Out There: Flying Saucer Attack's Debut LP, 20 Years On
, November 6th, 2013 06:35
Nick Talbot of Gravenhust celebrates the Bristolian lo-fi brilliance of early Flying Saucer Attack
In the early 1990s, while major studios were embracing ultra-crisp digital recording technology, many of the eras seminal releases were proudly exhibiting a marked deterioration in fidelity. The genesis of the lo-fi movement lay in a hugely significant meeting of mind and machine: a widely disseminated post punk DIY ethos which liberated the ubiquitous home four-track cassette recorder from its intended role as a humble tool for making demo tapes, and legitimised it as a medium for creating masterpieces, to be distributed globally by pioneering labels such as Domino and Kill Rock Stars.
In the USA this movement was typified by the glorious early output of Guided By Voices, Sebadoh and Elliott Smith, while in Bristol, England, Flying Saucer Attack’s unprecedentedly noisy debut took lo-fi to hitherto uncharted depths by making technologically compromised bedroom amateurism an essential part of its unique, rural psychedelia. This outrageous disregard for music industry engineering standards was innovatory, but it was also totemic: the next incarnation of an ethos which in the intervening years had given us the thousands of white label dance 12"s that saved the vinyl medium from a major label-led campaign of forced extinction.
For Flying Saucer Attack, resistance to the major’s digital cultural cleansing was a necessary form of aesthetic terrorism, crafting a sound that made a virtue of the hissy mechanics of four-track-cassette-to-vinyl duplication, and celebrating it with sleeve notes and run out groove etchings stating "compact discs are a major cause of the breakdown of society” and “home taping is reinventing music”.
But Flying Saucer Attack was also created by sonic processes which to this day remain partly shrouded in mystery. The outfit’s diffident visionary Dave Pearce spoke of his obsession with Popol Vuh, and lacking access to orchestral arrangements he attempted emulation with whatever he had to hand. In particular, (and it is worth noting that this is on a par with Kevin Shield's ‘glider’ tremolo technique in its sonic originality and startling costless efficacy), he found a way of emulating a choral ensemble by turning down the tone dial of his electric guitar and gently drawing a screwdriver crossways against the strings, through a distortion and a delay unit. I spent two years baffled by this effect, assuming it must involve synthesizers, until I saw Flying Saucer Attack supporting Tortoise at the Electric Ballroom in Camden in 1995. Naturally it immediately became a staple of my own Gravenhurst sound.
There were plenty more codes to be cracked and stolen: squalling clarinets, mesmerically delayed tribal percussion and pitch-shifted howls and moans, appearing and disappearing in a rainstorm of autodidactic chaos. While the debut album and associated early releases feature significant instrumentation from Rachel Brook (soon of Movietone), Flying Saucer Attack was effectively a one-man-band with a supporting cast recruited from a Bristol scene centred around Planet Records, a small label with big ideas, and Revolver, a legendary record store which also functioned as a kind of community centre for vinyl-mad eccentrics.
By the time I moved to the city to study, this communality had dissipated as the principal players signed to Domino Records and Planet’s founder Richard King joined the label’s staff. I nonetheless bunked off lectures to spend hours getting stoned with Revolver’s resident radical noisician Matt Elliott who informed my purchases, encouraged my nascent songwriting and indulged my fan-boy fascination with the unravelling Planet cabal: the rustic, minimal Movietone, their enigmatic brother-band Crescent, and Matt’s own Third Eye Foundation: a relentless black comedy of breakbeat brutalism and bitter humour that plays out like a frightened, wounded and unwelcome urban reality check to Flying Saucer Attack’s pastoral idyll. I admired them equally.
These bands liberated me from the whole “demo tape” mind-set - the established order of ceremony where a band might fiddle with a four-track in their practice room but mainly saves up to go to a proper studio, so they can record bewildered and disoriented versions of their best songs, and send them unsolicited to labels with their fingers crossed. I realised it was not just legitimate but essential to one’s sanity to make the best records you could with whatever you had to hand and distribute them yourself. That was a long time ago and a different world, but websites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud in some respects represent a continuation of this ethos, albeit with important and complicated differences, limitations and freedoms. More interesting than the finer details of such comparisons is the fact of how little Flying Saucer Attack has dated; its unique balance of noise and ethereality recreating a temporally static sound-world with each listen. And it is a beautiful world.
Pearce was unashamedly romantic, with song titles such as 'Standing Stone' 'My Dreaming Hill' 'Moonset' and 'The Season Is Ours' using a pagan semiology to paint an escapist fantasy. And buried deep - often very deep - beneath the haunting swirls lie naive pop gems as perfectly formed as those on Ride’s early EPs. Much of Flying Saucer Attack’s output can be understood as the result of a tension between Pearce’s instinctive ear for a melody, and his irresistible urge to completely obliterate it in an onslaught of feedback.
The resulting ‘spot-the-tune’ challenge can be daunting for beginners, but some unlikely signposting is offered via an obscenely distorted cover of Suede’s ‘The Drowners’. The impassive vocal delivery empties the song of all its raunch, and the coupling of listless introversion with untamed sheets of shrieking noise mock’s Suede’s staged theatricality. It is jarring; shocking even, an act of musical transgression, and the sentiment suggests a disdain for the burgeoning Britpop band’s affected identity as well as a nodding respect for their songcraft. And clearly Pearce wasn’t lacking a sense of humour.
But making music for his own edification, the appearance of his band name on a record sleeve represented fulfillment of his vision, ritualistically ending his relationship with a set of recordings so he could experiment afresh. The unanticipated feedback loop of critical praise, interview requests, pressure to promote Flying Saucer Attack as a touring act, and a modest but serious cult following seemed to disrupt this creative cycle. While there were likely other factors, those alone were sufficient to destabilise countless artists before him. These events seemed to coincide with the Chorus compilation’s sleevenote announcement that the release marked the end of ‘FSA phase one’. For many, myself included, the ‘phase two’ releases lack the peerless balance of intent and indeterminacy, vision and blind faith that had resulted in four classic LPs. One struggles to resist linking this to Pearce’s change in circumstances. Flying Saucer Attack was an inward journey, the very antithesis of a desire to be 'discovered' - that noxious delusion that leads so many musicians to shamelessly emulate the latest sound in the hope of being signed in its slipstream.
For a musical project serving as a private ritual, any amount of recognition or critical appraisal poses a threat. But it may have been less precious than that; the simple dilemma familiar to many musicians: while you may want your music to get noticed, you don’t particularly want to get noticed. If this bothered Pearce, he’ll be forever in good company, but there are many who would seriously benefit from a dose of this antipathy towards ambition and scepticism of success. One event neatly encapsulates the two most extreme and irreconcilable attitudes to the notion of a music industry career. On the main stage at Reading Festival in 1995 Billy Corgan celebrated the size of his own ego with tens of thousands of dollars worth of guitar signal processing. Simultaneously on the other side of the site, in a very rare live performance, a privileged few experienced an immersive encounter with ‘phase one’ Flying Saucer Attack in full effect, summoning spirits and navigating new lands armed with little more than a delay pedal and a set of screwdrivers.