Cruel nature has won again

[Bristol, the countryside and the early ’90s underground]

August is a slow month. There’s not much on and half the city seems to be away on holiday, or out in a field somewhere ingesting large quantities of narcotics and getting covered in mud. I had been toying with the idea of going to Boomtown Fair, but looking out my bedroom window at the grey sheets of drizzle, I feel secretly glad I didn’t go, and try to use the dismal weather conditions as an excuse to stay inside, listen to music and write.

Over my first cup of tea of the day, I flip through the the August edition of Wire Magazine – sometimes wilfully obscure in its search for off-radar music scenes – and come across a piece about a group of Bristol bands who were making shoegaze, ambient and noise-derived sounds round about the same as the emergence of the West Country’s most famous cultural export: the music of Massive Attack, Tricky & Portishead.

I was vaguely familiar with one of the bands mentioned – Third Eye Foundation – but had never heard of the other three: Flying Saucer Attack, Crescent and Movietone. I have always thought about and experienced the Bristol music scene primarily in terms of its relation to Jamaican-derived musics, the influence of dub and the social and racial tensions and alliances underpinning it. But one line from the Wire piece springs out at me. The author ascribes Bristol’s ‘magical quality’ to the ‘friction between urban sprawl and encroaching countryside’. This is a completely different way of thinking about the city: outside of its relatively diverse and multicultural core, and away from its role as a site of cross-cultural pollination and its deep addiction to bass, Bristol is surrounded by overwhelmingly rural (and white) parts of the country. It is a city that sometimes feels infused with a weird strain of off-key Englishness. While there is a free-wheeling – even radical – aspect of this that can be seen in the area’s festival culture, where elements of the 90s traveller and free party scenes can still be seen flickering, there is also an undeniable darkness and melancholy that seems to resonate particularly strongly in the city.

I spent the rest of my morning assembling Youtube playlists of tracks by these bands, allowing the peculiar sounds to permeate my house, while I sat pondering, taking notes and making more tea. Many of tracks I listened to seemed to revel in rawness and unevenness, produced with a typically Bristolian lo-fi, and DIY aesthetic.

While the brooding, restlessness of Third Eye Foundation has more in common with a Bristol musical heritage that I can identify – sneaking in the odd drum n bass rhythm – the acid-western soundscapes of Flying Saucer Attack, drenched in reverb and feedback, had a more abstract quality that I wouldn’t have otherwise associated with the city. With the idea of the ‘encroaching countryside’ still lingering, I imagine some kind JG Ballard post-apocalypse, with competing natural elements, earth and water and dirt, competing to take over what is left of human civilisation. With FSA having released new material on the Domino label, now seems as good time as any to explore this lesser known branch of Bristol’s musical genealogy.

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