Friday, 31 May 2013

Elektrik Karousel by The Focus Group

The new Focus Group album, Elektrik Karousel, comes with the usual accompanying Ghost Box conceptual packaging, creating a contextual world of the imagination which the music can inhabit. In this case, Julian House, the individual turning the dials behind the Focus Group screen, has designed, along with fellow Ghost Box boss Jim Jupp, an old fashioned board game with a distinctly surrealist cast. The pieces are engravings from old books, and include triple-headed sea gods and louche devils; flayed horses and disembodied ears; anatomical cross-sections of cochlear tracts and optic nerves; plumed helmets and Victorian military medals; cartographer’s dividers and antique playing cards. They look like props from a Jan Svankmajer animation, liable to fill out, flush with colour and come to life at any moment; or elements from one of Max Ernst’s collage novels, waiting to be inserted into a dream tableau.

Caught in the Carousel - Max Ernst's Reve d'une Petite Fille qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel (1930)
The inner sleeve of the LP or the foldaround cover of the CD are illustrated with the trail of squares the players must traverse arranged around a central karousel with its spinning arrow of chance (a dice is clearly not necessary for this game). Corresponding to the track titles, these squares allow for the use of a variety of typographical styles whose associations give the impression that the game’s moves progress backwards and forwards through the decades as much as across the demarcated board space. They also resemble the small ads which might be found at the back of comics, SF magazines or underground music papers. The slightly wonky placement of the squares, along with the deliberate misalignment of the two colour printing, gives a visual cue to the rough aural collages of the record. The cover, with its vaguely op-art black and white patterning, suggests that the whole game could expand into three dimension (either magically or by folding along the dotted lines) and begin to revolve like the barrel of a zoetrope or the mirrored axle of a praxinoscope – in both cases to bedazzling, hypnotic effect, possible depositing the children depicted onto a life-size board whose hazardous labyrinth they must negotiate in order to find their way back to the real world.

Science of the supernatural - Blackwood tributes
Titles are an assemblage of recurrent Focus Group and Ghost Box obsessions. Hope Hodgsone (sic) once more points to a love of British supernatural literature. Algernon Blackwood has already been paid tribute to in the title of The Willows, the Belbury Poly LP whose back cover also bears a quote from the story. Quotes from Welsh writer of weird tales Arthur Machen also grace the covers of two Ghost Box LPs: The Focus Group’s We Are All Pan’s People has a passage from The Great God Pan, whilst Belbury Poly’s The Owl’s Map extracts a description of age old musical ritual from The White People (the title story in Penguin’s recent collection of Machen’s fiction). The capitalised SPOLK looks like a mnemonic acronym, conjuring memories of SPLINK, a similar and rather confusing example urgently delivered by Jon Pertwee in a 70s public information film which tried to inculcate in suggestible children the proper way to cross a road. The Flourescent Host, Skipping Spook (evidently a friendly spirit in the Motley Hall mould) and Wax Phantom are further hauntings, whilst The Heavy Blessing, Flaming Voices and Hoojumany continue the investigations of witch cults begun on the collaborative LP with Broadcast. Various tracks with prominent Ks (the Elektrik Karousel, Kinky Korner Klub and the Kool Kranium) point to a thrilling future of scientism and synthetic living in which the soft and extraneous and extraneously curved C has been eradicated as a needless inefficiency. From a graphic designers perspective, the K also has the naturally dynamic look of a figure putting one elegantly straightened leg forward whilst raising a celebratory arm to propose a toast or wave at an admiring crowd. Finally, More Night Films we can assume to be from the Hammer or Amicus (or even Tigon or Compton) canon, with lashings of Kensington gore, rituals conducted in purple robes, Thames Valley gothic piles and as much exposed actorly flesh as the ducking and diving producers could charm the BBFC scrutinisers into permitting.

