As one of the most prolific producers in Ghost Box’s history, Cate Brooks practically has her own ministry at the influential music and arts concern (or cult, depending on how far one goes down their rabbit hole). Ghost Box rose to prominence after its founding in 2004 on the back of what would generally become known as hauntology. It’s a loosely-knit aesthetic drawn from a sort of misremembered past, an alternative post-war British culture influenced by public disinformation films that, in their absurd way, make more sense than many of the earnest ones they made.
After producing several works under the cute name King of Woolworths, Brooks launched the Advisory Circle with a mini-album entitled Mind How You Go in 2005, which was later expanded and reissued in 2009. Since then, she has issued five proper full-lengths, alongside a couple of albums with Ed Macfarlane and Edd Gibson of Friendly Fires under the banner of the Pattern Forms. Brooks has contributed almost as much to the Ghost Box recording archives as Belbury Poly and the Focus Group, the pet projects of label founders Jim Jupp and Julian House, respectively.
Early in her career, Brooks captured the ominous, eccentric tone of extreme government safety advisory films nestled in kosmiche synth programming, resulting in such evocative, whimsical, haunting works. Mind How You Go and 2011’s As the Crow Flies begin with rather cryptic yet official-sounding announcements that establish a ministerial tone: “The Advisory Circle. Helping you make the right decisions. The Advisory Circle. We make the decisions, so you don’t have to.”
Similarly, following an ominous TV call sign, 2008’s Other Channels begins with an informational proclamation that “Civil Defence Is Common Sense”. It leans the album into the kind of hauntology mythology later built upon by Richard Littler in Scarfolk. Combining the humor of Monty Python and Doug Kenney-era National Lampoon with the Penguin House-tinged imagery of Julian House, who designed the cover art for Full Circle as well as the rest of the Ghost Box catalogue, Littler spent a chapter of his 2014 book Discovering Scarfolk discussing the unusual television programming in the imaginary, occult-saturated northern England town. He practically paraphrases Other Channels.
Brooks envisioned her 2014 album, From Out Here, as a kind of computer-interpreted countryside where things aren’t quite right. Naturally, it came off more pastoral than her earlier work. Yet, the title track is a haunting transmission, sounding like a broadcast from beyond the grave, as a soft-spoken English gentleman wishes his wife well until they may be together again. One imagines it could have been sampled from a call on Edison’s spirit phone, with which the infamous inventor dabbled during the 1920s (and was subsequently expanded on by Frank Sumption to create the contraption known as a “ghost box” in the early 2000s).
Still, as the hype faded and the hauntology genre codified over time, so did Advisory Circle’s sound seemingly start to tighten up and streamline. In Ways of Seeing from 2018, it began to take on more of a traditional early 1980s library music feel, a little more background Windham Hill than intriguingly mystical Ghost Box. The introduction to that album simply states “The Advisory Circle”, and doesn’t follow it up with a slogan or mission statement.
Reading far too much into the omission, it seems to symbolize a slight simmering down of the aforementioned hauntological lampoonery. Yet, the album is thematically grounded by tracks like “Time Shapes the Lens” and “A Mechanical Eye” that ruminate on photography and surveillance and lend the complete work an unsettling Orwellian aura that keeps within the haphazard genre.
While technically as strong as anything else in the Advisory Circle catalogue, Full Circle continues to shed that eccentric Ghost Box whimsy, containing no recognizable vocal samples and few direct nods to the time that time forgot (1958-1978). Her sixth-ish full-length launches right into the music, and the only traces of vocals are the odd garble of “Autres Voix”, which comes off like the spirit phone had a bad connection. The rest is up to the imagination of the listener.
The sound is still steeped in recognizably older ephemeral evaporations teased from ancient drum machines, sequencers, and keyboards of the Buchla, Mellotron, and Synclavier ilk, as well as wonderful throwback studio noises like the tattered hints of hissing static that frame the melody of “We Hear Now”. All the programming and knob-twiddling one would expect from Brooks is delivered as deliciously nerdy as ever, but it seems less specifically evocative of the hauntology aesthetic and more of a contemporary ambient electronic album that happens to use some older instruments. One could hardly guess its country of origin from a blind listen, and the kind of dark, alternative British history idea often explored by Ghost Box releases is such juicy and fertile creative ground (see the graphic novel V for Vendetta or Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil).
The opening title track “Full Circle” sounds like it was torn from the demos of Boards of Canada themselves, widely recognized as one of the prime architects of the hauntology genre, or even Chris “Christ”. Horne contributed to their ground-breaking 1995 mini-album Twoism before producing many nebulous downtempo releases for Benbecula Records.
“Time Immemorial” has the kind of retro-futuristic kosmiche sequencing and motorik rhythm that evokes mid-career Kraftwerk. Yet, there is something quite modern in its execution, bringing to mind the pastoral progressive techno of Border Community like Holden’s renowned remix of “The Sky Was Pink” by Nathan Fake. “Blueprint” also sounds like fun on the autobahn, swelling in before landing on a light jogging rhythm and plucky melody.
“Fit For Purpose” sounds more like unheralded disco house producer Patrick Cowley doing a 1980s nuclear action-thriller theme song, while “The Luxury Spectrum” is more like Cowley when he was in proto-techno gay porn mode. Indeed, Full Circle sounds at home alongside the masters. The niggling doubt is that it doesn’t linger like a good haunt should.
With the album ending on a logotone, rather than beginning with one, and a few other situationist signposts along the way, Full Circle looks at a glance like it was intended to be enjoyed similarly to Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, where one can play the album on a loop, let it ride, and lose track of the beginning and end. Unfortunately, this Advisory Circle album is almost as easy to forget as it is to remember, so it mostly blends into the background rather than starting conversations at parties. The pieces are as well composed and executed as anything Brooks has ever done, but it lacks the grounded imagery that draws listeners into a larger, seedier world. As good as it is, Full Circle tunes in, drones on, and drops out.