Released: 1994, 1995
Label: Astralwerks, Virgin
Format, CD (limited), CD, 2×12”
Genres: Ambient, experimental, abstract, IDM
In early 1994, the Future Sound of London decided they weren’t going to do the typical stage touring show that most folks would expect from any other band. No, there would be no live shows on a stage in front of screaming fans with blinding lights in their eyes. Rather, being the innovative group that they remain, they decided to broadcast their live performances straight to the people by sending an ISDN (integrated services digital network) transmission to radio stations, which would then beam the show over the radio waves, straight to countless eager listeners around the world. This was a big deal at the time since the internet was still new and painstakingly slow (it seemed fast at the time, of course!). It was nigh on impossible to have a band play over the net live without major technical difficulties, whereas today, anyone can do it. Funny how quickly technology evolves.
And at the time, this was quite incredible. Not too many other groups were doing this, or at least to the extent that FSOL were doin it. They did countless shows, playing “Lifeforms” material for a while before finally trying something new towards the end of 1994. Their sound progressed and evolved and thus, the “ISDN” album was born. It features tracks from three different broadcasts: VPRO Radio Holland (9/9/94), Radio 1 Europe (5/14/94), and the Kitchen NY (11/3/94). The tracks get pulled out of their original streamed context and rearranged here to create a fluid mix. If you’re looking for the original shows in their entirety, FSOLdigital has released several of them for MP3 download for a small price.
Before I dive into the music itself, it should be noted that two versions of this release exist. Originally, “ISDN” was to be released as a limited edition with a black cover. I believe 10,000 copies were issued state side. Astralwerks reports that the album sold out in three days and prompted the release of the “Far Out Son of Lung” EP to bridge the gap before a reissue could be made. The limited edition version featured a few tracks that did not get pressed on the reissue. These include “Hot Knives,” “An End of Sorts,” and “Are They Fighting Us?” The reissue featured “Kai,” “Amoeba,” and “Snake Hips” in their place.
Now, onto the music. While my copy seems to want to skip while it plays on my computer, we open with “Just a Fucking idiot,” a slow but very mechanical track. It is a little known fact that some of the sounds used on this track (and a few others) were sampled from the 1978 film “The Black Hole,” which was Disney’s attempt to break away from its family friendly cartoons and make a serious sci-fi film… though it flopped, as it just so happened to come out the same year as Star Wars and Star Trek’s first full length film. Anyway, this track is a great starting point to the album before we get into the crunchy beats and wild horns of “The Far Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman.” Despite the jazzy horn sample, this track is dark and menacing, just as mechanical as the first track. It almost heralds us back to “Man Machine” era Kraftwerk insofar as its cold, metallic feel.
Things get mellow with “Appendage” but get slamming and darker with the roaring percussive nightmare that is “Slider,” a true stand out on this album. The vocal samples the duo selected for the album, especially for the first few tracks, are creepy and well placed within the songs. They couldn’t go as all-out as they would have liked with the samples for this release due to copyright issues, but you can easily catch what was cut on the original shows. This would also become a problem with 1997’s “ISDN Show,” which was slated to get a full release on Astralwerks but wound up being canceled and simply passed out as a promo after a year of trying to obtain numerous sample clearances.
Things get quieter, smoother and almost jazzy with “Smokin’ Japanese Babe,” yet stranger with subsequent tracks. Here and there, some vocal samples from “Alien” and other films pop up, though, honestly, I suppose it wouldn’t matter too much about where they came from but rather, its how it fits in the overall track. Some folks may find these middle tracks to be dull or weak but I don’t really see them as such. Sure, I may skip over them sometimes but they aren’t bad. I do particularly like “It’s My Mind that Works,” and some of the tacks that follow close behind it, like “Dirty Shadows” and “Tired.” We get some light beats back and some thicker, well-formed ambience rather than the hazy stuff we saw midway—again, not bad. It gets hard to describe the later tracks. Some you can tap your foot to and MAYBE dance to but they are still quite ambient. “Egypt,” “Kai,” and “Amoeba” certainly fit this bill. The final two tracks are a little weak for my taste but are not terrible by any means.
Should you buy this? There isn’t a lot I can fault this album with. Nothing really comes off as dated and stands superbly well on its own to this day. I dare say it could pass off as new material today in some respects. It is arranged well and is a great linking piece between “Lifeforms” and “Dead Cities.” Though, you could easy buy this one at any point and it stands alone as its own work quite perfectly. So, if you are into ambient or are a fan of the band, yes, this would be a highly recommended piece to purchase.
4.5 out of 5.