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Out There: Flying Saucer Attack's Debut LP, 20 Years On
Nick Talbot , November 6th, 2013 06:35

Nick Talbot of Gravenhust celebrates the Bristolian lo-fi brilliance of early Flying Saucer Attack

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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.

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James McKeown
Nov 6, 2013 2:59pm

Great piece of writing Nick. One of my favourites and proud that my hometown give birth to this timeless, hissy, lo-fi rural psychedelia.

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Sandwell
Nov 6, 2013 8:46pm

I haven't listened to all from the era but this track from "Phase two" FSA is as good as anything they did

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rs-WNjdJOjo

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Moonee Ponds
Nov 6, 2013 9:02pm

Great "band", I still listen to them a lot. I've always found FSA's smudged 4-track psych far more interesting than the dauntingly Clapton-esque technical minutiae of Shields' sonic bombast.

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Widmerpool
Nov 6, 2013 9:08pm

Yes. one of my all time top 10. Can't believe it's been 20 years.

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PAC
Nov 6, 2013 9:43pm

In reply to Widmerpool:

Pearce was an absolute rose. Merrily pulling out Flowered Up & Codeine promos without any record store bullshit, always lighting my smokes (JPS, not roll-ups), and frequently bemoaning the real world. Lovely reminder Nick, lovely reminder. Hope the great man is well..

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Phil McMullen
Nov 6, 2013 9:54pm

Great piece of writing, Nick, and a very worthwhile subject. Here's a link to my own interview with Dave (one of the first he did I believe) from 20 years ago - hard to believe it's so long! http://www.terrascope.co.uk/MyBackPages/FlyingSaucerAttack.pdf

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nick talbot
Nov 6, 2013 10:02pm

In reply to Sandwell:

Totally fair call - I do like New Lands, and also I think the whole FSA 'Phase One' and 'Phase Two' thing was just a bit of fun, Dave Pearce responding to the fact that people were taking it all so seriously. But I do feel that it coincided with a series of records that weren't as good as the previous, and for the purposes of directing the uninitiated to conversion, I'd actually recommend 'Distance' above everything else (the compilation of the first series of 7" singles)which is my absolute favourite because it contains incredible 'hidden' pop songs beneath the FSA noise, such as this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGfn6fBU-io
and this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg_t26P8gx8

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nick talbot
Nov 6, 2013 10:09pm

In reply to Phil McMullen:

Hi Phil! Brilliant to see you pop up here - your interview and Terrascope generally was one of the primary sources of information for this piece.

Jeez, I can't believe it's 20 years either. So many things have changed but I feel exactly the same way about FSA as I did then, which is strangely reassuring to my sense of identity!

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Grant McDougall
Nov 6, 2013 11:40pm

Wonderful album, as are all the subsequent FSA albums. Those albums were / are very popular here in NZ among those of use that liked Flying Nun, Xpressway, Corpus Hermeticum, etc, etc. It was pretty cool that FSA collaborated with NZ legend Roy Montogomery, too. If you like FSA, check out Roy's wonderful solo albums.

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nick talbot
Nov 7, 2013 2:36am

In reply to Grant McDougall:

I was lucky to get a copy of the 'In Search Of Spaces' album on Corpus Hermeticum, a crazy mosaic of sequed starts and finishes to live FSA sets; quite hard to find now, but I've lost mine to a ill-judged lend. And I was very kindly suppplied with 'P.A. Blues' by VHF, ultra rare CD-R of live stuff. It's great hearing stuff with Rachel Brook on bass and Matt Elliott on drums live, from the old days - total supergroup set up! When I saw them live in 1995 for some reason Matt was playing two crash cymbals on his hi hat stand instead of regular hats, and Dave's guitar amp was a 30 watt Park practice amp. A mysterious fourth member (I've asked Matt and Rachel separately about this but neither can remember anything about the gig) was playing a viola, with a pickup, John Cale style, going through a tape echo and an amp, providing a continuous high drone.. Probably the most amazing thing was that FSA were put on as last minute support because someone else pulled out (can't remember who, but I know it was someone I wanted to see) so the line up was FSA, Snowpony and Tortoise. I couldn't have been happier, I was suddenly able to watch this mysterious Bristolian band in action, and discover how they 'did it'... Anyone heard the Heartbeat/Complete LP from last year?

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Mark
Nov 7, 2013 4:24am

Spooky that I chose to randomly search for FSA stuff online a few minutes ago, prompted by "In Search Of Spaces" appearing on my MP3 player. And great to see a contribution from the legendary Mr McMullen!

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Andy Parsons
Nov 7, 2013 12:28pm

In reply to nick talbot:

The heartbeat/complete lp from last year is really rather good with it's collection of odds and sods. Compiled by odd nosdam (who's a well known fsa fanboy). Excellent spraypainted sleeve too. Distance is still my favourite. The joint ep with telefunken and the reworked stuff on kranky as clear horizon are also worth checking.

