Berberian Sound Studio is to be appreciated on its own terms as a complete, coherent piece, but the soundtrack speaks to how beloved Broadcast is that its latest and potentially last work only leaves us wanting for more.
If ever there were a band meant to do soundtrack work, it would be Broadcast. Known and admired for its very own brand of retro futurism, Broadcast was always about setting a mood and conjuring up déjà-vu-ish memories of things yet to come. Theirs was music that could be appreciated on multiple tracks at once, either as fully immersive background music that seeped into your unconscious mind or as meticulously crafted mini-symphonies that demanded active listening and careful attention. That what ultimately ended up as the soundtrack for the art-house thriller Berberian Sound Studio was initially envisioned for a film-within-a-film is all the more appropriate, considering that few acts around use sound to create an alternate reality in such vivid and visceral ways as Broadcast.
Yet what makes Broadcast’s first -- and only -- foray into soundtracking something that bears even more interest is that it showcases some of the last recordings by band co-founder Trish Keenan, who passed away at 42 in January 2011. Cobbled together by Broadcast partner James Cargill from work he and Keenan did for Berberian Sound Studio, music that was meant to feel eerie and uncanny to begin with is all the more haunting due to the unfortunate circumstances that befell Keenan. So even if it’s difficult for any album packing in 39 tracks into 39 minutes to come off as entirely cohesive, Cargill does a yeoman’s effort of pulling together what are essentially snippets and creating something with an all-encompassing sense of atmosphere and flow.
If anything, Berberian Sound Studio is best experienced as a single unit all the way through, letting Broadcast’s uneasy, uncanny wash over your consciousness. That’s in part because the album isn’t designed for cherry-picking tracks, with many of them clocking in at under a minute, seamlessly moving to the next instrumental piece before you even notice the one you’re on is over. Cargill does give the listener something to cling on to with a calmly chilling leitmotif that winds its way through the entirety of Berberian Sound Studio in different incarnations, whether embellished with a touch of strings (“Beautiful Hair”) or abstracted into radiating fuzz (“Confession Modulation” and “It Must’ve Been the Magpies”) or raised to a heightened pitch with horror-movie organs (“Collatina Is Coming” and “Treatise”) or as a dirge-like lullaby (“The Dormitory Window”). Through this one recurring pattern, Broadcast is deftly able to tell its own story with or without the film it’s supposed to accompany, using slight tweaks in instrumentation, texture, and tone to build up drama and tension.
As with any good suspense plot, Broadcast’s here has its fair share of twists and turns, bringing in enough variations on familiar themes to keep you riveted to where the musical narrative goes next. The insistent vintage keyboards and panning, disorienting effects of “The Equestrian Vortex” and “The Equestrian Library” create their own subplot within Berberian Sound Studio, as they infuse more sinister energies into the mood music. Likewise, the laser-guided static-cling synths and chanted howls on “Mark of the Devil” and the machine-like clatter of “Found Scalded, Found Drowned” are as ominous as their titles suggest, adding an element of disquiet and unease to the simmering tension that’s Broadcast’s default mode on much of Berberian Sound Studio. That’s not to say the more pensive and contemplative moments don’t pique your interest too, like the ethereal atmospherics of “Teresa’s Song (Sorrow)” or the juxtaposition of wispy, wraith-like feedback and clarion vibes on “The Sacred Marriage”.
All in all, Berberian Sound Studio is a surprisingly complete and coherent effort, not simply for a soundtrack, but, frankly, more for the difficult conditions Cargill must’ve faced in bringing it to fruition. Of course, Keenan’s absence can’t help but be a presence on the album, which is felt most palpably on Berberian Sound Studio’s most fleshed-out selection, the hymn-like “Teresa, Lark of Ascension”. Perhaps it’s only a case of wish fulfillment, but the three-minute track might as well be a tantalizing hint of where Broadcast could’ve been headed, further refining its art-minded indie-electro sound into something more ambient and elemental. Certainly, Berberian Sound Studio is to be appreciated on its own terms -- especially considering that there was hardly any expectation that Broadcast as we knew it would be heard from again -- but it speaks to how beloved the group is that its latest and potentially last work only leaves us wanting for more.