Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 66)

Reviews originally published in Issue 66 of Electronic Sound magazine, June 2020:

(Ghost Box)

It’s a curious musical dilemma, possibly unique to the collective talents behind Ghost Box Records. When your label exists in a perfectly-formed parallel universe of your own devising, how much of the real world do you allow to intrude? Even in times of international crisis?

“A response to the situation,” was the brief that Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp gave to the roster of artists involved in this superlative collection of new material, “but in no way about the situation.” And the idea of an “Intermission” informs proceedings from the off, with Pittsburgh writer Justin Hopper impeccably channelling Rod Serling’s introductions to 1960s episodes of The Twilight Zone. “Let’s take a moment to forget all of the actions and events of our lives,” he deadpans, in the album’s spoken prelude. “And gather up, instead, all of the gaps. String them together into one long memory of intermissions…” 

The implication is clear: this crisis is temporary. After the loss, the pain, the disruption, something at least approximating normal service will be resumed. This is a gap. Indeed, an intermission. And one that Ghost Box have attempted to fill in the only way they know how: with music that transports.

With every Ghost Box A-Lister present and correct, it’s a veritable Showbiz XI of reassuring, immaculate musicality. Jon Books, in his Advisory Circle persona, offers ‘Airflow’ and ‘Forward Motion’, a brace of wistfully soothing instrumentals. The revitalised Plone combine the peppy ‘Running and Jumping’ with the comforting ‘When Everyone’s Asleep’, losing none of the heart-bursting momentum of April’s comeback album Puzzlewood. And the spectral beats of Pye Corner Audio, the perfect soundtrack for the country’s now deserted, cobweb-coated dancefloors, are also present and very much correct.

Ghost Box co-founder Julian House brings his wonderfully fractured Focus Group, of course; alongside Jupp’s own prog-tinged Belbury Poly, arriving like a gentle cavalry charge at the album’s conclusion. It’s a touching show of uniform solidarity from a label whose work has nestled firmly in the hearts of so many.

Born from the collective British memory of Public Information Films and fuzzy Test Cards on rainy Tuesday afternoons, Ghost Box has long since sought to transcend the boundaries of its own origins. The mellifluous trans-Atlantic tones of Hopper are the perfect embodiment of the label’s increasingly international feel, and elsewhere the spiky playfulness of Germany’s ToiToiToi provides the perfect counterpoint to the psychedelic tropicália of Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. All three broaden the label’s musical palette in the most invigorating fashion. Sharron Kraus – whose 2019 Ghost Box album Chanctonbury Rings was a moving collaboration with Hopper – brings a folk sensibility too, with the wistful, recorder-laden ‘Tell Me Why’. And Frances Castle, guiding light of spiritual sister label Clay Pipe, assumes the form of The Hardy Tree, offering the bucolic charm of ‘Woodberry Vale’.

But the greatest surprise? Hang out the bunting, it’s the return of Roj. Seemingly missing in action since 2009’s acclaimed The Transactional Dharma of Roj, one-time Broadcast keyboardist Roj Stevens re-emerges from the ether with ‘The Animal Door’, a delightfully juddering concoction of David Cain-style radiophonics and wonky, offbeat guitars. It’s the gleeful trump card of an album whose very existence came as a surprise to many, appearing without advance warning one sunny Friday at the height of communal lockdown misery. An unexpected postcard from that strange, parallel universe, with wisps of exotic smoke still curling from the stamp.

And while the nature of the Ghost Box universe may be constantly evolving, its essence remains consistent. The label still provides a haven for those of us whose early years were defined by battered John Wyndham paperbacks and Children of the Stones, but – in parallel to its exploration of what early journalistic champion Mark Fisher once defined as “lost futures” – is also perhaps now gently picking at the seams of “lost” childhoods. A world of old PBS documentaries, forgotten jazz poetry and unsettling central European animation that barely impinged upon the psyche of us sheltered, three-channel British children, but which now seems like an impossibly exotic alternative to our own cloistered upbringings.

Intermission stands as testament to Jupp and House’s musical and cultural curiosity. Always the most forward-thinking of retro-obsessives, they have ensured that Ghost Box’s output, in the label’s 17th year, sounds as fresh and exciting as ever. “Maybe the gaps are where memory comes into its own,” concludes Hopper, in the album’s thoughtful coda. “Maybe is it at its most accurate when it joins us here… in the intermission.”

