Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Ghost Box Study Series

Ghost Box Records have just issued the tenth and final instalment of their Study Series. These singles have provided an experimental lab in which established artists on the label have been encouraged to vary their customary style and to collaborate with others, hopefully producing new and pleasing compounds. They have also brought other fellow spirits into the enchanted circle, broadening the house style without diluting its essence. That essence, as ever, extends beyond the music to incorporate the graphic design, the constructed world in which it is placed and the associations which it courts through sample, quotation, pastiche and homage. The covers here have been given a lovely uniform design by Julian House (who also operates under the guise of The Focus Group), lending them the appearance of booklets outlining modules in some esoteric open learning course. It makes for a handsome set. Now that it is complete, it seems an ideal time for a bit of revision to gain an overview of what we have learned in our studies.

The first single is a collaboration between Belbury Poly and Moon Wiring Club and comes under the general heading of Youth and Recreation (each single has its own thematic title). Things get off to a fairly funky start with the A side The Young People. Stevie Wonderish clavichord and disjointed beats beats are overlaid with more typically Ghost Boxy synth melodies in warm, sunfilled analogue tones. A haunted middle section has echoing zither shivers (‘terror zings’ as they’re referred to on the Radiophonic Workshop Out of This World effects LP), ratcheting scrapes like sticks dragged along railings and other murmurations. All of which suggests the approach of the young people with the strangely ‘whitewashed faces’ of which the voiceover speaks. It all ends with ominous, booming synth chords: they’re here, they’re at the door. The B-side, Portals and Parallels, has more beats and bass from the Moon Wiring end of the spectrum. The repeated pattern of a spiralling Belbury theme tune creates zooming false coloured photo title graphics in the mind, suggestive of some supernatural action series. Distorted, half-comprehensible voices can be heard leaking through from some other place. The middle-section shifts into an urgent, John Barry-esque style, which you could imagine being hammered out on a cimbalom (the sound of cold war spy thrillers). An odd, bumbling folk melody in the middle could be the signature of a friendly spirit sidekick, manifesting in order to aid our occult detective in his fight against malevolent forces.

The second single, Cycles and Seasons, teams The Advisory Circle, Jon Brooks’ supervisory body set up to ensure public wellbeing and correct behaviour, with Hong Kong in the 60s. The A side is the Circle alone, offering us New Dimensions In…what exactly? Anything which comes to mind as you listen. It begins with an ascending electronic exhalation, a rising to the surface, tuning us in to a wooden percussive intro of measured clicks. This sets the rhythm for acoustic guitar and gently shuffling drums, which blend with a brassy, sunfilled synthesiser melody. The middle section shifts into the kind of melodic synth music which Paddy Kingsland produced for the Radiophonic Workshop in the mid-70s, mixing electronics with conventional rock instrumentation. It’s one of the first of several Study Series tracks which feels like the soundtrack to a railway journey. The pastoral flute tones which join in towards the end suggests that we are watching the English countryside passing by through the window.

The b-side features Hong Kong in the 60s backed by The Advisory Circle. It’s the first song in the series, and perhaps the first Ghost Box song in the traditional sense. A hazy piece of dream pop with whispered male and female vocals, it drifts along with a sleepy, trance-like pace, lightly shimmying to a background Casio-like bossa rhythm. The half-waking mood is enhanced by the occasional omnichord waft of chordal chime. The lyrics throw out an invitation, a blissfully repeated invocation that ‘everyone come’ to some ritual gathering the nature of which is left worryingly vague. It seems innocent enough, but…

Number 3, Welcome to Godalming, is split between Belbury Poly and fellow astral travellers Mordant Music, who have long investigated similar haunted byways to the Ghost Box artists. Belbury Poly’s Swingalong begins with a sprightly light music intro which, combined with the flickering sound of an unspooling projector, sounds like it might be the soundtrack to a post-war documentary about some sparkling modern new town being shown at the local town hall. It gives way to a relaxed, jazzy and moogy theme tune played over swinging rhythms and watery splashes of stroked electric piano. Noises burble in the background – voices, laughter, vaporous electronic wisps and springing clockwork rasps – paint a blurry impressionistic picture of a paisley-patterned party in full flow. Touches of sitar and tamboura scent the air with the incense of suburban psychedelia.

