Ian MacFarlane is probably best known for his a brief stint (1978-83) as a live keyboardist with the legendary Australian Krautrockers Cybotron, with whom he shares a love of washed out spacey synth textures and chugging electronics. MacFarlane produced three independent solo albums throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. His debut LP Void Spirit, was an experimental album issued under the name ‘Violet Lightning’, which was followed by a further two albums published under his own name, the cosmic influenced Back From Beyond and finally the privately issued electro-ambient suite Planetarium. To Melbourne listeners (with a long memory) he may also be known for producing some early station ID stings for 3RRR FM.
With the Roundtable previously re releasing a couple of Cybotron albums, including the immense solo album Monster Planet from Steve Maxwell Von Braund, it makes sense that Ian MacFarlane would come into their orbit. Planetarium, released in 1987 was issued only on cassette, and sees MacFarlane tooling around with a bunch of Roland synths, drum machines, field recordings – and possibly didgeridoo. The music is quite melodic, almost song based, and you can tell a lot of work has gone into the structure. There are real attempts to create movements in parts and elicit emotion. That said there is also a degree of experimental madness, with synthetic textures often careering around madly within these structures.
You can hear links to contemporaries like Cybotron and Tangerine Dream in MacFarlane’s music, yet his music has a looser, more whimsical and freer feel. Many of his pieces have multiple parts that last for barely a minute often widely disparate from what preceded it – there’s a real playfulness here, a desire to bend the rules and see what happens. You could call it psychedelic bedroom folk, created with what was back in the late ‘80’s cutting edge electronics. It’s a place where synthetic soundscapes appear alongside whimsical melodies. Vocals appear a couple of times sounding somewhere between Soft Machine and spaced out hippy rambling, both in timbre and content. There’s also what sounds like (possibly) MacFarlane chanting softly in an Aboriginal dialect over traditional clapsticks. It’s pretty diverse.
It’s very much an album of its time, futuristic forward thinking electronics and field recordings that are eclectic, exploratory, wide-eyed and risk taking. Or at least they were in 1987. That’s what makes these kinds of reissues so fascinating. Nothing like this could ever be made today.