Under various group names, former electrical engineering students Gary Cobain and Brian Dougans have been allied with nearly every electronic dance-music trend that has swept through England since 1986. In those years, the two have also moved from recording music representative of a specific genre to transcending any single style. Their first hit, 1988’s “Stakker Humanoid” (credited to the group Humanoid), showed their skill at riding a bandwagon. With blowing whistles, fast machine beats, a robotic voice repeating the word “humanoid” and wobbling, pitch-shifted synthesizer sounds, “Stakker Humanoid” quickly became a classic in England’s pre-techno acid-house scene. The song might not have required a lot of imagination but it does reveal the duo’s affinity for sound arrangement.
The pair used this gift to ride dance music through its next wave of trends, recording variants of techno and house (with additional influences in the electro-industrial music of bands like Cabaret Voltaire) under such names as Art Science Technology, Mental Cube, Intelligent Communication, Smart Systems, Semi-Real, Indo Tribe and Yage. But it wasn’t until the duo settled down as Future Sound of London and began de-emphasizing rhythm in favor of atmospheric sounds and samples that it began to develop its reputation as one of ambient dance music’s most respected innovators.
FSOL’s first single, “Papua New Guinea,” takes elements of techno, house, dub reggae and world music to create a spacey, haunting sound collage. Pianos tinkle, electronics bubble, an ethereal voice floats in and out of the mix and a polyrhythmic beat thumps away hypnotically. The song is included on Accelerator, one of the first techno albums that holds up as more than just a collection of singles. Though Accelerator is essentially a dance album (“Expander” and “Pulse State” are especially entrancing), the band pays particular attention to arranging the moody electronics and sound effects in the introductions and breaks of each song.
On Lifeforms, the band concentrates even more on continuity, taking the sounds it previously isolated in song introductions and breaks and extending them for two full CDs. With each song flowing into the next and certain sound effects recurring throughout the whole album, the meticulously arranged Lifeforms works best as a single piece of music listened to while lying down in the dark instead of dancing in a club. Toni Halliday of Curve adds ethereal vocalizations to “Cerebral”; Robert Fripp’s light guitar textures provide a foundation for the whirring, laughing sounds of “Flak.” With the sounds of rushing water, flapping bird wings, bamboo flutes, windswept chimes and acoustic guitar rubbing up against percolating synthesizers and all kinds of heavily processed electronic sounds, Lifeforms is thinking-person’s new age. (The “Lifeforms” single takes apart the album’s title track, adds new vocals by Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and divides it into seven sections stretched across a total of 38 minutes.)
With Lifeforms, Future Sound of London took the technology of dance music and freed themselves from the genre. On Tales of Ephidrina, recorded as Amorphous Androgynous, the band takes one last, loving look at dance music, alternating atmospheric tracks with hard-hitting dance numbers, all mixed together with a disk jockey’s sense of unity. In even the simplest drum-and-keyboard rave number, the band makes sure it keeps listeners’ ears occupied with a constant barrage of strange, twittering sounds buried beneath the surface. Throughout its career, Future Sound of London has made innovative computer-animated videos for its songs, most capturing the band’s sense of musical flow by depicting objects continuously morphing into new shapes. This led to the group reinventing itself as a forward-looking collective of multi-media renegades. Instead of performing in person, they began broadcasting live audio-visual concerts from their London studio to clubs and Internet users around the world. ISDN, an acronym for Integrated Services Digital Network, captures one such performance. Although originally released and deleted on the same day (a gimmick also employed regularly by the Orb and others), ISDN was later reissued as a regular release. Where Lifeforms is pretty, ISDN is quirky. Instead of trying to create a fluid, tranquil environment, the band jumps from funk-jazz grooves to pure electronic noise. Songs like “Appendage” have moments of serenity, where a synthesizer drones over rushing water sounds, but background noises like metallic clanging give this version of ambience a dark edge. In “Egypt,” FSOL returns to its roots in techno-industrial music, but for most of the album the band extends its talent for sound collage to a palette in which dance music is just one small element.