Jon Pertwee urges us to splink
The album sets out its sonic stall in the opening moments of the brief prelude, Make Way. A Carl Orff-like percussive tinkling is juxtaposed with manic mechanical ricochets sounding like field recordings made in a Japanese pachinko parlour or an aging chorus of excitable cash registers. This is overlaid by the sound of children making a racket in the resonant space of a swimming pool. The later gives off the chlorinated whiff of the public information film, another common Ghost Box reference point. A ‘learn to swim’ film of this type was explicitly evoked in The Advisory Circle track In The Swim from their Mind How You Go LP. The second track, Elektrik Karousel, gets the game moving with a rolling jazz drum pattern in the Take Five style, which is phased and spun around. The carousel is definitely turning, and taking its slightly woozy effect. Harpsichord arpeggios and patterns are layered on top, as are snatches of immaculately RP-articulated dialogue which sound as if they are being tuned in from half-remembered children’s programmes. Then there is the Pavlovian jangle of ice cream van chimes.

The harpsichord is a signature sound throughout, its sprightly, lightly plucked notes non-resonant and so following each other in rapid succession before awkward silences can descend. It’s an instrument which somehow became prominent in the 1960s and summons up the contradictory impulses of that wild decade. It’s both antique and kinetically of the moment, expressing a bustling English eccentricity which at the time was both looking to the future whilst trying to maintain well-worn traditions. It could be used as the soundtrack to a betweeded Margaret Rutherford blithely riding her bicycle through an unchanged country village or to a mod-styled Mrs Peel speeding away from her London mews flat in a fast white sports car. And with a little echo and reverb, it neatly conjures the unthreatening approach of friendly spooks. Other sounds which recur and give the album its particular flavour and sense of continuity with previous Focus Group records include xylophones, musique concrete blips and skrees, chanted, ritualistic vocals and pastoral flute (whether in folk, Kes-jazz or impressionistic Debussyish mood). On this record there are also elements of free jazz sax (on The Magic Pendulum), Indian classical music (sitar, bansuri flute and tabla on Flaming Voices) and even the surprising intervention of swooshing Jeff Beck-like jazz fusion guitar sounds on The Plastic Castle, perhaps suggesting the thrill of rushing down a plastic slide descending in a spiralling curve from the crenellations. Sounds recur and recombine at various junctures throughout like themes being reiterated, varied and placed in different settings. Indeed, the whole album, whose tracks are generally very short, feels like an extended suite (with Flaming Voices as a mini-suite within). This is given further credence by the lack of track divisions on the vinyl LP. The recurrence of particular sounds or harmonic sequences (there’s a series of soft guitar chords which seems to emerge at periodic intervals) also brings us back to the Karousel game, with its own cycles and loops, dictated by the chance operations of that spinning dial, sending players back to previously occupied squares.

Julian House may be the secret mastermind behind The Focus Group, but here he gives credit for ‘help from Broadcast’. There is a sense, then, that the collaboration begun on the Witch Cults from the Radio Age LP is being continued in some shape or form. House is now in a post-Broadcast trio with James Cargill and Roj Stevens, both ex-members of the group. They will be recording and hopefully performing under the name Children of Alice. Both James and Roj have recorded for Ghost Box before, and it is they who contribute to this album under the proud Broadcast banner. Something of their characteristic sounds can perhaps be detected at various points. James’ warm analogue synth lines seem to lend a magic hour glow to Flaming Voices, Let’s Listen, SPOLK and Petroleum Paisley, whilst the trundling and clanking sound of complex mechanisms in motion which was a feature of Roj’s The Transactional Dharma of Roj LP forms the unstable Meccano framework to parts of Bachoo, Flaming Voices, Frumious Numinous and Harmonium. To offer a Radiophonic Workshop analogy, which seems appropriate in the context, Roj is like John Baker, using the electronic manipulation of sounds found or synthesised to produce elastic, springy rhythms. James, meanwhile, has a Paddy Kingsland ear for melody and a Delian sense of rich atmospherics. These elements combine perfectly in Flaming Voices, which maybe affords us a glimpse in to what the Children of Alice might sound like.

That name pays tribute to the late Trish Keenan, the voice (and much more) of Broadcast, who had an abiding love of Lewis Carroll’s labyrinthine dream tales. She is given thanks for the ‘sounds you sent’. And is that an echo of her song in the angelic choral voices drifting in the nebulous background of Frumious Numinous. The title makes reference to the nonsense ballad (which yet makes instant sense) Jabberwocky from Alice Through the Looking Glass (‘Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the Frumious Bandersnatch!’, you’ll recall). You can hear a recording of Trish reading it on the Broadcast website. It’s a suggestive title, with hints of the transcendental, a numinosity which often illuminated her lyrics. It hints at some spirit living on, perhaps just in the molecular patterns of oxide tape or in the lines of digital light etched into the polycarbonate spiral of a CD. But hopefully in some more expansive form.