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Wilder Gonzales
Nov 7, 2013 11:45pm

Thanks for this text!
FSA was one of the main influences here in Lima, Peru too.
I even formed a band and our first recordings -that were released postumously has a lot of FSA: http://superspacerecords.bandcamp.com/album/avalonia-ep

In fact I admire both FSA's phases, "new lands" is a gem too!
Is "Further" into phase 1 or 2? sorry, it's been 20 years already..
Thanks for this reminder, it's also 20 years of the 1st Pram album or Ae's "Incunnabula", Insides'"Euphoria", etc.
Long life Post Rock and the AvantGarde))))))

Wilder.
http://peruavantgarde.blogspot.com

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nick talbot
Nov 8, 2013 2:31am

In reply to Wilder Gonzales:

Further is 'phase one'. Discogs.com tells you all the releases, but as for the time line, a series of 7"s were released as early as 1992 ("Soaring High" being the first), then the debut vinyl-only LP in 1993 (on Heartbeat's bespoke 'FSA' imprint). Various 7"s continued to be released on Heartbeat, Planet and other labels.
When FSA then signed to Domino the first thing they released was Distance which is the collection of all those early 7"s, and is my favourite; partly because its the first thing I bought, and partly because its just incredible - its got the hissy, pagan dream pop with Rachel Brook on bass, the languid Nick Drake-esque acoustic guitar with unearthly roars, as well as the more abstract ambient, almost New Age and field recording sounding tracks like 'Oceans' I and II, much of which features Matt Elliott's brilliant percussion (djembe drums some of it sounds like), and the track 'Distance' which really makes you feel like you are travelling on a train, quite uncanny. So it makes for a really amazing album, showing all sides of the FSA sound, varied but coherent - you wouldn't know it was a compilation until you read the liner notes (which contains the statement "home taping is reinventing music" and tells you CDs destroy music, which is funny if you buy it on CD. I bought both! Vinyl first, then CD later). Next, Domino released Further, which was the second 'proper' album, and the first original material to be released on Domino. This perhaps got the most press coverage as it was a Domino release and a groundswell of interest had built. Much of Further is in the acoustic guitar fingerpicking hinterland of FSA, and sounds to me like a distinct move away from the dream pop stuff; there is much less bass guitar and drums, but still plenty of transportive sonic experimentation. This makes sense as the Planet scene had fragmented and Rachel wasn't involved anymore (concentrating on the excellent Movietone) - and as far as I'm aware she had played the bass on those early tracks. Matt Elliott was totally stuck into Third Eye Foundation by this point, so FSA was literally becoming a one-man-band now.

Then Domino released Chorus, a second compilation of singles. This is where the liner notes state that it marks the end of FSA 'phase one' and with 'phase two' to follow soon. (I wouldn't take any of it too seriously though, I think Dave Pearce liked to have a bit of fun with the way music journos and fans take things very seriously when they are totally into a band - bless 'em). The next album for Domino would be New Lands in 1997, which is the first 'phase two' release. In between however were two very interesting releases: Distant Station, an FSA-sample-collage record by Telefunken, and In Search Of Spaces, which is a long collage made from the beginnings and ends of live FSA tracks! So its all the drone and noise building up before, and the decay after the songs. These two releases really demonstrate the degree to which FSA was inspiring people to make new sounds. Of the two I prefer Distant Station as a satisfying listen. (I've messed around with FSA samples myself, never released anything, but it's so sonically rich, its very inspiring to work with).
-So that's the phase one and phase two explanation - way too long-winded! But i could talk about this stuff for hours...
*This time line doesn't account for the USA versions of the records, which may have been released in a different order, as the Heartbeat/FSA label ones were licensed to VHF (and if you want the debut on CD you have to get it that way!), and the Domino ones to Drag City but the 'phase' issue was in relation to the order of the UK releases and the order in which Dave Pearce made the records.

I'm planning to write about Third Eye Foundation as well; I could write about all the Planet scene; it was so unique, because all the musicians had such incredible knowledge of esoteric music, partly due to working/hanging out in a particularly good record store, and partly just cos they were voracious listeners, and this made for a fascinating mesh of influences and unique results.

If you're interested in other early stuff from the scene, Third Eye Foundation's 'Semtex', Movietone's self titled debut and Crescent's 'Now' were the earliest fruits of their labours. Having discovered FSA in 1995 randomly in Beggar's Banquet in Kingston, I read about all these bands in NME and Melody Maker over a couple of months in 1996, and I went to Beggar's Banquet and came home with Movietone, Crescent and TEF's debut albums. Sweet...

I've noticed I got a date wrong in the article - the FSA gig in Camden was in 1996, not '95.

Bedtime now!

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nick talbot
Nov 8, 2013 2:46am

In reply to Wilder Gonzales:

*one last thing (for now!) - while the album Further is more of a one-man-band and Rachel was concentrating on MOvietone, I think it's her lovely vocal on the track 'Still Point'.

