4 out of 5
Label: VHF Records
Produced by: Bruce Russell, Jim O’Rourke (edited by, mixed by)
Note: In the review, for the sequence and referring to the tracks as “parts,” I’m going by the digital release, as that’s how I first listened to this. The LP labeling is confusing to me, with one LP labeled “Side 1” and “Side 3” and the other 2 and 4, so it was easier to go by the digital names.
I can’t say I ever really know what to expect from Flying Saucer Attack. I realize that amorphous nature is part of their makeup, and despite the commonly bandied descriptor “rural psychedelia” – offered up by the group itself – while I think that definitely encompasses their more approachable work, they venture off into the unknown commonly enough that I can’t go into an album expecting that as the denominator. I also have to admit to some trepidation when diving into their work, as the DIY, feedback-drenched sound, as applied to their dreamier, wandering compositions, is a little off my radar – I like my outre music maybe a bit more directly noisy, or folky, or whatever. FSA likes to hang around in the middleground.
But then again, sometimes they nail what I’m looking for, and that pops up about half the time on the way experimental In Search of Spaces set, a rare live set that favored a heavily distorted, white noise approach. The other half of the time, you really have to dig for the content, since it is absolutely buried under lo-fi, maybe even moreso than usual, making the first passes on this material a little bland. But it’s worth the listening investment. And now, made available only in very limited CD quantities initially, VHF has brought it to vinyl, with some cut material reinstated and a new mix on the “Part 4”.
The “Parts” can be ignored as songs – they just designated the entire side of the LP. Those Parts have their own divides where the group (Sam Jones, Debbie Parsons, Matt Elliot, Rachel Coe, and Dave Pearce at this point) shifts gear, generally pretty dramatically – I don’t know how much, if any, of material was dropped between these divides, such as chatter or something as the group sets up, but it’s very clear when one improved section ends and the next begins. That said, I might be short-changing the “arrangements” here: some Parts have bookends which definitely frame the mid-section, and there’s a vague theme that does drift in and out of the more, er, musical moments.
Parts 1 and 4 are where I initially glommed onto this, as they are cacophonous magic. They’re also a bit more structured than the middle parts, with cleaner intro / outros and a focus on evolving their featured clatter. The overall sound of In Search of Spaces is sans anything clean, or folksy – it’s shimmering, hazy guitar and distant drums, layered and layered and layered with who knows what else, but sounding occasionally like horns, or keys, or maybe some death squalls. It is a definitive wall of noise. And Parts 1 and 4 wield that as a weapon – you can imagine being in the crowd at the show and trying to get a feel for the music, and then being rather terrified by its all-encompassing nature. I don’t mean to suggest the volume exactly goes up or that FSA does any breakdowns (excepting some brief rock at the end of Part 2!), but those opening and closing Parts are like horror movie walks down hallways – just letting tension build and then suddenly you realize you’re being stalked.
That ominousness is probably the best part of the album: the whole thing carries with it this unsettled vibe, and random blasts of distorted “instruments,” as well as all of the barely heard whispers of percussion and whatever else, add to that.
Parts 2 and 3 are where it takes some digging, though. These lean more into drone, or ambience, but the problem is… I don’t think they’re intended to. And because of that, listening to them in this fashion isn’t that satisfactory – they’re both too loose and too undeveloped to really hit those marks. However, on subsequent listens (with headphones, with significant volume), I started to hear how much stuff is just absolutely buried under a wash of fuzz, and then these actually became moderately closer to other FSA touchpoints, but also just more interesting in general: the more you revisit and the more sounds you identify, the more varied in nature the Parts become. This makes that rock outro on Part 2 pretty amusing, as it’s a sudden moment of clarity, and sort of a pause and a reward for your listening patience.
Patience, indeed, is a big key here. This is admittedly not the most accessible music in the world, but it’s also not directly out to antagonize or navel-gaze, as some experimental music tends to, and the synchronized, nervy mood of the whole project is definitely unique and grabbing enough for this kind of thing to lure one in for a closer look, which is to be rewarded.