A return to the archive series. ISDN was originally released on December 2nd, 1994. This review was originally published on December 16th, 2009.
Such is the all consuming and breakneck speed of progress that the liner notes to ISDN read like a telegram from a world as far away as Atlantis. Written by Gary Cobain – the public face of Future Sound of London, the private one being Brian Dougans – they speak of the enmancipating power of technology, a parable of how twentieth century communication had also enabled the disembodiment of performance.
Electronic music had long provided a intractactable paradox in the fields of art and human connectivity, one underlined by Kraftwerk, for whom the tedium of live performance had given way early in their careers to an ingenious strain of personal substitution. Cobain himself used the essay which accompanied the stark black and white sleeve of ISDN to recall some of it’s fringe benefits, namely, “Indiscreet blow jobs in chauffeur driven limos”. Many a traditional rock star would salute the decadence of this clandestine sex, but more self consciously the author spoke of his Situationist-type rejection of entertainment as part of the spectacle, the premise which was ascribed by the movement to the opiate of mass consumed un-art.
In it’s most basic terms, ISDN is a collection of pieces delivered “As live” using newly launched telecommunications connectivity to various radio stations during 1994. That Cobain chose to surround the excercise with more esoteric thoughts on the very nature of proximity and an individual’s experience was typical: despite the backing of Virgin and a past which included the glistery rave comedown anthem Papua New Guinea, as a duo with Dougans both had helped stretch the “Intelligent techno” envelope to points of avant-garde distortion.
In this incarnation they made music that they once described as “Immersive soup”, but here the tone is more about the abstract, far out places of experimentation which echo the krautrock, free jazz and psychedelic nuances which became their later avatars. As a case in point, Smokin’ Japanese Babe lopes with a spooky trip-hop beat, double bass sound and plaintive trumpet, whilst Far Out Son Of Lung and the ramblings of a Madman saddles a destructive break with looped power chords to create a strangely uncomfortable dissonance.
The duo appeared to enjoy these plentiful mind-f*cks (For casual afficiandoes of their coffee table techno work Life-Forms, that is). The louche funk undertones of Snake Hips and white noise It’s My Mind That Works stand as two further examples, but they resisted the temptation to completely reject structure for total lysergic abandon. This pulling back from the abyss meant that almost familiar patterns could still emerge, with the more syncopated 4/4 constrictions of Egypt and the childishly ambient A Study of Six Guitars helping to balance the cryptic sprawl that surrounded it. This smorgasbord ensures that the listener finds themselves rarely able to settle into mood, and with a final touch of irony, the less than invitingly titled Eyes Pop – Skin Explodes – Everbody’s Dead unravels from a stacatto introduction to become the most inclusionist/backward looking, rippling slightly off kilter bells and bleeps conjuring up evocations of a twenty third century cyborg-Bond theme tune.
As worthy a project as ISDN is, there’s still a feeling that beneath the noble cause of deconstructing the concept of performance, Cobain and Dougans were seeing if they could release the musical equivalent of a circular Picasso. And whilst it’s undoubtedly one of the most experimental records ever released with mainstream distribution, it’s real antecedents were Syd Barrett and Rocky Erickson, both men who stepped out of mind to level the ego and gain the altered perspective really needed to explore this music.