The real world may have rudely intruded, but Ghost Box’s universe will always be our refuge. 

Album available here:

Jim Jupp interview here:

(Second Language)

Glen Johnson, recording as Textile Ranch on his own Second Language label, cites the playfulness of 1960s Fluxus artists as an influence on Ombilical, alongside an equally iconoclastic approach to artistic perfection: “I don’t consider anything here to be finished,” he states, possibly underselling an album that expertly wraps deliciously offbeat rhythms around an eclectic array of sounds and voices. Including, on opening track ‘Phoneme (Phone Me)’, what sounds like a slightly ailing Texas Instruments ‘Speak & Spell’ toy.

There is both humour and darkness. Johnson himself narrates ‘Death and the Seahorse’, a suffocating nightmare of impending mortality: “And there in the vacuum amongst the skulls and the bones / He opened up the locker, and within – Davy Jones.” And ‘Skeletons’, built around the intriguingly aloof vocals of Amanda “Mücha” Butterworth, evokes the off-kilter experimentalism of early 1970s John Cale. An album that defies definition, constantly side-stepping and wrongfooting in the most delightfully evasive fashion.  

Album available here:

Glen Johnson interview here:

Help Musicians
(Patch Bae)

Brighton synth queen Hattie Cooke has assembled an impressive roster of contributors for this fundraising compilation, and the wistfully wonky stylings of Dakota Blue‘s ‘Cameo King’ provide an alluring introduction to a collection whose vintage, offbeat pop sensibilities are rarely far from the surface. So Fruity Water’s ‘Hotel De Life’ boasts the deadpan monologue and burbling synths of early Pulp, and Cooke’s own ‘Lover’s Game’ echoes the reflective, lovelorn side of St Etienne.

Elsewhere, Stephen James Buckley, in his guise as Polypores, continues to mine a uniquely organic seam of immersive ambience; and Seadog‘s ‘As I Am’ – the only track here to have been previously available – is melancholy folk-pop par excellence, with a whiff of Elliott Smith. Dave San’s ‘Stuff That Is Less Than Normal’, meanwhile, surely tips a hat to the underappreciated genius of Paul Hardcastle. A hugely enjoyable collection, with all proceeds to Help Musicians UK, who provide grants to musicians struggling to earn a living during lockdown.

Album available here:

Hattie Cooke interview here:

Gumbo Gulag
(Buried Treasure)

Alan Gubby, the genial overlord behind the Delaware Road multi-media project, here unleashes an almost overpowering collection of gems from his personal archive, gathering largely unreleased nuggets from 1982-2004 into one outrageously eclectic whole. So intense, industrial workouts like ‘Feel My Raw’ sit boldly alongside the grinning dance-pop beats of ‘Blind Spot’ and the Delia-style radiophonics of ‘Sunday Last’ and ‘Colophon’. The overriding impression is of a man gleefully in love with electronic music in all its forms, from the dark to the delirious.

Album available here:

Alan Gubby interview here:

(Clay Pipe)

Frustrated by motorway gridlock, Jon Brooks took an impromptu night-time detour through the winding country lanes of Somerset, where a fleeting encounter with the unsuspecting village of Shapwick provided the inspiration for this truly mesmeric 2012 album, now reissued on vinyl. The drifting woodwind of ‘Winter’s Hamlet’ sets the tone perfectly: melancholy and magical, it is the gateway to a gentle reverie of twinkling music boxes and radiophonic bliss. An album of woodsmoke and long shadows, and arguably the jewel in Clay Pipe’s crown.

Album available here:

Jon Brooks interview here:

Meccano Club
(Bloxham Tapes)

In which the cut-glass tones of Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Desmond Briscoe, recorded in 2006, drift hypnotically through the gentle ambient swoops and field recordings of opening 22-minute salvo ‘Physics Out of School Hours’. Briscoe’s enthusiasm for Meccano seemingly influenced the Workshop’s Heath Robinson approach, and journalist and musician Barry is similarly inspired to DIY invention, here employing the sounds of kettle, radiator and electric razor. A hugely enjoyable hauntological concoction, with unsettling flipside track ‘Night Falls, Lakeside’ entering darker, more foreboding territory. With added dog.

Album available here:

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