Listening Experience: Flying Saucer Attack – Instrumentals 2015

It took me a while to get into this record, hence the belated review. It was not a lack of familiarity with Flying Saucer Attack’s material. I knew their music back in the nineties when the band took the lessons from shoe-gaze and offered the world a sound at once textured and emotionally nuanced. Instrumentals 2015, an album of 15 guitar instrumentals is layered and intricate and demands a different listening approach to most other albums.

Though it took some time, I wouldn’t say the album “grew” on me. The appreciation was not a musical boil I found one morning. Rather I puzzled over the album until the realization came. My ‘a-ha‘ moment was when construction work was taking place on a nearby building. The repetitive industrial hammering fit so well with the music I thought David Pearce, now the only member of Flying Saucer Attack (FSA), was revisiting the percussive primitivism of “Psychic Driving“. It took me a moment to remember that the album was only guitar, no accompaniment. But the sounds melded so well together.

The haphazard confluence of music and noise brought me back to questions of about music and noise, namely the distinction, which I haven’t addressed. I’m a sucker for a tune, but song craft can be insular. The parts work with, and are aware of, each other.  Their aim is to carry the whole. Here the music was reaching out beyond the speakers as it were, not a distraction but an interaction.

I recalled an interview with pianist Chris Abrahams, in which he discussed the music of The Necks. To very loosely paraphrase him, he spoke with a refreshing disinterest as to whether the audience paid attention. He seemed – if memory serves me correctly – to prefer The Neck’s music to exist in its context – true ambient music in that it was part of the space and not ambient as a mere genre. After the incursion of the construction noise, I decided the best approach to Instrumentals 2015 was similar – to let the music be part of the space and moment.

Taken as a whole, the sounds are at turns introspective, visceral, hypnotic and expansive. Like any atmospheric music, Instrumentals 2015 can allow the space without to reflect the head space within. This is especially true of the brooding funereal tracks in which the guitar produces these washes of sound. Their at times shimmering quality adds to the immersive nature of the listening experience. That the means of producing the sounds, though not necessarily the sounds themselves, is the same lends a cohesion to the album. It has a unity of material – in the sense of an artist’s materials. It is the expression which varies.

The album succeeds in specific technical ways as well as in the broader aesthetic ones. Pearce coaxes a range of sounds from his guitar. “Instrumental 2” has a watery texture reminiscent to “Oceans” from Distance, and each note resounds with the depth of a horn rather than a guitar string. On the next track, the sound approaches something more like a sitar or at times violin. This violin like quality is repeated on “Instrumental 5”. With “Instrumental 13” Pearce conjures up sounds more reminiscent of a church organ, even bringing to mind vaulted ceilings and stain glass. The organ sound returns in the sheets of chords which draws the final track to a close. It is not the chameleonic nature of the guitar work which make the work interesting. Pearce employs the sounds to conjure a variety of moods. Thus, he explores the emotional range of the electric guitar along with its sonic capabilities.

When the sound is more obviously of a guitar, the range is evident. “Instrumental 10” is a clean pastoral piece built on arpeggios. It evokes a wide open space or perhaps the first rays of light of dawn. “Instrumental 11” on the other hand rings with a more metallic sound. Pearce comes close to riffing at time, albeit in a very subdued FSA fashion. Interestingly, the pieces together make an evocative centre-piece for the work as a whole.

If there is one overall criticism of the work, it is that the attention to space and texture has come at the expense of tension and dynamism. Only one track “Instrumental 4” shows real development.  It begins with an almost Gregorian dirge before a few stray notes flit through toward the end. The remaining pieces are more static. Static can be crystalline, harmonious and thus beautiful. But it makes demands on the audience’s concentration.

An additional reservation I have about the album is the absence of Pearce’s voice. On  earlier releases, it hovered low in the mix under the banks of fuzz and drone and gave the songs an additional dimension. The hesitancy of his delivery was a song’s emotional core. Though the words were often indecipherable, there was no mistaking that a person was mumbling them. Instrumentals 2015 for all its artistic depth, commitment and courage doesn’t come close to achieving the peculiar warmth of the early FSA releases. The music is undeniably expressive but it is an expression best enjoyed on reflection.

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