‘Spectra Ex Machina’ Is a Genuinely Original Compilation Concept That Bears Strange and Delicious Fruit

Spectra Ex Machina: A Sound Anthology of Occult Phenomena 1920-2017 Vol.1 provides a tour through audio material related to spiritualism and haunted houses.

Spectra Ex Machina: A Sound Anthology of Occult Phenomena 1920-2017 Vol.1
Various Artists
Sub Rosa
23 August 2019

To be a music lover is to desire the comfort of familiarity and reinforcement, but also to seek the unexpected and to take pleasure in aurally surprising experiences. Add on a liking for the uncanny and how could I resist Sub Rosa’s Spectra Ex Machina? This first volume provides a tour through audio material related to spiritualism and haunted houses while two further editions will tackle “musician mediums” and “extrasensory perceptions and electronic voice phenomena”.

It felt like a release where maximum engagement might yield a maximum result. I waited until midnight to hit “play” because the stillness of the air lent a crackle of electricity — there’s a reason certain activities are best done in the dark. I left the door open to stray interruptions from the rest of the house — the settling sounds as the building gave up the heat, the creaks drifting in from the railway tracks. I turned out the lights bar on an angle-poise lamp at the back of the room. Bathed in laptop glow, the world closed in, headphones seemed the logical choice, placing every sound at an indistinct point just over my shoulder.

The first voice belongs to Arthur Conan Doyle, a founding figure of paranormal investigation and convinced spiritualist. Doyle makes a straightforward declaration of belief in communication after death, which serves as a multifaceted and effective opening. First, his no-nonsense practicality tackles head-on the idea that this might be some giggling, ghoulish joke. Second, Doyle draws the listener into a conspiratorial scenario: as listeners, we are joining with him in a desire to commune with the dead. Third, Doyle’s clipped speech marks him as a visitor from a bygone era, a sepia-toned haunt himself. Finally, there are the mild distortions that make the voice semi-real, the conversational static whispering away, the aspects that make this an audio experience, not just an intellectual one.

That constant fracturing is one of the joys of this compilation — nothing about this release is unequivocal except for its intelligence and quality. On one level, what the listener experiences is more academic study than crowd-pleasing ghost walk. We’re presented with a few seconds to a few minutes of sound, tagged with a title. Stripping the pieces so bare removes the ability to treat this as one would a horror film soundtrack because there’s no story unfolding on the record itself. Faced with pure documentation one has to research elsewhere (including in the extremely detailed booklet that accompanies the compilation) and that, in itself, is rewarding as the audio clips slip into a wider context, whether the well-known Enfield Haunting, or the many investigations into the authenticity of Rudi Schneider’s talents, and so on.

There’s a quality stitching job on display that connects these disparate recordings and enhances the overall experience. Most overtly there’s the use of cuts and juxtaposition throughout. Conan’s dignified voice shifts to the spirit known as “Feda” whose tone approximates Judy Garland at her shrillest. Denys Renaudin courteously invites the testimony of children before Jack Sutton draws forth a gasping spirit as a colleague gives commands to it. The chain of knocking sounds stretching across several recordings prolongs an uncomfortably long tension, then suddenly there’s a striking shift in volume on “The P. Case”. There is something of the horror film here after all: the uncomfortable negative space around the central focus of our attention, the rapid cutting, the irregularity of shape and form, anticipation, shifting color and tone.

There’s also the weaving in of contrasting approaches to occult phenomena. It starts with Conan’s earnest and honest belief in the extraordinary before crashing headlong into the vaudeville theatricality of Ed Saint calling forth Harry Houdini on the roof of the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel before Bess Houdini gives her dramatic performance. “The Houdini shrine has burned for ten years. I now reverently turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry.” Spiritualism was accompanied by an enduring rumble of fraudulence, strong enough to make it a fringe activity yet with sufficient room for doubt that it always found believers.

