Editor's Note: We're sorry not to have gotten to
Sheath sooner. You'd be surprised how hard it is to get someone to review a cassette these days...
It's been quite a while since Mark Bell released music under the LFO moniker. Once a duo and now simply Bell's solo project, LFO was among the first of the Warp Records stable of artists and was the vanguard of electronic music during the early nineties, before acid house died and "electronica" became a dirty word. LFO's early singles and debut LP, Frequencies, hold a cherished place in the canon of British electronic music, with the sort unanimous praise that translated into a mainstream chart position.
For those of you with your history books upside-down and backwards, LFO's sound may seem like a chip off the Aphex Twin block. Truth be told, Mark Bell and Richard D. James are contemporaries, but the reality is that LFO's recorded output has appeared in fits and starts at the best of times, while James was the most productive Warp artist of the nineties. The five year gap between Frequencies and its follow-up, Advance, is eclipsed with the release of Sheath, which marks seven years since the LFO name has been attached to an LP.
However, Bell's extra-curricular activities as producer haven't hurt his image much in the interim -- he was directly responsible for much of the sound of Björk's masterwork, Homogenic, and returned to assist on both the Oscar-nominated Selmasongs and the assured Vespertine. Now Bell returns to his roots as a composer, and the result is an album of rich melodies, aggressive percussive breaks and richly textured atmospheres that intelligently synthesize the whole of electronic music history. The LFO sound has always incorporated elements of the hard techno that Aphex Twin routinely exploits and explodes, but Bell's interests in the ethereal side of electronic music transcend simple clean-dirty dynamics.
With all of this in mind, it's still fair to suggest that Sheath is perfectly summarized by its opening two tracks. His fingerprint indelibly left upon the whole of the Warp roster (and much of contemporary electronic music), Bell uses Sheath to reimagine and re-articulate the foundational elements of composition and production that first made such an impact. "Blown" is a dreamy atmospheric piece that points up the influence Bell has had upon labelmates Boards of Canada. Similarly, it mirrors the aquatic tones found on another Warp release, Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. An introductory passage establishes the central theme, submerged under leagues of reverb and softened with a warm analog glow reflecting Seefeel's Starethrough EP. These elements are only partially washed away when an electronic harp breaks through with a high-res clarity that rests atop the mix like a music box.
"Mum-Man" is a straight-up techno production with a tidy little nod to the acid house movement that Bell helped to establish. It recaptures the spirit of early LFO and pays sonic tribute to Polygon Window's stellar Quoth EP with its diamond-cut drum sounds and deep bass mix. The manic intensity of the percussive pounding and the stereo-panning movement of myriad background effects contextualize the progression of mid-discography Autechre towards the textured noise of Tri Repetae. "Monkeylips", "Unafraid To Linger" and first single "Freak" continue the examination of these dark sounds. For the doomsday-ers in the crowd, it's music to live your life to while looking for ways to end your existence prior to the end of the world.
The fact that the review-copy of Sheath was a Warp-sponsored cassette dub perfectly captured the spirit surrounding my introduction to LFO; as I cruised around the suburbs with friends on afternoons that should have been spent in classrooms, LFO, Aphex Twin and Orb that introduced me to a world outside of Creation Records and American indie-rock. More than fourteen years after his first appearance on the scene, Mark Bell uses LFO as a vehicle to reassert the relevance and emotional thrust of his brand of inspired electronic music. It was worth every minute of the wait.