Understated Classics #39: Lifeforms by Future Sound of London

Lifeforms is the 1994 album from the Future Sound of London. A double album (just), it also features the talents of Robert Fripp, Ozric Tentacles, Talvin Singh, Toni Halliday, and Liz Frazer. It reached number 6 on the UK album chart and went silver.

I have wanted to write about the Lifeforms album for a long time. In 2012, I even tried learning how to tell the tracks apart from one another. It was not a success. Ten years later, I know some of them but not all. I know all the music, of course, but the album as a whole resists my trainspotter-like urge to identify the margins and components of every track.

Aware that I have written about quite a few ambient albums for this series, it’s worth noting the ways in which Lifeforms differs from say Eno and Budd’s Ambient 2 or The Shamen’s Arbor Bona Arbor Mala. Lifeforms is very much composed electronic ambient, rather something generated. This is despite the provision of ‘textures’ on many tracks, Liz Frazer’s wordless contributions to the title track, and the other fragments and samples that echo through the album. While the album evolves much like the titular lifeforms it is meant to evoke, it also feels deliberate and planned in many places – a series of coincidences and accidents that were nonetheless put into motion.

A good example of this is the opening track Cascade. The album version plays out in about six minutes, built largely on a heartbeat, some flutes and wind chimes, and a series of ringing circular riffs. To me, it sounds nothing like a waterfall, though its insistent nature makes the tune more about thoughts flowing through one’s mind rather than the sight of water cascading from a cliff or what have you.

Several tracks on Lifeforms take this more abstract approach, often using found sound as bait rather than basis. Bird Wings begins with the sound of fluttering wings, but it’s more of a cacophony of them, the sound of feathers brushing into the space between you and the source of the music.

Everywhere, tunes emerge out of the ambience. Among Myselves starts off sounding like a novelty track, with echoing dialogue from a film rippling around. The sound stage plays tricks on you in that way the Orb are so fond of, echoing from side to side, but eventually these tricks also get worked into the music. When I play this track to our cats, they don’t mind the voices, but the big fat synth sounds kicking in really freaks them out.

I first listened to the album on cassette. Comically, I returned my copy of The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld to Our Price for ‘sounding weird’. To be fair, it did, but it was probably my cheap walkman rather than the tape. I picked up Lifeforms instead. On tapes, you got no help with where tracks begin and end, especially if the track list provides no timings and the tracks all run into one another. I loved side one, which ran a continuous 38 minutes (ending with those peculiar squelches of Among Myselves), but I found the 52 minutes of side two a bit harder going. And don’t get me started on how annoying the fourteen-minute gap was! Fast forwarding cost valuable battery life!

When I got the album on CD later, I was able to determine the divisions between the tracks. For example, I learned that the sample in Bird Wings is actually at the end of the track and the lovely riff that kicks in afterward is the start of Dead Skin Cells. I still thought that the second disc dragged somewhat, though as I started to collect the singles I began to appreciate tracks like Lifeform Ends and Elaborate Burn. These tracks were respectively part of the Lifeforms and Cascade singles.

If I’m honest, one of the reasons why I never got to Lifeforms in 2012 when starting the Understated Classics was that I still found it a bit long and amorphous. I would prefer to put on the Lifeforms single, where they made so much more of Liz Frazer’s amazing vocals (Massive Attack’s Teardrop did not come out of nowhere) even she didn’t think much of it herself. Or what about Cascade? The single version took those wonderful visions of the thoughts in your head and played them out over a blissful twenty-eight minutes. Another later single would perfect their technique of extending and extrapolating their tunes: the five-part 31-minute My Kingdom single from the Dead Cities album is still my go-to FSOL fix.

The vinyl version of the album is the reason I’ve written about it now. It sounds fantastic. There’s also something about splitting up the second half of the album over two sides that improves the pacing. The act of flipping a piece of vinyl over, never mind switching from one disc to another, has always seemed like a faff to me. With Lifeforms though, I’m addicted to flipping it over and then moving to the next piece of vinyl, and I’ve played the album all the way through so many more times than I ever did on cassette or CD.

I’d never set much stall in the idea that music sounds better on vinyl until I heard the reissue of this album. The sound is so clear and there’s so much going on at every level in the mix. Perhaps I’m biased. Either my memory of the album means I know what highlights I’m listening for, or I’m just attempting to justify buying it for a THIRD time (or maybe both). Nevertheless, it’s this version that I’m submitting as an understated classic, a marvellous and absorbing album that transports me to both past and future every time I listen.

Additional note

Another reason I love Lifeforms is the artwork. My journey through the various formats have taken me ever closer to how the artwork was originally intended to be seen. The cover art is strong enough that there’s no mention of the band name or the album title at all, just a mysterious girl holding up a floating sea anemone.

The interior of the vinyl gatefold was cropped a bit on the cassette, and was also shrunk down for the CD. It depicts a barren landscape and over it are superimposed the girl from the cover, a jellyfish, and a nightmarish tentacular blob. Said blob was an early instance of computer-generated art. This made me think it was cool enough to show to my cool uncle one time. Big mistake. He reacted vehemently: “Matthew the people who made this” and here he turned away as though the image itself contained some hidden contagion, “… are clearly on some very dangerous drugs”.

Whether my uncle was right or not (spoiler: maybe, one review stated that the album “sweats LSD, 2CB, DMT and psilocybin from every pore”), the artwork still looks fucking cool nearly thirty years later.

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· Understated Classics, Electronic, Music, Future Sound of London, Twenty Two

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