That uncertainty is shrewdly mimicked by the compilation’s creators who make no overt statement, instead scattering judiciously placed quote marks in the titles, foregrounding a number of mediums who fell under significant suspicion, letting the listener judge. Then there’s the way in which the age of seances gives way to the current contested ground on which semi-professional investigators rub shoulders with members of the clergy — the record’s side two moves topic but also marks the change in the way the paranormal would be most overtly treated. The Anneliese Michel and Jack Sutton recordings seem an overt nod to the role of cinema and TV-led ‘ghost hunting.’

Even with the broadest of tastes, it would be hard to claim the compilation as music. It is, however, possible to dive into it as a sonic experience. There’s a wealth of nonlinear sound including the unsettling backdrop of static that drenches everything we hear and lurches suddenly as we jump from one recorded source, one place or time, to another. Sometimes the sounds are blunt, such as the grinding of crockery surfaces that interrupts the speakers chattering on French radio, the tapping that – by contrast – is the subject rather than the interruption on a number of tracks, or the apparently accidental surge of warm speaker hiss that pushes through on ‘Dominique And The “Talking Wall”‘. Much of the ‘action’ is centered on the eerie qualities of human speech.

What we hear from start to finish is the wide range provided by human vocal chords. The ‘ghosts’ speak through people (raising another key point about whether we’re hearing supernatural communication or a record of mental illness.) The spirit of ‘Feda’ nags at the nerves with her helium-high pitch. Émile Tizané speaks in an animated and rapid tumble. Oscar Wilde’s throaty murmuring is suitably droll and amusing; while the “Speech Of Ancient Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty” beats at the ear but never becomes entirely audible. The listener is constantly being pulled between sober and seemingly rational voices, then something difficult or confusing. The wildest sound here, “Rudi Schneider’s Trance”, is apparently produced by a human voice but sounds somewhere between an animal panting, an old engine turning over, or a saw burrowing through wood.

Spectra Ex Machina builds the atmosphere very effectively, and I found myself sucked into this cast of true believers, theater pros, apparent visitations, investigators, victims, and interrogators of the unknown. Similarly, the blur of mechanical noises, vocal tones, background sounds pushes one into a state of suggestiveness — helped along by the refrigerator fan choosing it’s moment to have an asthmatic fit in the other room. Best of all, the curators of the anthology are wise enough to save their audio ‘jump scares’ for the close.

The grand finale begins gradually. A snippet of a voice manifested during the Enfield haunting is kept tantalizingly brief — a nod to Maurice Grosse is retained with the children calling for him to bear witness. The ‘talking wall’ then presents a relatively gentle pause for breath before “Anneliese Michel’s Exorcism Ritual by Father Arnold Renz'”provides the full-on drop into the demonic growling that Hollywood has taught us to expect. It’s the only moment on the compilation that is aggressive and genuinely menacing, but what’s truly disturbing about this piece is the story behind it.

During the phase of exorcism, Anneliese’s parents ceased engaging with the medical profession, turned entirely to the church, and this unfortunate 23-year-old – who was refusing food – died of malnutrition, a starved 30-kilogram skeleton with broken knees. We’re listening here to a young girl in extremis, and it’s another testament to the skilled curation at work here that this most bizarre moment places humanity at its heart. Another moment of relief in the form of Denys Renaudin’s conversation with various children, then we plunge into Jack Sutton’s recording made at an abandoned airbase in which a downed airman communicates through Sutton and is persuaded to depart. A final 19-second piece signals the end emphatically with the words “What was THAT?”

Throughout, I had a feeling that the track listing was mimicking the progression of a ‘typical’ haunting. First contact, then a reaching out from this world in the hope of understanding, knocking commences before the most powerful and sometimes scary connection, then either release or a final eruption. It’s a credit to the team at Sub Rosa that they have created a work that could have been either schlocky, slapdash, or dry but instead is so absorbing that an overall narrative can be projected onto it. I still don’t know about the afterlife, but I slept with the light on anyway and revisited Spectra Ex Machina in daylight.

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