Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Melody Maker, 1995

Some things you should know about Flying Saucer Attack. They're the Bristol
based duo of David Pearce and Rachel Brook, and their records are released in the
USA by Drag City and over here by the latter's English affiliate Domino.
Stereolab cite FSA as a current fave alongside LaBradford, US visionaries
operating in a similar lo-fi-meets-ambient zone. FSA always feature lovely
photographs of pastoral idylls on their sleeves. Their last CD, the singles
compilation Distance, bore the legend "CDs destroy music". FSA are the only band I've ever heard of who claim to be influenced by Popol Vuh, obscure
Krautrock band. And on their self-titled debut, FSA built a wall-of-noise around
Suede's "The Drowners".

All this makes Flying Saucer Attack very 'cool' indeed. But we're not
interested in 'cool', folks, are we? Our sole criterion for a guitar-brandishing
combo in 1995 is that they unloose enough memory-dissolving beauty to flood all
of Rock History's multiple precedents out of our overstuffed heads, right? So
that we're drenched, drowned, in the Here-and-Now. It's no piece of cake, given
the sheer amount of guitar-malarkey extant in the world. But FSA do it, in

That said, there is one reference point I shall dredge up, if only because
FSA have themselves cited it. Pearce & Brooks are possibly the best
effects-pedallers since prime A.R. Kane. At times, their music's drifting
tendrils of halycon haze are uncannily redolent of early A.R. Kane bliss-bowers
like "Haunted". Even though they use a 6 track studio, shun hi-tech such as
samplers, and detest digital sound, FSA belong with the post-rock posse, because
(like Alex & Rudi) they avoid riffs and powerchords and instead pulverise rock
into billowing parabolas of harmonic motes. On Further, their third
long-player but second Album, they've even lost the backbeat, thereby shedding
their last vestiges of r'n'r earthiness.

The result is a sort of kosmiche folk. FSA's formula is to situate voice &
acoustic guitar up close, against a bliss-scape of delayed, distorted,
open-tuned, fuzz-haemorrhaged guitarstuff. The effect, on songs like "In The
Light Of Time", is like sitting at the feet of a folk-minstrel (say, Nick Drake)
who's strumming and murmuring at the top of a hill, silhouetted against the
blazing glory of a West Country sunset. At times, the delicate songcraft is
utterly overwhelmed by the chromatic chaos. "For Silence" starts idyllic, a
forlorn melody swathed in guitar that trails a slipstream of reverbed
after-images, then the stream turns to weir-of-noise, a foaming torrent in which
you hallucinate a myriad fleeting melody-shapes. The white-noise slopes of "Here
Am I" induce snowblindness of the ear; if I have one criticism of FSA it's that
sometimes their sound is too overloaded, and that now and then they could afford
to make a little more room for emptiness.

A 12 minute instrumental, "To The Shore" is FSA's zenith to date--their "Bel
Air" or "Sun Falls Into The Sea". Imagine Krautrock-in-dub, or a less
inhospitable Main (isolationism, but you can bring a friend). It starts slow
and eerie with gong-like metallic percussion, breaks into a canter with
percussion so reverbed it seems to trip on its own tail and a vapour-trail of
cymbal spray, then escalates into an almighty on-rush and out-gush of timbral
mayhem, like a levee breaking inside your head and flooding the plain of
mundanity with wonder. Finally, the track subsides into a twinkling, dew-stippled
dawn-scape, like the world seen afresh through cleansed, newborn senses.

Further is the best pure-guitar LP since Royal Trux's Cats and Dogs.


Melody Maker, 1995
By Simon Reynolds

The setting is spot on-- a pretty Putney park near the Thames, on a gorgeously sunny day in almost-September. White clouds scud across oceans of azure, but there's a crisp chill in the air, a poignant premonition of autumn. Perfect Flying Saucer Attack weather, in fact, matching the way their music fuses the idyllic (wondergush guitar-chaos) and the melancholic (forlorn folkadelic melody).

We're sitting crosslegged, in a triangle, and Rachel Brook and David Pearce
are telling me how the early singles of A.R. Kane are a founding moment for the
Flying Saucer Attack aesthetic.

"When Up Home came out," says Dave, referring to the Kane boys' first Rough
Trade EP, arguably their finest fifteen minutes. "I thought, 'Yes, this signals
the start of something new'. It's the way that the guitars had these free, random
elements running against the structure. It was liberating to listen to, and yet
there was such beauty of sound. I felt, 'wow, there is still work to be done with
the electric guitar". A few years later, I felt the same about the first two
Main EP's--probably the best things Robert Hampson ever did, in Loop or later."

Bliss-rock revelations notwithstanding, Pearce's musical history starts
somewhat earlier. Now in his late twenties (Rachel's 22), he must be surely one
of the very last musicians coming through who were thunderstruck by the Sex
Pistols as they actually happened.

"In early 1977, it really seemed like society was going to fall to bits. I was
about 10 or 11. Then bands like Magazine and Wire came through..."

Which brings us neatly to FSA's new single, a cover of Wire's classic
"Outdoor Miner". Pearce was actually one of the select few who bought the single
at the time, propelling it to Number 52 in the charts. So is there an element
here of giving the finger to Menswear and Elastica, both being, shall we say,
re-interpreters of the Wire legacy?

"Oh yeah! What would have been nice, though, would have been if our version
had been any good."

