At first glance, the debut album from Children of Alice seems a daunting endeavor. Heaviness hangs over the project as the group’s name is a tribute to the late Trish Keenan, who formed one-half of the duo Broadcast along with James Cargill until her death in 2011. Keenan had a special affection for Alice in Wonderland and drew inspiration from Jonathan Miller’s 1966 television adaptation in particular. In contrast with the whimsy typically associated with Lewis Carroll’s beloved novels and their many adaptations, the titles of the four pieces that make up Children of Alice are strangely grand, formal, and pompous: “Invocation of a Midsummer Reverie”, “Rite of the Maypole – An Unruly Procession”, and “The Harbinger of Spring”, for instance. This last piece, released previously as part of the Devon Folklore Tapes series, is a nearly 20-minute ambient suite, opening the album with an immediate test and challenge to the listener’s resilience.
All these signifiers of seriousness aside, though, Children of Alice is often as lighthearted as it is spooky. Cargill, along with previous Broadcast collaborators Roj Stevens and Julian House, creates sonic collages stuffed with found sounds; synthetic chimes, bells, and woodwinds; the ticking and ringing of clocks; passing conversation and laughter; and cartoonish sound effects that lie suspended in space, divorced from context. It is precisely this decontextualization that lends the album its eeriness, though the band employs a playful, light touch that keeps things from settling into place too easily.
Listening to the album, one has the feeling of intruding on a haunted, abandoned radio station as it intercepts fragments of sound from unknown frequencies. At times their work recalls Scntfc’s soundtrack to last year’s indie horror game Oxenfree, which in fact featured just such a premise. While Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland may have been suitable source material for the more cartoonish sounds, it is otherwise difficult to hear much of Carroll’s world reflected here. If anything, Children of Alice describes what might have happened had Alice arrived in Wonderland a couple of centuries too late, finding only traces and echoes remaining of its now-vanished inhabitants. A more apt analogue may be the warped psychedelia of the Beatles’ 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, had its tapes been scrambled and shredded into oblivion.
For fans of ambient music who favor more melodic forms of the genre, Children of Alice may indeed be challenging, as it traffics more in texture, space, and physicality. Still, what passes as aimless drifting gradually coheres into something more unified and bold. “The Harbinger of Spring” concludes with a droning electronic loop that ties previously disconnected sounds into a larger whole, creating the sensation of floating above the fray and suddenly perceiving the big picture. “Invocation of a Midsummer Reverie”, while invoking nothing of the sort, is the most overtly emotional entry here. Its particular array of emotions remains scattered and multifarious rather than individual and personal, however, capturing a whole cast of characters rather than a single interiority. Funereal keyboards give way first to a dissociated vocal warm-up, then to panicked breathing, and finally to a confused man repeatedly mumbling “Wha-?” as if perpetually caught in the process of being awakened from a nap. The album accumulates its humanity as it goes along, before returning to sparseness on the deconstructed metronome of “The Liminal Space”.
Children of Alice, despite the weightiness of its presentation, ultimately comes across as a playful experimentation between longtime collaborators. Cargill, Stevens, and House pluck disembodied voices and sounds from their original context like documents from beyond the veil; nonetheless, listening to the record is like attending a séance only to find that the dead are as mundane as we are, equal parts shallow and soulful. At times, the album suffers from sounding like the aural equivalent of the cut-up technique, dissecting and rearranging sounds for no discernible purpose other than momentary intrigue. Given enough space to fully unfold, however, Children of Alice becomes a fascinating entry from three invaluable innovators in indie electronic music.
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