Title: The Isness
Label: Hypnotic, FSOL Recordings, Sum
Format: CD, 2×12”
Genre: ambient, psyche rock, prog rock
I knew going into this review that the undertaking wouldn’t be easy. This was mostly due to the fact that there are two versions of this album floating around and it wouldn’t be a complete review unless I talked about both of them. Secondly, this album in its own right is so radically different from anything else the band’s released prior, so just talking about that is going to eat up a decent chunk of room.
Where to begin? In 2002, sometime after “Translations,” came this recording. I recall literally bolting for it in the record store and blaring it on my stereo once I got it home. And my first reaction was “whoa, they’re singing…?” And then of course, I had read that this version wasn’t even an official version, but rather a mistake, and Hypnotic was actually requesting that we return any copies of the mispressing in exchange for the official release. I never did because at the time, I didn’t think the official one would be much different from this one.
I was wrong, of course. The official version in parts was very different. I never did score an official copy, so, I would say that’s the third reason why this review was so difficult. My brother has a copy, so we compared some notes. It’s best that I tackle this track by track, breaking it down and pointing out any big differences between the two releases.
“The Lovers” — The version here is similar to what appears on “Translations” but is three minutes shorter. It doesn’t vary too much other than that it doesn’t show up on the mispress at all. This is a fairly chilled psyche groove, something upon first listen would be enough the make most FSOL fans, who at this point in 2002, were only familiar with their ambient stuff, raise an eyebrow.
“Elysian Fields” — This track opens the mispress version but is the fifth track on the official release. There are some slight differences between these two. On the mispress, the track is a tiny bit faster with a heavier psyche rock beat and flurries of string and other samples that make this track a smashing gem of neo-psyche goodness. This version reappears on “The Otherness” as the “Abbey Road Mix.” The Official version has a softer, more suppressed beat and a few new synth samples in the place of some of the wilder string samples that dotted the ‘original’. I have to say I enjoy the mispress version much more than the official.
“The Isness” — This track did not turn up on the mispress but is the second track on the official version. It’s surprisingly mellow with soft organ, guitar, sitar and string samples. It’s really quite good and might be the closest piece to their older works, though saying that is a bit of a stretch. This is really quite good and it does make me sad that it didn’t appear on the version I have.
“The Mellow Hippo Disco Show” — This is track two on the mispress and track three on the official. It’s hard to tell how the two versions are different, other than the mispress version is a minute less than the official. This is the first track in which we hear them singing, and I recall being very surprised by this. It’s not bad, honestly, and this track is a very playful and well-crafted neo-psyche track. Some might feel that it is a bit too wild, like they were trying way too hard to make it strange and bizarre and I can well see their point. This is a track that’s a little over the top but compared to some other tracks on this album; it’s really not that bad.
“Goodbye Sky (Reprise)” — I admit it, this is one of my best picks for the album even though it’s the shortest one on it and the least revealing of the album as a whole. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s short, playful and a little haunting in some ways and it stands out from the other tacks in that sense. What’s kind of amusing is that the track this reprises isn’t even on the official version yet this track still appears. I always thought that was a little odd.
“Osho” — Appearing originally as track four on the mispress and track nine on the official version, this is a very mellow sitar and string track that might be perfect to chant mantra to. In all seriousness, this is a perfect song in its minimalism and depth with just a few synth samples, minor vocal hums and strings. I love it.
“The Galaxial Pharmaceutical” — Track five on the mispress, track thirteen on the official. The mispress version clocks in at over fifteen minutes while the official differs slightly at fourteen minutes. This song is just strange. At some points, I like it, as it mixes in elements of The Beatles, David Bowie and other playful psyche elements. However, at times, this track becomes obnoxious and way over the top, as if the band figured “hey, this is psychedelic music, so let’s make it as crazy as possible because that’s what that kind of music is all about, right?” I don’t know if that was the true intent, but it is so in your face that it almost makes me feel they were flaunting it rather than giving it enough substance—fluff rather than a solid structure. This is a real take it or leave it track for me.
