Post-Rocktoberfest: The Third Eye Foundation
Matt Elliott was one of the prime movers in Bristol’s early post-rock scene. He was a sometime member of scene cornerstone Flying Saucer Attack, as well being involved with lesser-known acts like AMP and Movietone. But Elliott is most recognizable as the fellow behind The Third Eye Foundation, one of those acts (see also Scorn and Main) that typified the artistic trajectory of UK post-rock, by starting off rock and ending up post- (“post-” usually being a broad euphemism for “electronic”). In Third Eye’s case, the catalyst responsible for this transformation was the then-revolutionary sound of drum & bass/jungle.
The first Third Eye Foundation album was called Semtex (also, confusingly, the title of a 12″ Elliott released around the same time). Aptly named indeed, Semtex certainly was explosive. The album’s opening track, “Sleep”, was what brought Third Eye to the attention of many listeners – a combination of massive, churning guitar riffs and stuttering faux-drum & bass beats. It sets an air of menace that Elliott manages to sustain very effectively for the rest of the album.
Semtex was followed by In Version, basically a remix album, with Elliott going to town on songs by a handful of other Bristol post-rock luminaries – Amp, Crescent and Flying Saucer Attack – plus Hood from Leeds. In Version is often overlooked when the Third Eye story is being told, which is a crying shame because its best moments are truly excellent – especially “Amp, Short Wave Dub” and the monumental “Crescent, Superconstellation”.
The next album proper was Ghost. The remixes on In Version suggested that Elliott was taking an increasingly electronic approach – and Ghost confirmed that impression. Essentially a collaboration with Debbie Parsons (aka Foehn), Ghost twists found-sound samples (creaking doors and chairs feature heavily) into nightmarish webs of minor-key melody. The still-rather-ham-fisted drum & bass rhythm tracks, meanwhile, sound like they’re trying to beat a hasty retreat. Overall, the aesthetic of tracks like “The Out Sound from Way In” is suggestive of My Bloody Valentine’s “Touched” getting kicked to death by hooligans then eaten by zombies.
If things in Third Eye’s world seemed to be getting darker and darker, goofy titles like “The Out Sound…” and “I’ve Seen the Light and It’s Dark”, showed that there was at least some gallows humour leavening the gloom. This element – and indeed all the elements – came into clearer focus with the release of You Guys Kill Me. Featuring cleaner production values and noticeably improved drum programming, this album did a great deal to expand Elliott’s worldwide audience.
You Guys… is still pretty unrelenting but the overall effect is energizing rather the enervating, as it could occasionally be on his previous albums. The opening “A Galaxy of Scars” is one of those tracks that makes you feel strangely compelled to break into a spontaneous round of applause. Impressive.
All of the good work Elliott had been doing up to this point was effectively consolidated with the 200o release of Little Lost Soul. On this album, samples are woven into Gothic tapestries, much as they are on Ghost but with greater sonic clarity and musical sophistication. The drum programming, meanwhile, makes another quantum leap, with Elliott building and releasing tension brilliantly (almost like a proper jungle producer) on the absolutely storming single “What is it with You?”
Unfortunately, by this point in time, jungle/drum & bass was running out of steam and UK post-rock had been pretty much consigned to the dustbin of history. Little Lost Soul was to be the last proper Third Eye album, for the time being. The following year’s I Poo Poo on Your Juju offered a ragbag of collaborations and remixes (including a bonkers head-to-head with Christopher Morris, an excellent Blonde Redhead remix and an absolutely gorgeous cover of Jonathan Richman’s “When I Dance”).
Matt Elliott has continued to release albums under his own name. These have documented a surprising return to the more song-based approach he seemed to have abandoned after Semtex. His first solo album, The Mess We Made, is a fairly effective collection of sample-based sea shanties, psychedelic Gypsy folk dirges, and Kid A-style avant rock anthems. By 2004’s Drinking Songs, though, the samples had given way to a fully organic, fairly conventional folk sound and many listeners simply lost interest.
Still, the work Matt Elliott did throughout the ’90s stands as some of the most truly individual, passionate, funny and often downright scary music of the era. Don’t doubt that he’s got another great album in him yet. And in fact, there’s a new Third Eye Foundation album – titled The Dark – scheduled for release next month. Can’t wait!