When I was first getting into electronic music about 10 years ago (yeah, late bloomer I know), The Future Sound Of London was one of the first groups that I found myself descending upon. Although a lot of their work sounds a bit dated now, they also managed to create a fairly solid body of work, some of which still moves me quite a bit. Their collaboration with Liz Frazier of the Cocteau Twins on the track "Lifeforms" is still a winner, and their last two albums (ISDN and Dead Cities) have both managed to find time in my CD player in the past couple months.
That last album arrived back in 1996, though, and other than a couple maxi singles for "My Kingdom" and "We Have Explosives," the group seemingly disappeared. I didn't even realize that they were close to releasing a new album until the date was nearly upon me, and although it had been years since I'd heard from the rather strange duo (check out the movie Modulations if you don't believe me), I was rather excited to hear what they'd been up to. The early reviews that I read said they'd changed their sound and gone in a completely different direction, and for the most part they're right.
While the group has always indulged their tripped-out side (although perhaps not as much as peers The Orb), The Isness finds them embracing the psychedelic sound full-on and delving into much more of an organic sound. While the electronic elements are there, the group has by in large set aside the layers of electronic sound for actual instruments. Not just any instruments, either. Going off like they've just arrived back from a globe-trotting instrument buying trip, the duo breaks out sitars, all kinds of flutes and woodwind instruments, string-quartets, slide guitar, banjo, upright bass, chimes, harps, etc, etc. Interestingly enough, the group manages to pull most of it off, but not without some stops into new-age and downright silly territory.
Opening with a funky bass groove and a nice mix of synth strings and wanky guitar, "The Lovers" starts off the disc in nearly familiar territory. It has enough of an electronic vibe that it sounds like the group, but works in some organic elements like past tracks such as "Snake Hips" did so well. The album-titled "The Isness" starts things down the path to tripsville, though, a short instrumental mixing heavily reverbed sitar and bass, which soon drifts into the unfortunately-titled "The Mello Hippo Disco Show." Anchored by some grimy organ, a filtered choir and other layers of keyboards, absolutely absurd lyrics ('she's hiding from the yo-yo/it's a real no-no/life with jo-jo/a real no no no') just give the track sort of a confused feel.
Fortunately, the album gets back on course with the excellent "Elysian Fields" (mixing processed flutes and keyboards with a rumbling beat) and "Guru Song" (layers of ping-ponged tablas and sitar melodies collide with subtle beats). In fact, the instrumentation on the album is some of the most intersting mix of electronic and international that I've heard in a long time. Middle-eastern sounds collide with digital trickery and other subtle layers (strings are used particularly well) for some truly amazing songs. "Meadows" starts out with sort of a hippy-dippy sound sample, but soon floats into a beautiful little instrumental track mixing acoustic guitar, violin, sitar and some quiet layers of electronics. Likewise, the beginning of "Divinity" adds different layers as the song progresses, building into a cinematic feast of tablas, horns, plucked strings, and acoustic guitar. During the second half, vocals come in and shave away much of the original wonder of the track without completely diminishing it.
If I had to pinpoint something that bothered me about the release, it would probably be the vocals. While I can't fault the group for trying something different, most of the time they simply don't add anything to the tracks that they're on. Lyrically speaking, they walk the line between passable and downright silly (see above track "Mello Hippo Disco Show"), but sublime instrumentation tends to be more trancelike to me than nearly any lyrics could be. Despite that and the fact that it veers off into rather 'safe' territory much of the time (gone are the pummeling beats of older releases), it's still pretty darn good most of the time, and a very insteresting direction for the group. Considering how much of a disaster it could have been given the elements that went into it, it's good to have the group back again. Hopefully they don't take another 6 years to put together their next release.