Thursday, November 29, 2007

WHITE NOISE, An Electric Storm
The Wire, September 2007

by Simon Reynolds


The first time I ever heard of An Electric Storm was in the early Nineties, canvassing opinion for a list of the most extreme records ever, when an older colleague dimly recalled a “spectacularly out-there album by this band White Noise”. The band’s name made me expect a cochlea-scouring sandstorm midway between “Sister Ray” and Metal Machine Music, so when I picked up the first CD reissue a few years later, I was surprised to find my ears caressed by deliciously tuneful pop-psych ditties speckled with kooky synth-bloops. Things got significantly wiggier on Side Two admittedly, but still water off a duck’s back to a Faust fan.

An Electric Storm isn’t a ravagingly extreme experience, even by its own era’s standards, but it is one of the prettier peaks in the mountain range of British art-into-pop. Indeed White Noise instigator David Vorhaus’s initial motivation was pure pop: all he wanted to do originally was score a massive hit single. Chris Blackwell virtually bribed him to make an album instead, giving Vorhaus a 3000 pound cheque roughly equivalent to the proceeds from a Top Ten smash in those days of lousy royalty rates. As helmsman of Island, the leading progressive label of the era, Blackwell could see the direction rock was moving: the emergence of a head culture, longhairs seeking long-form, immersive experiences and disdaining the cheap thrills of the three minute single, whose instantness was now deeemed “immature”. By the time Electric Storm came out in 1969, the psychedelic poppiness of tunes like “Firebird” was already dated, a throwback to “See Emily Play” from two summers earlier. “Serious” rock had renounced the folderol of Sgt. Pepper’s-style studio artifice as child’s play and staged a post-Big Pink return to “organic” naturalism.

All the more reason to cherish An Electric Storm for going against the grain of the blues bores and country rock dullards and sticking with the studio-as-playpen spirit of ‘67. Alongside its art-into-pop credentials, this album is a superlative merger of science and music. As much an inventor of instruments as an instrumentalist, Vorhaus had studied for an electronics degree while simultaneously undergoing classical training in double bass. His partners Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson were key members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (a name more evocative of craft’n’graft than rarified research, and rightly so, the Workshop earning its keep cobbling sound effects for the Beeb). They had also formed a very “white lab coats”-sounding organisation called Unit Delta Plus, dedicated to propagandising for electronic music in all fields of art and media.

Because the album’s surface is so disarmingly attractive, an element of historically-informed projection is required to fully appreciate the technical ingenuity and painstaking labor involved. According to Vorhaus, Electric Storm contains more edits than any other recording ever, a claim that’s unverifiable and most likely superceded in the age of virtual studio technology. But Vorhaus, Derbyshire and Hodgson were doing it the hard, old-fashioned way, manually rather than digitally. The 12 minutes of “The Visitations” took three months to snip’n’splice together. “Love Without Sound” is decked out with violins, cellos, and violas, except it’s an illusion artfully and effortfully spun by the budget-restricted group, the string sounds being Vorhaus-played double-bass parts which were then vari-speeded. Listen past the shapely melodies, and the songs are riddled with disorientating detail: pitchshifting beats that sounds like nothing so much as the woozy, melting breaks of 4 Hero’s Parallel Universe, drastically panned whooshes (stereophonic malarky was Vorhaus’s specialty), fluttery trails of sonic after-images and before-images, jarring rhythmic judders, and a myriad other sound-shapes that defy either description or forensic tracing of their provenance.

“Your Hidden Dreams” is an especially heady collision of pop and experiment, oscillating between the most beguiling of the album’s summer-of-67 melodies and
a bedlam of sound-synthesis and mixing desk mayhem (phased drum rolls, violently flickering fluctuations between left and right speakers). The lyric, sung by Val Shaw in her demure, cottonwool-soft voice, is an “under the pavement, lies the beach”-style appeal to free the imagination and re-enchant the world. Yet, like “Garden of Earthly Delights” by White Noise’s US counterpart United States of America, there’s an ominous sense that loosing the shackles of rationality and super-ego opens a portal to the dark side as much as portends paradise regained: “Let go your thoughts and be engrossed in strange scenes”, Shaw coos, “take me by the hand/a stranger in a stranger land.” When she finally sings “take me and you’ll begin to understand”, you wonder if this isn’t LSD “herself” speaking, a siren luring the listener into the psychedelic maelstrom.

The maelstrom arrives with “The Visitations”, although even here White Noise don’t totally abandon pop, thanks to a recurring dreamy-eerie melody that comes from the same place as “Old Man Willow” by Elephant’s Memory (the group playing during the Plastic Inevitable-style party in Midnight Cowboy). But the pastoralism alternates with interludes of shaking sobs and whimpers, and the song ends in disintegrated desolation, anxious female voices pleading “please don’t go” to a near-catatonic male who can’t stop slipping “back to my darkness”. Grand finale “The Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell” was thrown together in a single night after Island started making threats about recovering their 3000 quid. Essentially a tremendous drum solo played by Paul Lytton, then phased-to-fuck a la “Itchycoo Park”, its combination of extreme processing and jagged percussion (paradiddles like California Redwoods toppling) suggests a phantom genre, “free jungle”. Over this mind-maiming rampage of rhythm, lunatic screams shoot like black bats across the stereo-field.

Electric Storm is unavoidably date-stamped with its era’s follies. A baroque bordello colliding cutting-edge sound-synthesis and kitschadelic frippery, “My Game of Loving” has an orgy for a middle eight (actually, a mixture of a fabricated orgy and the gasps and moans of the real thing). How swinging Sixties is that? (The tune ends, wittily, with the sound of shagged-out snoring). Sometimes the record is just silly: “Here Come the Fleas” is more Spikes Milligan and Jones than Pierres Schaeffer and Henry. One foot in the brave new worlds of Germany's WDR and Paris's INA-GRM, the other in the already campy universe of Carnaby Street and The Knack... And How To Get It, White Noise could easily be enjoyed in that hindsight-wise mode of amused condescension so prevalent (and hard to shake off) in our retro-conscious culture. Even the most deranged moments of “Visitations” and “Black Mass” are simultaneously mindblowing and “mindblowing, man”, if you get me. Yet alongside its period charm and its oh-so-English charm (the well-brought-up voices of singers Val Shaw, Annie Bird and John Whitman sound like Daphne Oram’s nieces and nephew), An Electric Storm still retains charm in its original sense: magic. Above all, what endures is the spirit of curiosity, mischief, and discovery that animated its creators.

1 comment:

Andrew K said...

In the psychedelically tinged early 90s, I remember uneasily being forced to ponder whether White Noise's album was more out there than my grail of Piper at the Gates. As you write, some truly disturbed and distressed passages in that album. Makes you wonder, given the extreme sensitivity of the states people are in who are most likely to be into listening to such music, how wary one might be about putting it out there. Cause & effect.