Mordant Music’s Inn Ohm the Lake has a looping male voice, full of post-war pedagogical assurance, repeatedly informing us that ‘this is only a recording’. Gently humming drone loops and simple, sighing phrases are layered in, sounding a little like Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. Other voices join this underlying mantra, which fades in and out of our consciousness but persists on a subliminal level throughout. A echoing babble builds up around a descending harp-like figure. A children’s round song floating briefly to the surface, emerging from a murmurous mass which is distorted to the point of abstraction. The chorale is dispersed out into slow, edgeless fogs of reverb. It’s like a confusion of calls skimming through the mist on a morning lake, or perhaps rising from more inward pools of the deeper psyche. Single note splashes and warm synth waves are like rain and wind on water.

The fourth instalment finds Broadcast and The Focus Group returning from their investigations of Witch Cults of the Radio Age to turn their attentions to the more domestic subject of ‘Familiar Shapes and Noises’. The title is both accurate and misguiding, since the music delights in the ceaseless warping and transformation of its humble source sounds. There are familiar Broadcast elements embedded in the A side, Inside Out. Trish’s lulling voice is the first sound we hear, and there is a pointillistic piano loop, an archetypal Broadcast (and Brubeck!) bass and rolling drum rhythm, also prominent in the theme for the imaginary film in Berberian Sound Studio. There are chattering harpsichord figures and what sounds like the Mongolian-style lute which Trish used to thrash a furious ethno-Neu drone on at the end of later Broadcast concerts. This gives is something of a North African feel, akin to the psychedelicised recordings of the Master Musicians of Jajouka which Brian Jones brought back from Morocco and subjected to heavy phasing in the 60s. The general tone pushes the experiments of the previous Broadcast and Focus Group collaboration to new and dizzying heights, focussing with intense concentration on making the familiar perpetually strange. The sound is harsher and more distorted, as signalled by a bell chime ruthlessly being pulled out of shape, its purity ground up into a rough grain.

The constant transformations, with tape speed stretched, bending sounds this way and that, compressing and colliding them together, creates an overwhelming effect of sensory overload. We’re never allowed to settle on one singular sound object for sufficient time to gain a firm anchorage within the general flux. This is the kind of psychedelia which Trish used to talk about, the realignment of the sensorium by means of a disorienting rearrangement of the elements of the world into new and startling patterns. For all its intoxicating surface chaos, there’s a real cohesion to the whole, however. Transitions between sounds are made with a seamlessness which is very different from the deliberately ragged collaging of the Witch Cults LP.

The B-side has two short pieces, The Song Before and Tuesday’s Offering. The former features a hazy summer psych buzz and hum, the drone of drowsy heat and bees. Concrete sounds of pouring water and shattering glass add to the atmosphere of daydream detachment. Trish’s song murmurs with beatific self-containment in the background, while bass and occasional guitar twang sustain a forward motion. Massive reverberation gives the impression of visual distortion and kaleidoscopic shifts of focus, whilst a gabbling goblin voice intruding towards the end seems to anticipate the gibber of the Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack’s dangerously aroused homunculus.

Tuesday’s Offering is full of reverse tape effects of the sort which make sounds appear to manifest themselves magically from the substance of the air. Clock chimes, ticks and pendulum swings are savagely morphed and mutated, as if to emphasise the elasticity of time. Set against this mutable temporality are strongly metronomic Can-ish and Pink Floyd-esque bass riffs, which provide a contrasting measured regularity. A voice issuing ceaseless incantation with no apparent pause for breath adds an element of the uncanny. Tuesday’s Offering looks forward to the post-Broadcast which James Cargill has begun producing with Julian House (aka The Focus Group) and Roj Stevens, an ex-Broadcast member and now a Ghost Box artist in his own right, under the name Children of Alice. They have thus far released a striking 20 minute piece on Devon Folklore Tapes which has a definite sense of continuity with this Study Series offering.

