"Me and Liz decided we were just going to do some tracks with just acoustics and voice as our limitations." — Robin Guthrie
Moving further into the realms of ambient atmospheres and geographic references, Robin and Liz released a primarily acoustic album in April, 1986, entitled Victorialand. Simon did not appear on Victorialand as he was at work on the second This Mortal Coil LP, Filigree and Shadow.
Robin explained that Victorialand was just something he and Liz had been "messing around with in the studio" at the time. "Me and Liz decided we were just going to do some tracks with just acoustics and voice as our limitations." After closer consideration, that statement only punctuates how close the band are to their music; even when they attempt to work within certain boundaries, the music can't help but sound completely natural. Victorialand is exactly what one might have expected after listening to Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay, and yet Robin referred to Victorialand as almost incidental.
Nevertheless, one can hear foreshadowings of Victorialand in previous work, such as "Otterley" and "Aloysius" from Treasure, and "Ribbed and Veined" from Tiny Dynamine. Echoes of Victorialand can be heard in later work, such as "Dials" from the Heaven or Las Vegas promotional single in 1991; "Essence," from 1993's Four-Calendar Café, and "Need-Fire"—from the soundtrack to the 1995 film "Judge Dredd"—which borrows the sparse, echoed guitar pluckings and upper-range vocal melodies of Victorialand songs like "Oomingmak" or "Little Spacey."
Victorialand, as with any Cocteau Twins record, has its share of champions. It was and is, undoubtedly, a landmark recording. Although it was intended to be an acoustic record—and for the most part it was—Victorialand still typifies the band's ability to transform their music into something almost entirely non-corporeal and is anything but acoustic in the classical sense.
"Victorialand" is, literally, the name of a region of Antarctica. This geographical reference may come as no surprise since the band have made such references before in their work, namely with 1985's Aikea-Guinea. The song titles on Victorialand further develop this concept, with titles like "Feet-Like Fins," "Throughout the Dark Months of April and May" (the dark fall/winter season in Antarctica), "Oomingmak" (an Inuit word for "musk ox"), "How to Bring a Blush to the Snow," "Whales Tails," and "The Thinner the Air"—all conjuring images of sparse, open, and cold spaces.
The dynamics of complexity and simplicity in the Cocteau's sound, along with their sophisticated production and intuitive track ordering makes Victorialand a very personal and intimate record, although its content is as obscure as any of their previous work had been; Liz's patent manipulation of language and meaning continues to develop beyond the range of comprehension. The spaciousness and elegance, coupled with the use of electronic effects and Elizabeth's impressionistic vocals, managed to somehow get the band lumped in with the New Age movement at the time:
"It's quite annoying to be called New Age," Robin laments. "Most of the people who make New Age music are 50 and balding."
"The music we make is different," explains Simon. "That [New Age reference] is obviously in the context of the Victorialand thing."
Robin adds, "I find it degrading, you know? I mean, if you hear a record that is actually New Age music..."
"It's muzak," Simon finishes. [All quotes, 1990]
In addition to Robin and Liz, Dif Juz member Richard Thomas played saxophone and tablas (tablas are drums, and this is one of the only times that the band worked with real drums until recently), which can be heard on the tracks "Lazy Calm" and "Feet-Like Fins" respectively. Thomas appeared with the band in some live performances in 1986, and Liz and Robin returned the favor with participation on the Dif Juz LP Extractions, on which Robin acted as co-engineer and producer, and Liz provided a vocal track for the track "Love Insane."
Robin on Dif Juz: "At one point, I thought I would never be happy 'til I worked with them. I had to! They're my favorite group, unlike anything else that's ever existed." [Jamming Magazine, 1985]
For Victorialand to have been as low-key as it was, it was nonetheless another success for the band. It managed to reach the UK National Top 10 in spite of little publicity or promotional support. There was a European tour in 1986, in which "Lazy Calm" was featured on the set list, though the arrangement was quite different. The 1990/91 Heaven or Las Vegas Tour and the 1993/94 Four-Calendar Café Tour both featured live performances of "Whales Tails." An instrumental version of "Oomingmak" was recorded for a UK television programme, and was later released on the Bonus CD of the 1991 Box Set.
More recently, the album has been revered by the 90's ambient/trance/dub scene as being one of the most important and influential ambient records of all time—a disposition further characterized by the 1995 remix of "Feet-Like Fins" by Seefeel's Mark Clifford on the EP Otherness. (Another, unofficial, remix of a Victorialand track, "The Thinner the Air," is available as an MP3 on the Internet. It is an impressive and effective blending of the Cocteau Twins track with a rhythm track from the song "Protection," by Massive Attack.)
"Lazy Calm" and "The Thinner the Air" were eventually digitally remastered and included in the 2000 4AD retrospective compilation, Stars and Topsoil.