[13 November 2009]
That Ghost Box’s entire catalogue has thus far escaped distribution in the United States has perhaps made their objet d’arte albums even more talismanic to those of us who are unable to gaze at their beauty without laying down handfuls for those expensive imports. One of the most rousing (oc)cult phenomena of the past decade, the Ghost Box record label has created a career conjuring past futurisms and collectively buried fears to create music that quite literally feels like it’s in a different league, even another dimension, than other modern musicians. Though the collaboration Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age is being released on Warp, it’s something like an unofficial Ghost Box confection, and it’s a massive paranormal grimoire of sound that future generations may mistake for the audio book to the Necronomicon.
The idea of a Ghost Box most explicitly evokes thoughts of a television set, its ghostly nature indicating either a notion of TV that has disappeared into memory or one which picks up spectral frequencies passed on from the other side. Yet, television for Ghost Box is a stand-in for culture, particularly as a housing unit for alternative or counter-cultures once thought possible through the grand utopian schematics of socialist Labour in Britain, before their big dreams crashed and burned in the 1970s, and the BBC, which reached a zenith of fictional vanguardism in the 1960s and 1970s (the Radiophonic Workshop, Quartermass, Dr. Who, the Prisoner, Flying Circus, Sapphire and Steel, the Tomorrow People). One can imagine any number of other devices, from an outdated technology like the Victrola phonograph to an arcane thaumaturgical device like the dream machine, substituted in television’s symbolic place as the box of significant magickal impact.
It’s from this notion of renewing resisted and long-thought-dead ideals that the notion of hauntology came to be associated with Ghost Box’s music. Derrida used the term to describe the anachronism of ghosts, who are unbound by their place in the universal shared narrative. Spooks and spirits for him performed a deconstruction of historicity by resisting an identity in either the past or present, as neither a new nor an old presence, an interstitial proxy that had about as much use for time and space as a human had use for a vestigial organ.
This sense of spatial and temporal displacement persists in much of Ghost Box’s work, particularly in label co-founder Julian House’s the Focus Group, the most experimental Ghost Box outfit. Two other vertiginous elements also come into play in House’s music, including his latest collaboration with Birmingham’s Broadcast. Firstly, one feels visually disengaged with the Focus Group’s work. There’s a good degree of concrète and textural sound in his largely pastiche songs, which makes listening like walking blind through a world whose architecturally specific look is even more vivid in one’s mind. In addition, the synapse between fiction and history fragments and blurs in this music. A central core to the philosophy of Ghost Box is H.P. Lovecraft’s creation of fictionalized texts representing not just the literary features of invented worlds, but the institutional coding that made such a world exist. The Focus Group and Ghost Box replicate this with sound, mashing together faux public service announcements, new constructs that are textured like vintage samples, and voices from the past that sing new songs. Ghost Box’s album covers, designed by House himself, even resemble old outdated textbooks or magisterial field manuals from The Wicker Man’s Summerisle island.
Outside of his musical work, House is something of a modern day Peter Saville, thanks in no small part to his graphic design work for every single release by Broadcast (see a partial list of his work here). Broadcast, whose ranks used to include Ghost Box artist Roj Stevens, has recently whittled itself down from a five-piece to the duo of Trish Keenan and Peter Cargill. Their last album, Tender Buttons, reflected this personnel shift. Its compositions were sparser than usual, though boundlessly beautiful as always, like Mort Garson honey-dripped in Kevin Shields’ guitar.
Broadcast and The Focus Group is the most experimental outing for Broadcast to date, continuing as it does in the vein of the Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love and We Are all Pan’s People. It goes places Broadcast only hinted at in tracks like “Minus Two”, “One Hour Empire”, or anything off the Microtronics EPs. Only “The Be Colony” and “I See, Oh I See” feature the traditional vocal-oriented structure of past Broadcast works (others have vocals, but they are supportive hexes to the musical spells). The rest is a dense, fragmentary fog of found and imaginary sound unstuck in the eye of a Ouija board. It favors House’s operational dream logic and “bad looping”, which creates an amalgamation of tracks bursting with ideas and suggestive of patterns which could, by the less careful hand, be plucked from their loom and made mundane by slapping hip-hop beat onto them (a technique Broadcast never exercised despite their frequent tagging as a “trip-hop” band).
Moments begin to click together and forms “songs”, only to be splintered by incoming patches of yappy flute barks or backwards-masked voices. The entire album is an exorcism of an dead universe. Nothing can stay together here. It’s hauntology as a pasture of incidental tones and half-ripped photographs. The video footage is unable to focus. The lens’s view is eternally obstructed. The wild blurs of compounded biographies come off like a fever dream of a memory play. “You Must Wake” takes some library synth sounds a la Boards of Canada and scorches them in fire. The transition between the lush mellotron-buried-in-water poetry of “Royal Chant” and the angelic choir of “What I Saw” is a series of animal chatter, dying battery pitch shifts, and a series of knocks against a screen door.
The mélange of anxious crows, unstable broken glass, malignant organ drones, strange robotic walkie talkie static, hypnagogic junk piano, drug cocktail backward-masking, interrupting rotary telephones, screaming phantasms, and hazy campfire auras of Inca Ore-like cassette excavations makes for a high quality Halloween FX tape, but there’s more going on here, and more at stake.
This kind of patchwork synthesis is nothing new. It has been tried by everyone from the Avalanches to Negativland to the Elephant Six groups. The difference with Broadcast and the Focus Group is that theirs is a postmodernism with a specific purpose. It seeks not show the world as it is, as a series of meaningless symbols, but to instead imagine a world that either never was or one that bubbles just a thin layer beyond perception. Witch Cults does not utilize esoterica as a means of reinventing dead genres to simultaneously celebrate and mock. It builds its present based on how the future looked in the past. Whereas the typical sampledelic work betrays a sense of knowing, the foul stench of hipsterdom not far removed from the depth of the crate sunk into to extract these sounds, Witch Cults relishes in the unknown. It searches out mysteries and unanswered phenomena through sonic investigation. It uses concealment of the uncanny as an art rather than competitive secrecy. If anything is truly dead in our information culture, it is this sense of supernatural unknowing.