For the fifth lesson we delve into The Open Songbook, and enjoy some wryly low key pop by Hintermass. Christened for this single, they are what might be a one off figuration of Jon Brooks (aka The Advisory Circle) and Tim Felton, once of Broadcast and now one half of the pop electronica duo Seeland. The A side, Are You Watching, is initially reminiscent of the latter, with a wistful guitar intro and Casio keyboard rhythms leading into Felton’s reassuring and homely vocals. It’s a pleasingly unaffected slice of light psych pop, reflected and restrained but, all things considered, quietly cheerful and optimistic. The synthesiser whistles along in companionable harmony, and there’s a moogy break near the end which adds a scribble of signature Ghost Box sound. The B-side, So It Shall Be, leads off with wistful piano chords, setting the tone of autumnal minor key melancholia. Felton’s vocals are affectingly ordinary, and the air of everyday heartache and weary resignation is made all the more poignant by the humdrum poetry of tartan flasks in the rain and out of date plastic travel passes. Synth flute lines enhance the flavour of delicious melancholy, whilst background shimmer provides emotional shading.

Jonny Trunk’s Animation and Interpretation, Number 6 in the series, is more minimal in construction. The two sides are skeletal sountracks whose rhythmic emphasis conjures images of movement and travel. The first, Le Train Fantôm, sets the engine in motion with call and response bass and snare drum, and adds more mechanical elements as it accelerates, until it’s picked up a good head of hissing and clanking steam. It never achieves the piston-pumping boiler plate power of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express, but is small and perfectly formed in its own modest way. Indeed, this sounds like a record for playing as an aural backdrop to the running of a model railway. The echoing ‘phantom’ sounds ghosting the rhythms of the rails suggest that this may be a very special set, one with a self-operating nocturnal life of its own.

The B-side, Cardboard Boxford, has a similarly homemade feel. With its plinking triangle and echoed, suspended piano notes and measured, spaced bass, this is movie prowling and searching music, all tension and anticipation as we wait for something to leap out, possibly with a blare of Elmer Bernstein horns. Again, there’s a hollow, miniaturised feel to this soundtrack, something a bit Michael Bentine’s Pottytime about its noirish shadows. The streets of Cardboard Boxford might be mean, but they’re easily flatpacked and stored away.

The seventh record summons up the atmospheres of what must be the favourite Ghost Box season, offering the class some Autumnal Activities to engage in. Side A, November Sequence, finds Pye Corner Audio introducing synthesiser sonorities of a slightly later vintage than the early to mid 70s Ghost Box norm. Broad, expansive chords serves as a steadily pacing ground upon which a simple but hypnotically effective motif is built. Another figure is added on to of that, and the gradually layered counterpoint leads to a cumulative intensification of the listener’s engagement. In minimalist form, ominous effect and in terms of the late 70s sound palette, this has a similar feel to an early John Carpenter title theme – Assault on Precinct 13, say. On the B-side, Cloud Control, Pye Corner Audio join forces with The Advisory Circle. A steady bass and drum beat and minor key chord sequence create the landscape above which a plangent Advisory Circle melody floats with the burnished glow of Autumn sunlight on copper beech leaves. A foursquare snare and bass drum rhythm introduces what sounds like another ghost train winding through the countryside. A minor key middle section introduces darker shadows to the Autumn scene, long nights in which diminished chords conjure threatening, half-glimpsed presences.

