Monday, October 19, 2009

There's A Ghost In My House-ah

I have been labouring under some pretty strong medication (don't drive; don't operate heavy machinery) and I feel as though none of my neurons are quite synapsing as they are meant to do (or whatever). So I have been struggling to put one thought next to another in any kind of sequence. But I've never let that stop me before.

Ghost Box.

Simon Reynolds, among many others, has been flying the flag of this label for some time. Its releases appear to be insusceptible to acquisition by unauthorised methods, and no Ghost Box records to my knowledge have ever graced the shelves of any record store in the Nation's Capital. So I have developed a feel for Ghost Box records, their artwork, the people who make them, and the type of music they contain, in a vacuum from the actual music. I was setting myself up for a fall, but I really did like what I (thought I) heard: a combination of experimental/avant garde music and the type of thing you might have found in BBC documentaries and children's shows from the 1960s and 1970s. (Yes, even on Australian televisions.)

At some point in late 2008, new Ghost Box releases started appearing, unannounced and certainly unheralded, on eMusic. I don't even know what possessed me to look. But there it was: "Other Channels", by The Advisory Circle, which would soon be listed as one of the top albums of 2008 according to The Wire magazine (which usually either means it is essential or unlistenable). And it was soon followed by "From An Ancient Star", the most recent release from something or somebody calling themselves Belbury Poly.

I downloaded them both and was hooked.

Both of these records reek of a kind of nostalgia for an England that probably never existed. Innocence is postulated, but with serious malevolence lurking just below the surface (literally, in the case of one track on the Advisory Circle album, which purports to be a recording of a warning message about watching little children at play on the ice). The word that comes to mind to describe what distinguishes these two releases is "echo": sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical. (And sometimes both.) It is the literal echo, I think, that allows Ghost Box releases to put the "haunt" in "hauntology". It is the metaphorical echo, of childhood, of a lost England, that sets them apart musically and emotionally from most other music being made these days.

Parts of the Advisory Circle disc, at least, are most likely a successor of the kind of British cleverness and satirical wit that we all know from the likes of Monty Python and the Bonzos. Both records come from a different tradition: the music that appeared, as if from nowhere, from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. (You have probably heard the Doctor Who theme.) Perhaps the Belbury Poly disc breaks the label mould somewhat (and has been criticised for same) by its forays into the edges of a parallel space-disco seventies, but it still manages to exist in its own world entirely, and couldn't possibly be mistaken for, well, for anything else, really.

There are a number of Ghost Box records that pre-date those two. There seems to be no move to put them up on eMusic, which is a bit of a shame. (I know of at least one person who would buy them.) But new releases continue to appear. First there was what appears to be a very thorough overview of the label. And now we have an album by someone calling themselves Roj. (Not a very Ghost Box kind of name, that, so he has perhaps felt the need to overcompensate by titling the album "The Transactional Dharma of Roj". Which IS a very Ghost Box kind of name.)

And here we fall upon an interesting connection.

In dwelling on Ghost Box, and its highly selective discography, seemingly unique approach to sound, instantly recognisable packaging, and general avoidance of the publicity machinery, I was trying to come up with another label that I thought might have operated in a similar way. And the only thing I could hit upon, aside from perhaps Blue Note at certain times in its long and distinguished history, was Warp. Warp is well and truly above-ground now, releasing records by the likes of Maximo Park and generally looking like a business model (no, that's a bit harsh; it still has a strong aesthetic imperative, it just casts its net a bit wider these days, both artistically and commercially). But in its early days you felt that you were on solid ground.

And here we play 20 questions (although we won't get to 20).

Who, it can be argued, was the first band to sign to Warp that didn't play music of the type that most listeners would have associated with the label? Broadcast. And who designs Broadcast's record covers? Julian House. And which label does Julian House run? Ghost Box. And which band did Roj used to play with? Broadcast. And which band has just been remixed by Advisory Circle? Seeland. And which band did the members of Seeland used to play with? (You can see this coming, can't you?) Broadcast. And who designs the covers of Seeland records? Julian House.

And here are the most interesting questions of all: Which band has another Ghost Box entity, The Focus Group, just released a collaborative EP with? Broadcast. And who is the human being hiding behind the name The Focus Group? Julian House. And which label is it on? Warp. (I cannot confirm that Julian House also designed the cover but the bookmakers have stopped taking odds on that.)

It is an interesting record, the Broadcast / Focus Group one. (It's called "Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age", which is another very Ghost Box kind of name.) Some of us don't agree with the accepted wisdom that Broadcast have in some way "gone off" over the course of the last couple of records. Some of us will go to our graves smiling as the voice of Trish Keenan floats around in our head. They have "changed", yes, but change is not necessarily bad. Some of us have been waiting rather longer than we would have liked for a new Broadcast record (assuming, or hoping, all the while that there would be one). Well, this is not the new Broadcast record. Although at times you might be forgiven for thinking that it was. Actually, it is a bit like one of those optical-illusion puzzles where, the more you try to see one thing you see something else, and the more you try to see that other thing the more you see the thing you were trying to look at earlier. So, if I try to listen to this as a Broadcast record all I can hear is Ghost Box. If I try to listen to it as a Ghost Box record, all I can hear is Broadcast. It isn't a Broadcast record, but it isn't really not a Broadcast record either. And it's not a Ghost Box record, but it's not really not a Ghost Box record either. It's all rather vexing. I dare say that over time this disjunction will wear off. I'm curious as to what will then reveal itself.

And then there is Roj. He has just now landed in my in-tray and so I feel unable to comment on what he has on offer, yet. It strikes me, on a couple of listens, as less interested in any kind of song structure and more interested in impressions and fleeting effects. I like it. I formed the view, while walking yesterday morning alongside the golf course and dodging an enormous tractor-scraper that impinged on the usual tranquility, that it is in some way a mixture of, say, Delia Darbyshire and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon" (the latter, yes, is a bit of a surprise, and perhaps a bit of a stretch). I may have more to say about both of these records as I grow into them. Stay tuned. Or, given that we are talking about Ghost Box, perhaps stay just slightly de-tuned.