The Future Sound of London spent the early '90s burrowing downward from heights of feel-good all-instrumental synth-wash ambient techno (peaking with the double CD Lifeforms) into the deliciously dark and claustrophobic depths of their 1996 masterpiece, Dead Cities. They had the zeitgeist by the short hairs, referencing all sorts of nascent technophobias and philias before it became de rigueur to do so. And then, just when the sort of music they played was beginning to get attention from the bigger-name monthlies, they disappeared from view.
In the intervening years, electronic music has become the rule rather than the exception; vocals and lyrics have been eased from the foreground to somewhere nearer the middle in much popular music, and it is no longer astonishing to learn that there are no live instruments on any given recording. It's not surprising, therefore, that the new album from FSOL -- a group whose contrarianism is the stuff of legend -- should feature plenty of wood-and-string instruments, skin-and-stick drum kits, some traditionally structured songs and, most shocking of all, lyrics and vocals. Given that this was one of the earliest groups to have sworn off live instruments entirely, this is a pretty bold move. Does it work?
Partially; sometimes. Head man Garry Cobain still has a terrifically keen ear and an exacting touch, so the production is excellent throughout The Isness: The sounds he coaxes from his sources are rich, dense, full tones into which a listener can disappear dreamily for minutes at a time. The futuristic psychedelia that serves as the album's motif is wonderfully effective at times, especially on shorter songs such as "Osho," a straight-outta-space drone for sitar, water sounds and voice, or the microsymphonic jewel called "Her Tongue Is Like a Jellyfish," which is at once comforting and vaguely threatening. There are plenty of rabbit holes for the adventurous ear. But those vocals and lyrics? Well, they're awful, and quite distractingly so on two of the album's longer numbers. Only four songs of the album's twelve are marred by this ill-advised foray into the land of verse-chorus, and they're easily programmed around, but they do cast a slight pall over the otherwise very welcome return of one of the music world's more interesting minds. Credit where credit's due for taking risks, of course: They could have taken the easy route and just gone over old ground. They didn't, and they succeeded a little better than half of the time. Pretty good, all told. Pretty good.