Retrospective Review: LFO’s Advance

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Advance blends abrasive and melodic notes to create a tracklist of brilliance.

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The title track of LFO‘s second album Advance (1996) kicks off the proceedings in style, with a slow-building but irresistible pulse over which panoramic, glistening arpeggios and rhythmically off-kilter bleeps contrast with dark, edgy drones. The perfect soundtrack to the quiet opening of a nature documentary, or a war movie.

But this is just the calm before the storm. ‘Shut Down’ takes things up a pace with an energetic and thunderous romp, and ‘Loch Ness’ takes cues from both Baroque music, with its harpsichord-like opening synth stabs, and 80s synth-pop, with reverberating snare drums and soaring synth strings galore. What follows next is Goodnight Vienna’, ambient music at its purest, with no drumbeat of any kind. Despite the unique touches of intimidating reverse reverb and low frequencies, your ears are lulled into a false sense of security by the mournful twinkling synths that gradually dominate the ultimately calming mix, which slowly fades out only to be superseded by the hardest track on the album.

You simply must listen to ‘Tied Up’ right now. This track is an underrated gem, and truly ahead of its time. It sounds uncannily similar to the sort of unrelenting and hard-hitting industrial big beat techno that The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were just about to become international stars for… and yet it came slightly before, having originally been released as a single way back in late 1994. It is impossible to listen to this piece without feeling elated by its unadulterated release of energy, but what really puts the icing on the cake is its 360-degree swivel exactly halfway through, with the drums cutting out entirely and giving way to some effectively quiet and plinky synth washes that ultimately complement the track beautifully, with even the abrasive sine tones in the final act adding a sincerely optimistic and seductive sheen to the track’s sound.

‘Them’ remixes the synthetic pads and birdcalls from ‘Tied Up’ and places a driving, flanged trickle of a beat over the top. Then after the treated cowbells and granular whisperings of ‘Ultra Schall’, another highlight of the album – ‘Shove Piggy Shove’ is a pleasant surprise, with its very swung and human-sounding percussion taking the track into some kind of jazz territory as the synths, again heavy in luscious reverb, play a melody as playful as it is catchy. Again, it’s ahead of its time, foreshadowing a more tongue-in-cheek kind of electronic easy listening that would get a permanent cult following during the late 90s, championed by the likes of Mike And Rich, Plaid, Boards Of Canada and Plone.

Psychodelik’ has a lot to live up to after that, and doesn’t change up its sound that much, but it is a perfect track for nighttime drives. There’s a sense of wonder that effortlessly comes across despite the lack of vocals. The mix, subtle progression, and assured tangency of the melody are all to be admired. Then, with its unsettling, wheezy rhythms and lack of discernible tonality (note the odd use of heavy phasers and delays), ‘Jason Vorheesis reminiscent of the sort of sinister, intricate IDM that Autechre and Mike Paradinas were then refining, but had yet to gain much attention for.

Forever’ is an ambient track as lovely as anything by Sun Electric or The Orb or any of the other spearheads of that sort of music at that time. As with many of these tracks, you may scorn at the lack of progression or immediate hooks on offer, but that’s not the point. Let the grooves and/or textures wash over you as you walk or catch a train or do the laundry; it becomes a necessary part of the background without seeming empty or vacuous like so much background music.

While ‘Forever’ may not be the most exciting track, ‘Kombat Drinking’, the grand closing of the album, more than makes up for that. Like ‘Tied Up, it hits the ground running with a highly concentrated and intense drumbeat, and synths that aren’t very melodic in the conventional sense. Just as things have gone truly haywire, your patient listening is rewarded by an angelic wall of sound; synth pads that float triumphantly across the stereo field, sounding like something out of Wagner’s Parsifal. It may be two very different tracks mashed together – a club track abruptly cutting to a beatless one – but it’s the perfect way to end an album crammed full of ideas and textures, that can confound expectations even with repeated listens.

Advance lived up to its name as far as I’m concerned. It made the wise decision to move on from Frequencies (1991), it fitted in perfectly with the musical context of the time (ambient house and repetitive techno clashing with big beats), and even anticipated the more experimental music of the late 90s. Its sound has aged much better than its predecessor – even after 25 years, its production, along with the sense of space and depth evident in every track, is a thing of beauty – and it veers seamlessly from subgenre to subgenre, meaning something for everyone, whatever their favourite facet of electronic music (an extraordinarily large and free playing field compared to other genres).

Advance is available to listen to now via Warp Records. Check out the track ‘Psychodelik’ below. 

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