HAUNTED AUDIO, a/k/a SOCIETY OF THE SPECTRAL: Ghost Box, Mordant Music and Hauntology
director's cut, The Wire, November 2006
by Simon Reynolds
There’s a lot of “ghosts” abroad these days. When it comes to band names and song titles, only “wolf” rivals “ghost” for frequency and for that elusive-yet-palpable quality of tapping the Zeitgeist (literally “time-ghost” in German). Recent sightings include the New York outfit Ghostcloud (whose singer Noah Simring committed suicide this summer) and the new album by Infantjoy, which contains a cover of Japan’s “Ghosts,” a track called “A Haunted Space” and another, “Absence,” that’s virtually a manifesto for the spectral current in today’s music. “It is necessary to speak of the ghost…” incants Paul Morley, pop writer extraordinaire and half of Infantjoy. “Speak to the spectre, engage it, encounter it… We are always haunted by ghosts but we cannot freely choose what we will be haunted by..”” Then there’s dubstep producer Kode 9, who covered the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and describes dubstep as “a kind of ghosted version of jungle”.
Why so much ghost-talk at the moment? The answer--or at least, hints, suggestions, speculations--follow presently. But first, it has to be acknowledged that as much as “ghost” is the meme of the moment, there’s a sense too in which ghosts are never not current. It’s a primordial notion, this belief in spectral visitors who often turn up brandishing portents, something that spans all cultures and goes back to the dawn of human history. Moreover, it could be argued that music is inherently phantasmal. Partly this is a matter of the immateriality of sound, its insubstantial and evanescent quality; the way certain melodies haunt our days whether we wish it or not; the madeleine-like capacity of particular harmonies or sound-textures to unlock our memories. Another facet to this relates to the spookiness of recording. Edison originally conceived the phonograph as a way of preserving the voices of the dearly beloved after their demise. Records have habituated us to living with ghosts. We keep company with absent presences, the immortal but dead voices of the phonographic pantheon, from Caruso to Cobain.
That said, there is a specific lineage-- multiple lineages, actually--of self-consciously ghost-identified music. You can trace one ancestral chain backwards through To Rococo Rot and I-Sound’s Music is a Hungry Ghost, Omni Trio’s Haunted Science and Techno-Animal’s Ghosts all the way to dub. The pioneering dub producers understood exactly what they were doing: Jack Ruby’s dub of Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey was titled Garvey’s Ghost, Joe Gibbs made a tune known variously as “Duppy Conqueror” and “Ghost Capturer”, and Lee Perry described himself as “the ghost captain” and his dub techniques as “the ghost in me coming out.”
There’s another tradition, though, that’s unconnected to dub while also possessing certain resemblances to it—a home-spun, creaky, lo-tech approach to sonic sorcery. Not so much much scientists experimenting in the sound-lab as boffins cobbling contraptions in the garden shed, this British lineage includes the Joe Meek of I Hear Another World, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and obscure electronic/musique concrete composers like Ron Geesin, Tristram Carey, and Basil Kirchin. If these isolated (in their own day) figures now form a canon, it’s largely through their latterday influence on, and respects paid by, a clutch of contemporary artists, all obsessed with ideas of memory and a specifically British nostalgia indexed to television programming of the Sixties and Seventies. Foremost in the field is the Ghost Box label, whose roster includes The Focus Group, Belbury Poly, the Advisory Circle, and Eric Zann, and whose allies include Broadcast and the Trunk record label. Not directly affiliated to Ghost Box,but kindred specters are The Caretaker (the “desolationist” alter-ego of V/Vm responsible for albums like Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom and Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia) and the shadowy duo known as Mordant Music.
Beyond sharing a similar pantheon of Anglotronic eccentrics and an obsession with British culture in the period roughly between V-Day and the election of Thatcher, these (un)canny operators have several other things in common. They are consummate scavengers, trawling through charity shops, street markets and jumble sales for delectable morsels of decaying culture-matter. They are accomplished eso-terrorists, their records invisibly hyperlinked to a constellation of recondite references and arcane icons. Like Stereolab or the England’s Hidden Reverse bands (Nurse with Wound, Coil, etc), they enjoy the game of mystique-cultivation but feel an equally strong impulse to edify, a pedagogic compulsion to share their knowledge treasure. Sonically, their music typically mixes digital and analog: samples and computer-edited material mingle with antique synthesizer tones and acoustic instruments; motifs inspired by/stolen from library music and movie scores (particularly pulp genres like science fiction and horror) are woven together with industrial drones and abstract noise; and there’s often a musique concrete/radio-play element of spoken word and found sounds.