Number 8, Inversions, is an exercise in ringing the changes on the familiar and well-established. Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle (aka Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks) each take one of the other’s tunes and refashion it in their own way, but not necessarily according to their own accustomed style. It’s a congenial exchange, with both participants safe in the knowledge that their music will receive respectful treatment from somebody with an inherent understanding of its spirit. This is a Ghost Box covers single, then, offering interpretations of what are, to a small coterie at least, classics. On the A side, The Advisory Circle arranges The Willows from the Algernon Blackwood-referencing Belbury Poly album of the same name. A fingerstyle acoustic guitar intro with synth flute melody sets up a psych-folk mood, with a similar light pastoral air to Nick Drake’s instrumentals on Bryter Layter. But we soon leave the countryside for the disco, although perhaps this one might be held on the village green, with neon-painted maypole erected. Propulsive Morodery sequenced beats combine with the heavier, metallic springiness of late 70s synth sounds to take Ghost Box out onto the dancefloor. The more familiar warm analogue tones are re-introduced towards the end, sounding fresh and renewed in this altered setting. The groove is maintained on the B-side, on which Belbury Poly effect a similar transformation upon The Advisory Circle’s Now Ends the Beginning from the As The Crow Flies LP. Here, the deliquescent descending motif is rendered as electric piano droplets. A 70s disco drum shuffle dims the ethereal glow of the original in favour a more earthbound ambience, lit by revolving, multi-coloured spotlights. It’s clear and to the point, moving the feet and the body rather than the spirit, with handclaps to co-ordinate moves and create a collective experience. The sense of Pan’s People communion and controlled and directed ecstasy is further expressed by the female ‘la la’ vocals neatly rounding off the chorus with pre-determined ritual precision.

The ninth module, Projections, introduces Listening Center, who perform the A side, Titoli, before combining with Pye Corner Audio to map out the Town of Tomorrow Today. The former has a tinnily preset bontempi rhythm over which simple motifs are placed. On the bottom, a boggy, splodging synth ground hops along with the squelchy bounce of a children’s animated TV theme. The ascending melody drifts overhead with airy nimbus lightness. Sampled female vocals rise in pitch up the synthesiser keys, the evident artificiality of the notes somehow in itself strangely affecting. It’s all so childishly simple, yet creates such a direct, emotional connection. Town of Tomorrow Today begins with a rolling, slightly turbulent synth pattern, perhaps the helicopter approach to our shining urban destination. The grid patterns of the planned and zoned environment is measured out with mellow techno, simple circling chord sequences around which descending melodies are woven. Its repetitive iterations of the basic material with slight variations in tone and structure echo the imaginary modernist architecture which we travel through in our heads.

The final single in the Study Series pairs Belbury Poly with Spacedog, who are Jenny Angliss on vocals, Sarah Angliss on theremin, piano and electronics and Stephen Hiscock on percussion. The record celebrates the mathematical genius, intellectual daring and ‘poetical science’ of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s extraordinary daughter, who imagined the possibilities inherent in the analytical engine which she worked on with Charles Babbage and thus anticipated the modern computer age. On the A-side, Feed Me, we begin with her beautiful statement ‘we are toying with the intangible, the stuff from which the Northern Lights are made’, which shows a profound insight into the spiritual urges at the heart of scientific enquiry. Jenny Angliss’ classically inflected soprano voice echoes Ada’s words (as read by Flora Dempsey) with a lyrical, yearning melodicism reminiscent of parts of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings or his Rimbaud settings Les Illuminations. There’s also a hint of the North Sea Radio Orchestra in the mix of classical and pop elements. Dub melodica opens up interior spaces and suggests the thought processes which reach towards new ideas and concepts.

If Feed Me depicts the conceptualisation of new possibilities in computation and analogs of mental processes, the B-side, Quiet Industry, presents the mechanical realisation. Ada envisaged the way in which the analytical engine might be used to create complex music beyond the capacity of human musicians to perform. Here, machine rhythms like those in Broadcast’s Hawk drive the music on. The analogy with the Jacquard loom is made, and we hear complex, chattering rhythms incorporating sounds recorded in Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. With more readings and vocals taken from Ada’s poetic scientific writing woven into the skittering calculations of the machine rhythms in hocketed patterns, the whole bears some resemblance to Steve Reich’s vocal piece Tehillim. Above this complex but intricately ordered polyrhythm we hear a gorgeous synthesiser melody which expresses the beauty of science and the human mind’s efforts to understand the universe through its application. This paean to a female pioneer and prophet of the modern age is a noble, affecting and inspiring lesson with which to conclude our series of studies. Hopefully a new course may be announced in the not too distant future.

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