House’s technique in the studio (or sat in front of his laptop) mirrors his graphic style in its deliberate creation of a rough-edged, imperfect finish. Where his visual collages preserve or cultivate torn borders and hastily scissored outlines, the aural collages of The Focus Group delight in seemingly abrupt and clumsy edits (the equivalent of cinematic jump cuts), and loops whose ‘joins’ can be clearly heard. The hiss of scratched vinyl can be detected at certain intervals, too. The nature of the materials used to make the sounds is left raw and exposed, just as much as it was in the brutalist concrete architecture of the 60s and 70s, and with a similar aesthetic and perhaps even ideological intent. It seems to amount to a pronounced disavowal of the polish and surface sheen of airbrushed perfection offered (and it’s an offer that is generally accepted) by the effortless tools of digital manipulation. The process is apparently made evident, although this is of course an imaginary process. There are no tape loops or spliced edits, no whirring spools or glowing dials. The rough cut and paste juxtapositions are a conscious aesthetic choice, creating the appearance of something which has been put together in a more laborious and solidly mechanistic way. The illusion of materiality adds to the archetypal Ghost Box concern with the utopian dreaming (and propagandistic scheming) of the post-war British world (Macmillan to Callaghan, roughly speaking). Some of the tracks look to the more avant-garde, lab-coated tendencies of music in this period. A radio being tuned at the start of Hypnoradiol, which thereby incorporates the static sounds of the universe between stations into the piece, which is followed by pointillist punctuations and vocal distortions, points to John Cage and early electronic experiments. The electronic stridulations on The Heavy Blessing sound like the artificial chirruping and metallic frog chorusing on Pauline Oliveros’ 1967 tape piece, gloriously titled Alien Bog.

Johnny plays jazz - Staccato meets...
A processed flute in tigt gruffil (anagram or meaningful nonsense?) could be transposed from an early Tangerine Dream record. Flaming Voices has a wafting breeze of Debussyesque flute, which morphs quite naturally into its Indian equivalent (Debussy was influenced by Eastern music, after all). The Indian music adds a new colour to the Focus Group palette. It is blended with a Stravinskyish oboe in a marriage which seems a lot more relaxed than the rather stiff East meets West meetings between Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. Most striking and unexpected is Hope Hodgsone, which sounds like a straight piece of reflective after hours jazz. There’s even a touch of night club chatter and clinking glasses to give it that authentic Village Vanguard aura. It’s a spare piece with soft brush on snare and cymbal, a minimal bass suspension and impressionistic Bill Evans chords. Has it been edited together from different sources in the prescribed xenochronous Zappa manner. If so, it’s skilfully done (and in this instance, you can’t hear the join). Or perhaps this is the surprise new direction for the Children of Alice – a piano jazz trio. The title posits (in my mind, at least) the appealing notion of a character who is a combination of William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki and John Cassavetes’ jazz piano playing PI Johnny Staccato, smoky New York dives colliding with Edwardian drawing rooms.
...Carnacki - chasing after hours spectres

The final named track, More Night Films, has a touch of the spiralling Terry Riley all night flight organ plus delay improvisations bubbling away in the background, beneath more plucked, slightly melancholic harpsichord figures. Riley did record the soundtrack for a couple of films in the early 70s – Les Yeux Fermés and Lifespan. Perhaps there’s a hint of those here; Late night art screenings for an audience nodding off on scattered beanbags. Such longform, flowing improvisations are the exact opposite of the Focus Group’s concentrated cut-out vignettes. Riley isn’t allowed to float off into a prolonged nocturnal trance here, though. The Night Movies end and we are left in an echoing auditorium for a brief untitled coda. A queasy Blackpool organ plays a desultory chord over and over, only serving to emphasise the emptiness of the space. The ratcheting clatter of the opening is now the emptying of the tills and the bustle of cleaners, who are also eager to finish up and get home as quickly as possible. We are being ushered out – the show’s over. But it can start again whenever we want, the karousel set once more into slow rotation, speeding up into a disorienting, dazzling and ever changing blur of motion. Just go back to square one (Make Way), spin the dial and begin the game all over again.

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