Artist: Future Sound of London
Label: Virgin UK, Astralwerks
Format: 2xCD, or 2×12”
“Lifeforms” was released on May 16th, 1994 in the UK and on May 20th
in the US. My brother bought a copy in the spring of 2001 and it quickly became the soundtrack to our summer. In Minnesota, the winters were so cold that it defied all logic, but the summers were the exact opposite, with temperatures constantly climbing to 95 or higher nearly every day. Living in a massive, eighty year old German styled house, we soon found that our new AC unit for some reason did not carry the cooler air upstairs, making the basement and the ground floor the coolest places in the house while the upstairs was so hot that on many days, we barely had the energy to pull ourselves off the floor. Ambient music became a means to keep us from going completely insane from the heat, this album especially.
I could go on a critical tangent about how influential this album was for the ambient ‘scene’. I could go on a spiel about how highly this album ranked along with other paramount albums, including “Selected Ambient Works” 1 and 2 by Aphex Twin, “Amber” by Autechre, Global Communication’s “76:14” and any release by Biosphere and Pete Namlook, but that would take a whole entry on its own.
We open with a better version of “Cascade” than what appears on the single. The construction of the track, while similar, has some newer samples added and it avoids any of the dated synth pads that surrounded the single. The transition into “Ill Flower” is flawless. Here is a good example of when this album loses the typical “album with singles and defined songs” format and transforms into more of a collage or a soundscape type album. Even Cobain once mentioned in an interview that he and Dougans were more of collage artists than anything else, and not the typical band that creates an album with songs and singles. Nothing wrong with that, as that is what makes this release so perfect.
Now, at times, there are obviously defined transitions that outline one song from another but oftentimes the transitions make it flow seamlessly and that line blurs. We move into the track “Flak” in such a way. Here, we see guest/sample appearances by Ozric Tentacles, Robert Fripp and a few others. The layering is superb and it really comes together nicely. As the album progresses, they blend elements of hip hop (the beats in “Dead Skin Cells”), which is an interesting touch to the ambient feel. The title track is probably one of the most layered tracks on the first disc and did get its own single later on. Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins makes an appearance here on a few isolated snippets, and would have appeared here more if it weren’t for issues with her contract. She does come back for extended vocal work on the single, so don’t feel bad.
“Eggshell” is more defined, like a traditional song, and allegedly was scheduled to get an EP of its own but obviously that did not happen. We get treated with some nice synth, a gentle beat, some textured acid synth bits and an ethereal string chorus. It stands out nicely but still fits in with the overall theme of the album. With some help from a ticking grandfather clock, we move into the final track of the first disc. We get splashed with flowing water and a strange voice begins to speak to us… “I can hear myself… I think I’m a bit afraid… they were drowning me…” Before long, some uplifting synth and some vocal samples from space flights carry us through the rest of the track. This is a profound way to round out the first half of the album.
Disc two opens with a soft, whispery, swooshy track with muffled voices and a soothing synth pad that is so gentle, you hardly notice it. We smoothly transition into “Spineless Jelly” without really noticing it, until some children start shouting and some rhythmic synth that was pock marked with odd voices and textured samples of various kinds. Again, this would be one of the more collaged tracks, despite the fact a soft beat eventually fades in. Before long, we’re in song three. “Interstat” is one of my favorite tracks on the album and I know that’s an odd choice considering just how short it is and that is serves more as a link from track two to track four. It sounds different from anything else on the album, but it lasts just shy of a minute before the lovely flute sample signals the start of “Vertical Pig.”
Here, we got a stronger beat and darker pads. There’s a batch of videos on youtube.com of segments from this album, and I’ve found that the video that features this track is pretty vivid and wild, matching this track nicely. I believe most of those visuals were from a VHS version of the album, but finding any documentation of this, let alone a copy, has been hard to do.
Up next is “Cerebral,” a song that features probably the most mellow guitar sample to find itself featured on an ambient album. Somewhere on this track are vocal textures from Toni Halliday (of Curve), but honestly, it is hard to pick it out. I hear some whispers and a few soft mumbles of sorts, but if they say it is there, I am sure it is, in some form. Without missing a beat, we move into “Life Form Ends,” which is more in a song format with tabla-tronics by Talvin Singh.
“Vit” has probably the most stomping beat on the album, even though it is clearly not a dance tune. Distortion clips and tiny flute snips make a rhythmic foreground beat that sort of stands out against the gentle percussive beat that builds around it. With a slightly more noticeable transition, we enter “Omnipresence” which features material from Klaus Schulze (of Ash Ra Temple and Tangerine Dream fame). We get the most constructed beat on the album layered with various sounds, samples and other random elements all tied in with perfect precision.
I am completely amazed that none of the tracks from disc two made it out onto a single of their own. “Room 208” would have been one of them if that hadn’t been the case. There are well constructed synth pads, and catchy bass riff (made from the synth, of course), trippy beats and well layered sounds. It would eventually get a rework and find itself on “From the Archives Vol 3” as “Room 207.” At its conclusion, we get that same obnoxious ambulance sample that plagued track 2 on the “Cascade” single, this time called “Elaborate burn” but lasted maybe half the time as its original form.
“Little Brother” is our final track on the album. We get a trippy beat again and some animalistic chirping from strange, unknown critters and wild some tabla beats . It is not a very long track, or so it feels, before we fade out of the main track and bid our goodbyes with some gentle flutes and snorting horses. And that’s all they wrote.
Again, it would take forever to say just how many musicians this album influenced. I know for sure this has influenced me and my work. To this day, this remains one of my all-time favorites.
Should you buy this? Well, obviously, it helps to be a fan of the genre to start with, but it is a nice starting point for those who might not be familiar with it. If you are into the genre, you might already have this album and thus, makes this article really useless to you. If by some odd reason you don’t own it, then you need to get a copy. Some criticisms might be that in places, it might be a little over produced or overly layered, which may annoy or turn off fans of minimalist ambience, but then again, one could say without this album and others like it, there wouldn’t be enough evolution in the genre that would have led the way for its inception. As a whole, this album doesn’t sound too dated and in some spots, could easily pass as new material. What else can I really say about it?
5 out of 5.