in Frieze | 13 OCT 05
Featured in
Issue 94

Spirit of Preservation

British record label Ghost Box is releasing advanced electronica that makes dead men sing

in Frieze | 13 OCT 05

In music, coming up with a name for your band or your label is half the battle. Ideally it should work as a kind of condensed manifesto or distil an entire sensibility into a miniature poem. ‘Ghost Box’ does this almost too perfectly. The label’s founders, Julian House and Jim Jupp – who launched it initially as an outlet for the eldritch electronica they make as, respectively, The Focus Group and Belbury Poly – thought of ‘ghost box’ primarily as a metaphor for television. But it could plausibly be a historically real, if scientifically fraudulent, contraption invented by 19th-century spiritualists. It could also be an ancient nickname for the gramophone, evoking, as it does, the sheer uncanniness of ‘phonography’, Evan Eisenberg’s term for the art of recording. Thomas Edison, after all, originally conceived of records as a way of preserving the voices of loved ones after their death.

The Focus Group’s music brings out the latent and intrinsic séance-like aspect of sampling. Raiding vintage soundtracks and collections of incidental music, House leaves some snippets recognizable as orchestral playing but processes others to the point where they resemble ectoplasm or some supernatural luminescence out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. He prevents the Focus Group tracks, as heard on this year’s two CDs, Sketches and Spells and hey let loose your love, from sounding too digital by deliberately interfering with the seamlessness that today’s sequencing and music editing software enable and enforce. House prefers ‘bad looping’ because ‘the shifting loop points of the samples mean that it’s difficult to discern which sample is which’, or even to recognize an element of the music as a sample at all. This helps to create a disconcerting sense of the music as organic rather than assembled, something heightened by House’s attraction to woodwind samples: sibilant curlicues that slither like triffids or sentient ivy, a sound of tendrils and twilight. The Focus Group’s music feels ‘alive’. Or, more accurately, ‘undead’.

Jupp’s work as Belbury Poly is closer to ‘normal’ music, featuring fewer samples and more hands-on playing: lots of vintage analogue synths, along with recorders, melodicas and zithers. ‘Farmer’s Angle’, the title track of Jupp’s début EP, has a jazzy-Muzak feel (it’s the theme to an imaginary local radio show that provides ‘the latest agricultural news and weather’ plus ‘a new look at ancient rites’). The snazzy bombast of ‘Insect Prospectus’ could almost work in a dance club. Yet on the astonishing ‘Caermaen’ Belbury Poly summons a genuinely spectral presence. The track’s plaintive vocal comes from a 1908 cylinder recording of a Lincolnshire folk singer, Joseph Taylor. After sampling the whole tune, Jupp altered its speed and pitch, then restructured the melody entirely, effectively making a dead man sing a brand new song, which is a little eerie when you think about it. Someone with a superstitious streak might well have hesitated before taking such a liberty, for fear of ‘repercussions’.

Ghost Box releases are shaped by an integrated audio-visual aesthetic that reflects the two men’s professions. (House is a member of the record design collective Intro, while Jupp works as an architectural technician.) Each CD looks like part of a set, a format modelled on university course books and the classic front cover ‘grid’ of Penguin paperbacks. These are seriously covetable objects (especially the Farmer’s Angle three-inch CD from 2004) that are literally designed to make you want to own the lot of them.

The idea of having this uniform and faintly institutional-looking packaging also came from ‘library music’, a key influence and sampling resource for the Ghost Box roster, which now includes kindred spirit musicians The Advisory Circle and Eric Zann. Produced by labels such as KPM and Boosey & Hawkes, the library genre consisted of numbered volumes of atmospheric interludes and brief background motifs, intended for use on radio, in commercials and industrial films etc. Sample-hunters prize library recordings for their high-calibre musicianship (often involving top jazz players or classical musicians earning a few bob on the side). But where Hip Hop producers are searching for crisply funky break-beats or stirring string flourishes, Ghost Box’s library fetish has a more rarefied aspect. Jupp and House love the ‘science of mood’ that informed the genre (tracks come with helpful descriptions such as ‘light relaxed swingalong’, ‘industrious activity’ or ‘neutral abstract underscore’) and the aura of ‘craft and anonymity’ enveloping both music and packaging. ‘It’s like the musicians and designer are working from the same brief’, says House, describing how the covers’ clunky yet eerie photo collages seem to mirror the music’s ‘angular, disjointed’ moods. When making their own music, the pair start by putting together ‘mood boards of relevant images and words’, according to Jupp. ‘The design work for any Ghost Box release always runs parallel to the recording.’

Imagery and sonics, in turn, plug into a network of cultural references and allusions that together conjure a phantasmagoria of bygone Britishness. Talking to Jupp and House, it seems as though any given track could easily be accompanied by footnotes or a swarm of hyperlinks whisking you to different nodes in this nation’s collective unconscious. The pair are serious scholars of arcana, capable of writing an auteurist monograph on Oliver Postgate (creator of the animated children’s shows Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood and The Clangers) or a sprawling polymath opus that traces the hidden connections between C.S. Lewis, the Hammer House of Horror, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Spike Milligan, Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and The Wicker Man (1973). One key zone of obsession involves the tales of cosmic horror and pastoral uncanny penned by gentleman occultists such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen. Inspired by a Blackwood story, the title track of Belbury Poly’s début album, The Willows (2004) marvellously conjures the weird energy that sometimes emanates from certain places – flooded meadows and deserted heaths – in the English countryside. And ‘Caermaen’ gets its name from Arthur Machen’s fictionalized version of the Welsh town of Caerleon, which just so happens to be where Jupp and House grew up, spending many a happy boyhood hour roaming the banks of the River Usk or hanging out in the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre.

Yet as much as they feel the pull of old Albion, Jupp and House are equally drawn to another Britain: the bright, positivist 20th-century United Kingdom that seemed to herald the triumph of reason, efficiency and planning. Think of Lord Reith’s vision for the BBC, of the spirit of democratization of education that lay behind the Open University and the polytechnics, of the idealism that originally fuelled the New Town and Garden City movements along with the much-maligned Brutalist school of architecture pioneered by Alison and Peter Smithson. Think also of that largely disappeared genre of paperback non-fiction that could be termed ‘popular thought’, as purveyed by autodidacts such as Colin Wilson or by academics such as the famous M.B. Devot, keen to speak plainly in the language of the common man.

The inner sleeve of hey let loose your love distils this clash of seeming incompatibles with its description of The Focus Group offering listeners ‘a varied programme of musical activities for educational and ritual use’. What is the connection between pedagogy and paganism? House and Jupp don’t exactly know, but they feel it’s there. Perhaps it’s simply that both versions of Britain – heathen heritage, modernizing socialism – have faded away, eroded by the remorseless march of history. Ghost Box’s ‘memory work’ isn’t exactly therapeutic, though, a salve for homesickness (the root meaning of nostalgia). Their music is too disorienting for that kind of simple comfort. What is returned to you (assuming, perhaps, that you’re British and grew up in the 1960s and 1970s) is a sense of this country as a stranger, more fantastical place than you had ever realized: Homeland becomes unheimlich.

The Ghost Box website is
Simon Reynolds’ book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 was recently published by Faber. At he also operates the weblog Blissblog.