Turn the clock back thirteen years and, if you had a mega dose of luck and an expansive knowledge of the indie scene, you may have stumbled across a gem of an album titled Bluffer’s Guide to the Flight Deck. Flotation Toy Warning were a London-based art-pop group that revelled in musical antiquity. They had found a direction that felt so familiar yet still their own. Unfortunately, that record caught little to no traction and they vanished before they could build a following. This is why their sophomore record, The Machine That Made Us, is not only a surprising addition to this year’s fine roster of releases, it’s a musical marvel.
Somehow, during the span of those long thirteen years, the band hasn’t lost a single speck of the magic that made their debut a cult classic. In fact, their songwriting has only gotten tighter and more direct. They’ve rubbed away a lot of the abrupt creative choices that stinted their last project and erased some of the ambience that would drive away casual listeners. Of course, much of their distinct sound is still present here, but overall there’s a greater sense of balance all around. The lovely “Due To Adverse Weather Conditions, All Of My Heroes Have Surrendered,” for example, is content to march at its own leisurely pace, playing the trumpet here and the mandolin there. Meanwhile, “A Season Underground” is a string-laden beauty that ebbs and flows in the best of ways. You simply cannot know what you’ll hear next, but at the same time, this uncertainty is bound in one cohesive, gorgeous body of songs.
The highlights are numerous, to say the least, but of particular note are the first five tracks. Opener “Controlling The Seas” sounds like a long lost Beatles hit as lead vocalist Paul Carter delivers a beautifully melancholic chorus. “Everything That Is Difficult Will Come To An End” is a rock epic that begins with a gentle, yet bitter lull before screeching guitars and pounding keys lead off the remainder of the track. Two tracks later the album brings out another seven-minute marvel with “I Quite Like It When He Sings.” It’s a haunting tune that starts off with hushed vocals and a muted piano until the backing choir comes in to turn the mournful melody into a tear-inducing crescendo.
“King of Foxgloves” and “When The Boat Comes Inside Your House” contrast the sadness of the previous tracks with a tranquil, delicate joy. The former is a frustrated romance about not wanting to see someone yet still finding yourself falling in love, “Nobody sells that kind of disguise / Now the love I had has gone / I’ll be on my way….Touch me,
Mould me / I am the only one for you / Twist me, Roll me / You know my love is made for you.” The latter song tells of a person who longs to be a star when everything around him tells him he can never be. Once more the music has a delightful charm to it as he realizes he actually loves his normal life, “They’re tangled days when I think of them / But if you asked I’d do it all again, my friend.”
Closing this mammoth of an album is “The Moongoose Analogue.” The song slowly clomps about without any regard for the listener’s expectations as it marches for well over twelve minutes. On paper, everything here shouldn’t work. The aforementioned “I Quite Like It When He Sings” has this hilarious backing vocal that comes in every second line. “To Live For Longer Slides” bases its melody around a “Ch-ca” vocal hook, and the closer is twelve minutes of switching between “Do do dos” and quiet, seriously introspective moments. But in the end, what makes The Machine That Made Us so great is that it doesn’t really care about convention. This is an album that’s content with being its goofy self and it’s all the more united and strong-willed because of it.