This strand of “ghostified” music doesn’t quite constitute a genre, a scene, or even a network. But it is an entity, nebulous and as yet nameless. “Hauntology”, my early nomination for genre handle, is tad clunky and carries a heap of post-structuralist baggage (it’s Derrida’s pun on ontology, part of his attempt to track the undercurrent of “spectrality” in Western thought, especially Marxism). “Spectral music” is already taken, referring to a very particular form of avant-classical composition. “Memoradelia”, as proposed by critic Patrick McNally, is just a little too neutral, lacking the spook factor. And “eldritchronica” (another of mine), while cute and accurate (most of these operators have roots in Nineties electronic dance: early UK techno, IDM, trip hop) is just a bit of a mouthful. So perhaps it’s better that this remains a genre-without-name: more of a flavour or atmosphere than a style with boundaries. Perhaps this whatever-it-is ought to elude our grasp, like mist or mirage.
A GHOST( BOX) STORY
Ghost Box founders Jim Jupp (Belbury Poly) and Julian House (the Focus Group) grew up on the outskirts of Newport in South Wales. As teenagers they spent a lot of time in nearby Caerleon-on-Usk, which is where they struck up an enduring friendship with James Cargill, future founder of Broadcast (whose record sleeves House designs). In addition to its remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheatre, Caerleon’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Arthur Machen, one of the gentleman-occultists who pioneered the genre of “cosmic horror” (see also H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood). Machen set many of his stories in Caermaen, a fictionalized version of the countryside around the river Usk. “He saw a landscape haunted with nature deities, weird troglodyte creatures, Roman ghosts and tormented Blakean visionaries,” says Jupp.
Love of horror stories and horror movies is one cornerstone of the Ghost Box edifice. Belbury Poly’s debut album The Willows is named after a Blackwood story, and its sequel The Owl’s Map includes the track "Scarlet Ceremony," which Jupp describes as “Hawkwind meets Amon Duul soundtracking a Hammer Horror flick”. It features a genteel Englishwoman’s voice incanting "take my flesh, my blood, my skin" (“Michelle Dotrice as a young witch in Blood on Satan’s Claw, a Witchfinder General knock off,” Jupp reveals). His other Ghost Box project, Eric Zann, is named after a violinist in a Lovecraft story whose “impossibly weird and frenzied music lets in some weird creature from another dimension.” Where Belbury Poly albums are tuneful and at times even groovy, the Eric Zann debut Ouroborindra is hellishly abstract, somewhere between a black metal version of On Land and the Rosemary’s Baby O/S/T remixed by Thomas Koner. Jupp says he deliberately uses “a lot of heavy handed gothic signifiers--crows, organs, church bells, bats, magic spells… I'm trying to get at that mood of Hammer films and other European horror movies of the late 60s & early 70s--it’s their cheesiness, their bad effects and sound quality that often gives them an unworldly quality and indefinable otherness, beyond the director's intent.”
The Ghost Box concept hatched in 2003 when House and Jupp (who work in London as, respectively, a member of the design collective Intro and an architectural technician) decided to found a label with a strong audio-visual identity, its output instantly identifiable as much by its look as by its sound. "Early on we played with the idea of a manifesto based on music for schools and colleges, cosmic horror stories, library music, English Surrealism, and the dark side of psychedelia,” says Jupp.
