than otherwise due its compactness.
To be fair, Garbage‘s strengths do run kind of exactly counter to my expected tastes, but given how often I’ve been praising music for doing things I wouldn’t expect myself to stereotypically like, I might have to say that my interests are broader than they first seem.
Highlights: Everything. Maybe “PIOB” in particular.