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Wilder Gonzales
Nov 8, 2013 9:12pm

In reply to nick talbot:

yes, I also knew about 3EF, Movietone and Crescent thanks to Internet friends that made me some tapes and some folks here in Lima that got their cds by catalogue.
I am particularly sad about the way Matt Elliot evolved making finally some acoustic folk classical music.. His 1st cd as 3EF was unbelievable! He even has some drums in tune with the electronic sound of the epoch but in an ominous or dark way..
Movietone was sweet, some piano ambient songs
I could listened some songs by Crescent on the epoch that were very noisy almost punky but with glimpses to some sonic way of creating

At the end of the 90s people here in Lima were so into EAR, Main, Stars of the Lid, Thomas Köner.. and all that super experimental sounds.. too much drugs also.. The records by Dave Pearce remains high, and also his collaborations as Clear Horizon or his disc with Main.

Have a good day!

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Joe Banks
Nov 8, 2013 11:59pm

In reply to nick talbot:

I look forward to your take on Third Eye Foundation - Ghost and You Guys Kill Me are stone cold classics, and unlike anything else out there.

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nick talbot
Nov 9, 2013 4:23pm

In reply to Joe Banks:

absolutely - 3EF didnt fit in anywhere- breakbeats that people were too scared to dance to! they haven't dated either; Matt's use of Baltic and middle eastern samples makes it impossible for the listener to 'place' what they are hearing. At that time even left-field EDM was using classic soul vocal samples still, 3;EF was the first breakbeat records to dispose of all the comfortable genre reference points; instead of femaile soul vocal, you got wailing banshees and the screaming souls of the damned. why was I the only person who wanted to dance to that?

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nick talbot
Nov 9, 2013 4:34pm

In reply to Wilder Gonzales:

Perhaps I've misunderstood you a little, but personally I'm not sad about Matt's evolution into an acoustic singer song writer at all; he felt he'd done what he wanted to do with sampling and beats for the time being and being a guitarist anyway he thought he'd try a new discipline, spanish guitar. I've a lot of respect for anyone who lays a discipline to rest rather than repeat themselves. (And then resurrects and updates it a decade later - the Dark is superb). He's made some great records under his own name, his latest 'The Howling Man' is excellent. He's shown himself to be a great song writer as well as an electronic producer, and engineer. He also has some of the darkest, wittiest song titles ever.

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Al
Nov 10, 2013 9:17pm

Nick

What a superb tribute and exposition of the work of the wonderful FSA. I listen to them after all this time and the music is still "out there". If ever Turner's paintings could be put to music FSA would be my first choice to do it! Well done, Nick.

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Joe Banks
Nov 11, 2013 12:12am

In reply to nick talbot:

And how disturbing is this: http://youtu.be/FL8mZuVlFVA

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Joe Morris
Nov 26, 2013 5:15pm

Great article, great album, great "band". I discovered FSA courtesy of John Peel - I think I only caught about half the song but was mesmerised by this rich hazy sound, and quickly scribbled down the band name. The next day I was in Bristol so popped into Revolver (for the 1st time I think) and asked the bloke behind the counter if he knew anything about them. Looking somewhat shocked, Dave Pearce (for it was he), he said "Er yeah that's my band!". I bought their debut album on the spot.

After that I used to pop in to Revolver whenever I could. Dave was always incredibly friendly. One day he played me a white label of their next release to see what I thought. He was worried that they were starting to sound like The Wedding Present. It took me a while to realise that he didn't mean literally - I think he thought the band was beginning to repeat itself and perhaps becoming just another indie band.

I want to say that I saw them play at the Mauretania, but sadly I think that's my memory playing tricks on me...

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Jairo Manzur
Dec 13, 2013 11:37pm

What a great article! FSA is one of my favorite bands and this piece is like a goldmine :) I've literally tear apart my ears some nights listening to David music... I renember I found a bootleg from a Bristol gig, 3 tracks named each one like Noise Assault 1,2, and 3. Im pretty sure the first track is one the In search of spaces album... that bootleg is amazing: haunting noisy guitar sounds, kind of tribal percussions ( maybe matt elliot?)
I read in a forum some years ago that David has retired of music bussines and live peacefully in Gloucestershire.. what do you know about that? im sure that there is a lot of music still unreleased from him

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Chris
Feb 27, 2014 11:34pm

I was there at that Reading 95 gig and they were great. My mate was indeed watching Smashing Pumpkins. Prolapse were also very good if I remember correctly.

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Dave 'Bot' Scott
Sep 3, 2014 8:36am

Only recently discovered this cd and what a great album.Just ordered the original lp so looking forward to it :-).All recent albums sold seem to be mint !Picked up 'further and 'distant and new Zealand cd to catch up as well so plenty to explore !Great article Nick.

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James
Sep 4, 2014 5:20pm

It's meditative, "organic" music that sounds like the recordings from the middle of a bog. Timeless to me...though most people don't get it! I quite like that aspect of it, really.

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Sevis
Sep 8, 2014 8:25pm

Great article, and a nice summary of how independent art really does drive artistic progress. Even if the credit ends up going to the best-sellers in the end, a few of us know who the real artists are.

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Paddy
Dec 17, 2014 3:16pm

A fine view of all things FSA. Also was at the Electric Ballroom gig. The only time i've left a gig before the end. Tortoise could never match FSA. Managed to record the gig on suitably lo-fi cassette recorder bought for a pound at a car boot sale. Will have to try & work out how to upload to youtube...if people can put up with hecklers & an unimpressed work colleague who came with me to the gig!

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