As my musical tastes were changing and expanding in the early 90’s, one of my favorite discoveries was the Lo-Fi/Psychedelic/Shoegaze/Noise/Ambient scene happening in Bristol, England at the time (concurrent with Bristol’s tenure as the home of twee-pop indie powerhouse Sarah Records).
That scene’s most iconic release is Flying Saucer Attack’s self-titled 1993 album. It’s a mesmerizing soup of noisy guitars, gauzy vocals, lo-fi production, and the sense of a couple of musicians (the band was Dave Pearce and Rachel Brook at the time) exploring the boundary between melody and noise that defines a lot of the best Shoegaze, although that’s not a label I’d necessarily slap on this album. While it shares some aural qualities with Shoegaze, it’s generally much looser and more experimental. The one really structured song on the album is a wonderfully fuzzed-out version of Suede’s “The Drowners” that remains one of my favorite covers to this day.
Over the years, Flying Saucer Attack drew collaborators from a collective of Bristol bands including Movietone, Amp, Crescent, and The Third Eye Foundation. Those bands wandered through a wide range of styles – from quiet minimalism to blasted-out Drum ‘n’ Bass – but they shared a similar passion for pushing the boundaries of musical sound and form. Subsequent FSA releases took the basic blueprint of the debut and gently expanded it in interesting new directions – a bit more acoustic guitar here, a bit more noise there, some more experimentation on this one, new styles of percussion on that one… As a body of work, there’s enough variety to keep things interesting, but also enough consistency that each release is identifiable as FSA.
The newly released Instrumentals 2015 is the first new full-length from Flying Saucer Attack in 15 years, and as soon as I heard about it, it was at the top of my “can’t wait to hear” list. And was it worth the wait? Hmmmm…
After listening through the album, my first thought was, “well, I’ll probably never listen to that again” (although I did, twice, to give it a fair shot before writing this review). It’s not a bad album, but beyond the novelty of being the first new FSA music after a long absence, it just doesn’t have a lot to recommend repeat plays. Per the title, the tracks are all instrumental (titled “Instrumental 1” through “Instrumental 15”). They’re built with electric guitar and effects, and they range in length from less than a minute to almost 10 minutes. In general, they meander through various sonic textures without any particular sense of structure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “aimless guitar noodling”, but it does have a bit of an unfinished feeling… like improv sessions that were meant to serve as source material for songs that would be constructed later.
There are interesting moments, certainly. Here and there the album recalls some of Windy & Carl’s more freeform outings, and it occasionally brings to mind Low frontman Alan Sparhawk’s Solo Guitar. The harsh squeal of “Instrumental 6” even evokes a bit of Merzbow. So there’s some variety there, just not a lot of aural hooks to grab onto over the course of almost an hour.
I have a lot of respect for musicians who find interesting ways to experiment with the sonic possibilities of a solo guitar – I’ve even made some of that music myself – and I really wanted to love this album. But the next time I get in a Flying Saucer Attack mood, odds are I’ll break out the debut, or maybe 2000’s genre-hopping Mirror and leave Instrumentals 2015 on the shelf.
By phil locke