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Record reappraisal: Third Eye Foundation: Semtex (20th anniversary edition)

Jacob Nicholas revisits this strange 90s gem, which fuses two of the most iconic and yet radically different underground genres: shoegaze and drum and bass.

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Released 1996 via Linda’s Strange Vacation

From the mid-nineties to the start of the century, there was a scene in Bristol that was dominated by their love of cassettes and strange, spectral sounds. Chief amongst these bands/projects was Flying Saucer Attack, or David Pearce, who made vast, sweeping shoe-gaze tracks. Pearce’s various collaborators all had their own projects, such as Rachel Brook’s Movietone, and most importantly, Matt Elliot’s Third Eye Foundation. Elliot, when using the Third Eye Foundation name, made music that defied genre, best described as a weird hybrid of drum and bass and shoe-gaze. His debut, Semtex, originally released on his own Linda’s Strange Vacation label, has since been seen as seminal by those who listened to it, and now on its 20th anniversary it has been re-released by Elliot’s long time label Ici, d’ailleurs, with a ridiculous amount of bonus tracks and remastered demos. There are 29 songs on the reissue, with a total running time of well over four hours, a quarter of which comes from just two tracks. Typically, the track ‘Semtex’ itself is not included.

Semtex, as with the rest of the scene Elliot was part of, have no real comparisons. There are clear points of reference, from dance music to post rock to shoe-gaze, but the overall sound is completely different to anything else out there, sounding genuinely otherworldly, as wanky as that statement is. A large part of this comes from the production—the scene exclusively used cassettes (Pearce even declared CDs responsible for the death of the music industry in the liner notes for their first album). For Flying Saucer Attack, this meant the music sounded like it was a strange relic from another planet, the layers of feedback and delay mixing with hiss and clipping from the cassettes. For The Third Eye Foundation, the effect is even more important—Elliot’s mixture of drums machines, guitars and samples are all so shattered and mutilated by the production that it becomes impossible to tell what’s a sample and what’s being played. The cumulative effect is proper mindfuckery of the highest order, music free from expectations and normal assumptions about how it was being made, combined to create a wall of sound through the recording format reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine at their best, but in feel, rather than sound itself.

Opener ‘Sleep’ is the closest the album gets to the direct shoe-gaze-drum and bass crossover, a massive, mutilated swirling guitar distorted just shy of becoming actual white noise over a frantic breakbeat. It decays into oscillations and echoes, and sounds like it’s tearing itself apart as you listen to it. Halfway through, the drums drop out and the guitars layer and layer for the remaining three and a half minutes, spiralling into oblivion. It is by far the most frantic track on the album, and so makes sense as an opener. The following track, ‘Still Life’ is similar, but much slower, dragging itself out and revealing itself over its 11 and a half minute runtime, mixed in with distant female vocals and only disappearing into nothingness in the last couple of minutes. ‘Dreams on His Fingers’ is the real winner, though; dub inflected, white noise covered beauty, the vocals this time at the fore, but still incomprehensible over a steady, simple bassline. It’s an exceptional track, along with ‘Sleep’, the best on the album, and possibly one of the best that Elliot’s ever made. The remaining three songs on the album are all brilliant too, from ‘Next of Kin’s’ frantic, wordless charge to ‘Once When I Was An Indian’s’ genuinely unsettling drift, using every one of its near 13 minutes to reinforce the mood and strangeness. Closer ‘Rain’ is a relative relief, repeated synth echoes over gradually increasing samples of something indefinable, before finally closing the album in the white noise that it’s long threatened.

By comparison, the bonus tracks are a relatively mixed bag, being taken from Elliot’s demos from 1991 to 1997. The ones on the second disc are all brilliant, especially ‘Shard’, ‘Alarm Song’, and ‘Get to Fuck’, but the downloadable ones suffer from either too clean a remaster or being left too murky. There are still great tracks: ‘Hymn to Odin’ and ‘Making Waves’ being notable standouts, but for the most part they veer closer to noise and ambient music, not bad in itself, but less immediately appealing than the rest. Semtex remains exceptional two decades on, time only thickening its weirdness. Elliot has recently been hinting at a return to the Third Eye Foundation moniker, and Pearce released his first album in a decade and a half last year, so hopefully the scene will return, and get the recognition that it deserves.