“Yes My Brother” — track six on mispress, not appearing on the official. This is less than a minute long and is really just some odd little manipulation track that doesn’t really fit anywhere. It’s not bad but I can see why it was scrapped. This track gets a slight reference on “Alice in Ultrland”, however. What gets me about this track is it features guitar samples from the later tracks on “ISDN” and it is passed off as new. It’s not a bad reuse of the material and it is certainly not nearly as recycled as some tracks tend to be on later Amorphous Androgynous releases.
“Go Tell It To The Trees Egghead” – Track seven on the mispress, track six on official. A gentle song made of guitar, flute, glockenspiel, accordion and harmonica, this track is peaceful and wonderful. It really makes me wonder why this track was not released as a single or EP, as to me, it certainly is one of the better pieces on the album despite not being too much of a standalone.
“Divinity” — Track eight on mispress, track seven on official. This eventually did get a release as a single, though it was eventually deleted and is very rare. This track is all right; it’s not great but it’s certainly not awful either. The lyrics are decently drawn together and are a lot more coherent, meaningful and more thought out than “The Galaxial Pharmaceutical.” Again, this track is quite layered and almost overly produced and yet it’s quite harmonic and well-constructed. It’s no wonder this was considered a standout track but it really is open to your personal taste. I tend to skip over it.
“Guru Song” – track nine on mispress, track eight on official version. Here’s a track that features a lot of sitar and textured beats. It’s a smooth psyche peace and the lyrics fit in nicely. I can’t find too many flaws with this one.
“Her Tongue is like a Jellyfish” – Track ten on mispress, track ten on official. Another odd cut up track with orchestral string samples and strange noises. I’m not terribly fond of this track but in no way is it a bad track. To me, it doesn’t hold up entirely well with the other material on this album; it stands out in a way that just doesn’t make it fit in.
“Meadows” – track eleven on both versions. This piece opens with a female voice, quoting what sounds like something leftover from an old ISDN transmission (only the quote was originally by a guy…?) as it leads into a gentle and soothing synth and string pad. We get into a more modern psyche flow with sitar and guitar and things stay fairly mellow without getting too textured or bogged down with production tricks. This is a decent track overall and I’m glad to see it was kept on the official release.
“High Tide on a Sea of Flesh” — track twelve on both versions. This piece is comprised of textured guitars nearly the whole way through. It really fits the title of the piece in the sense that it really could be used in a love making scene in a film. This is a bit more abstract and ambient than the rest of the album and yet, fairly organic compared to the highly textured and manipulated sounds of “Lifeforms” or “Dead Cities.” Good track for sure.
“Goodbye Sky” — Track thirteen on mispress, not appearing on official version. All right, what is this? We open with an extremely cartoony horn section and a bizarre tootie fanfare that gives way to textured guitar and lyrics that are just a bit too over the top. This kind of fits in to the same outrageousness of the “Galaxial Pharmaceutical.” I have a really hard time digesting this track and I wonder if the band did too as it was cut from the official version. Hands down, this is my least favorite track.
So what’s the final verdict? This album is highly significant for a lot of us FSOL fans for the simple fact that this was the first advancement in terms of albums since “Dead Cities,” unless you count “Translations.” This is also the first time we hear the band singe (again, outside of the “Tingler” single) and the genre had changed so dramatically that it threw a lot of us off at first. It was impressive and bold and there is no denying that. I feel this album is highly influential because it proved that the band wasn’t afraid to go in new directions and they showed us a new level of production and song construction that we hadn’t really seen before; there’s a lot for us artists/musicians can take away from this. However, with some of the wild and rampant experimentalism, I feel the album loses its direction and becomes more goofy than solid. It’s not a bad record, but I can’t get around certain aspects of it.
Should you buy it? Obviously, go for the official version unless you’re a collector. The official version has decent tracks and the layout thereof makes the flow more fluid and less jumpy. However, some tracks from the mispress are better (like “Elysian Fields”) but the renditions on the official version really aren’t bad either. The mispress version goes for 30$ and up, sometimes hitting the hundred buck mark.
This was obviously the beginning of something huge for FSOL and soon we would see the rebirth of their Amorphous Androgynous project. The future is bright!
3 out of 5.