Come now, it's pretty fine. The only real flaw is that the original's most
sublime moment is missing: the counterpoint melody-line that Graham Lewis
supplies towards the end, those Byrds-like backing harmonies that crush the
breath out of you.

"That's cos we only had a four-track to work on," confesses Rachel. "We just
didn't have enough tracks for double-tracking the voice."

It's nice the way you bury the solo in a fog of cotton-woolly guitarhaze,
though, so that the ear can barely pick it out.

"Yeah, it has that 'Interstellar Overdrive' quality," says Dave. "I remember
reading somewhere that 'Outdoor Miner' was Wire's Syd Barrett side coming

Elastica and Menswear and that lot have only picked up on Wire's New
Wavey-ness: the stop-start herky-jerky rhythms, Colin Newman's Mockney
pseudo-prole accent. Whereas you're working from Wire's under-acknowledged
psychedelic side.

"On the Chairs Missing LP they were using sounds that maybe you'd never
heard before, which is possibly the link with psychedelia."

Then there's "Outdoor Miner"'s aura of blessed serenity, and the lyric "in
fact it's the Earth/which he's known since birth"--which chimes in sweetly with
Flying Saucer's pastoral yearnings.

"The pastoralism comes down to the fact that as a child I used to live in the countryside, in the Cotswolds. And being a shy, quiet person, I prefer the country, 'cos you can wander off on your own. In the city you get aggro and hassle all the time."

On their three albums and innumberable 7 inch singles so far, FSA have
consistently, nay, obsessively, deployed cover images of idyllic Nature: cloud-
castles in the sky, scintillating seascapes at sunset, lakeshore trees reflected
in limpid water, ebbtide beaches at dusk. Then there's the song titles: "Land
Beyond The Sun", "In The Light Of Time", "To The Shore", "Standing Stone",
"November Mist", "Oceans"... Bit of a thematic thread, here: impressive
metereological phenomena, vast remoteness, solitude, the scent of Eternity...

"Anything that isn't to do with anybody else in the human race, basically!",
chuckles Dave. "I'm not deliberately antisocial but I do feel uncomfortable in
the company of people. I don't suffer from depression, but I get waves of feeling
utterly alone. I've had 'em since I was about four years old. When we were doing
Further, I gathered together the 50 percent of the tracks we'd recorded that were any good, put it on a cassette and then listened to it as an album. It was a bit of a shock! I thought: 'am I really that miserable?".

FSA's combination of neo-folk rusticism with misery-guts life-stance and
softly-softly singing echoes two of Dave's personal faves: Nick Drake and Roy
Harper circa Stormcock. Another huge and even more arcane influence is the
kosmiche folk of obscure Krautrock combo Popol Vuh.

"I don't class Popol as part of that Can/Faust/Neu axis, cos they weren't
so rhythmically based," says Dave, "Having finally managed to hear practically
everything they released, some 18 albums, I'm amazed at the sheer breadth of
Popol's music--massive percussion stuff, Moogy electronic proto-ambient, flowery
pastoralism.... In the late '70s they got really dark with lots of ritualistic
chants. Then they did all these records with cavernous-sounding, distorted
electric guitars. But the real key is the incredible 24 minute long track track
with the church organ on In Den Garten Pharaos: if you're a bad moood that
track sounds really evil, but if you're in a good mood it just sounds angelic."


Generalising wildly, you could says there's two camps in post-rock; those
whose orientation is overtly technological (Laika, Techno-Animal, Disco Inferno)
and those based around an overt avoidance of state-of-art hi-tech (Stereolab,
Labradford, the Dead C). It's in this latter zone, lo-fi-verging-on-ambient, that
you'll find Flying Saucer Attack.

"I hated that '80s rock sound, and it's sort of spilled over into an
irrational hatred of digital," says Dave. "I don't even own a CD player. I just
can't relate to CD's. It's not so much the way they sound as the things
themselves, those horrible plastic boxes".

"A piece of vinyl is a physical object, you can see the songs," concurs
Rachel. "With a CD, it's like a satellite's beaming the music into your room."

"I am a very miserable person, right," says Dave, in his peculiar mix of
forthright declamation and self-deprecation. "Records are your friends. You can
look at the song you're hearing, it's physically there in the spirally groove."

For all their four-track recording fetish and ever-so-slightly hypocritical habit of putting slogans like "CD's destroy music" on the CD version of their LP's, FSA are not total Luddites. They like some digital music, in particular Mo' Wax style trip hop. On the B-side of "Outdoor Miner", you'll find "Psychic Driving"--for FSA, an unusually rhythmic outing verging on a guitar-noise/trip-hop amalgam.

"Sometimes we just like to do something a bit silly, throw some ideas in the
air. I started with this sound like a cymbal, but it's actually a snare fed
through a distortion box. It sounded a bit like the Aphex Twin so I thought 'hey,
a dance track, why not?'. Then Rachel salvaged it."

In just over two years, FSA have put out four albums (two studio LP's
plus a pair of compilations of singles/B-sides/oddities); in the process, they've
pretty much honed to perfection their thang, the beatific noisescape. Now they
seem aware that it's probably time to veer sideways out of the potentially
entropic cul de sac of pure ambience, and embark on a new, more rhythm-oriented
direction. When it comes out in November, the fourth LP/second compilation
(provisionally titled Distance 2) will serve to wrap up their work so far,
closing one chapter of FSA and leaving the future wide open.

But back to the present. Any last words for Menswear?

"Colin Newman is onto you."

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