Hang on a second, reeeeewind, you may well be wondering: where does “music for schools” fit in
with all the umheimlich scary-stuff? Ghost Box has a schizo identity—one half in thrall to the dark side, the other turning its face towards the light. House and Jupp are obsessed with the spirit of technocratic utopianism that flourished in post-war Britain, from the misunderstood Brutalist school in architecture (they meant well, really they did) to the democratization of learning undertaken by the Open University and further manifested by the 1960s paperback explosion, as pioneered by Penguin Books with its blue-spined drive to educate the common man. Seemingly running in opposition to Ghost Box’s penchant for all things atavistic and heathen is a “nostalgia for the future”(to quote David Toop, on the Black Dog, in these very pages), a wistful harking-back to the optimistic, forward-looking, benignly bureaucratic Britain of new towns and garden cities, comprehesives and polytechnics.
Hence Belbury Poly, which derives its name from the fictional English town Belbury in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength. Jupp and House have reimagined this imaginary place as suffused with “an uneasy mix of ancient and modern”--the Ghost Box aesthetic in a nutshell. That quotation comes from the CD booklet of The Owl’s Map, which is wittily styled as pages from a field guide to British towns and villages. Along with modernist-style municipal amenities like the Polytechnic, the Public Library, and “the striking Community Fellowship Church”, Belbury is blessed with a haunted manor house, a Neolithic stone circle, and “foreboding Iron Age ramparts”. Jupp says that the guidebook pastiche is a byproduct of House’s plan to make “a series of short films set in Belbury. So we've formed our own mental map of the town, and the The Owl’s Map gradually became a kind of audio visual to the town and its history. We picked up lots of old tourist guides, maps and pamphlets in Oxfam for inspiration-- you know the sort of thing, murky old photos of Chichester Cathedral.” Even the colour scheme of the Owl’s Map cover is “inspired by those brown road signs that point the way to Roman ruins, falconry centres or stately homes.”
Nostalgia for a bygone age of benevolent social engineering imbued another Ghost Box release, the Advisory Circle’s Mind How You Go EP. An alter-ego for electronic musician Jon Brooks, who usually operates as the King of Woolworths, the project is named after an imaginary government (busy)body that issues guidance to the general public on every aspect of behaviour. “The Advisory Circle: helping you make the right decisions”, a female voice on Mind How You Go declares, her faintly sinister solicitousness recalling the telescreen announcers in Truffaut’s movie of Fahrenheit 451. “Jon contacted us because he’d been thinking of recording something based on the sound of the old public information films that were such a familiar part of children's TV in the Seventies,” explains Jupp, referring to those short and sometimes bizarrely gruesome films warning of the dangers posed by, say, a seemingly harmless visit to a farm (kid #1 drowns in hogshit after tumbling into a pigpen, kid #2 gets impaled on a pitchfork, and so forth). Their disturbing effect was heightened, says Jupp, by “the sinister, melancholy quality to the music and the voice-overs, generally recorded in a slightly overloaded and distorted way.”
The Advisory Circle’s music itself, though, leans towards the less eldritch side of Ghost Box: euphonious, ergonomically precise electro-ditties that recall the zippy jingles played between programmes during mid-morning “TV for Schools” . Belbury Poly has a whole strain of this sort of thing, like the jaunty “Farmer’s Angle,” which Jupp conceived as the theme tune for a regional radio show mixing “the latest agricultural news and weather” with “a new look at ancient rites”. On The Owl’s Map, “Your Way Today” could be a civic anthem for a short film commissioned by a local authority in a clumsy attempt to rebrand the city, while “The New Mobility” recalls the Human League’s Dignity of Labour EP (as a schoolkid Jupp’s first group was a synth-pop outfit formed around the time Travelogue was released).
Another reason Jon Brooks contacted Ghost Box was because he recognized their shared ardour for library music, that genre of incidental themes recorded in Wardour Street studios by moonlighting top-notch session-men and under-employed composers, and designed for use in industrial films, radio shows, cinema and TV commercials, and other non-glamorous contexts. “Jon has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject,” notes Jupp. As does Jonny Trunk, who recently pulled together a lavishly illustrated book of library record covers, The Music Library (complete with an afterword from Julian House). His Trunk label excavates exactly the sort of treasure that informa Ghost Box’s sound-world, from works by maverick composers such as Basil Kirchin and Desmond Leslie to obscure soundtrack music (scores for Kes and the Wicker Man, Vernon Elliot’s music for Oliver Postgate’s classic animation series The Clangers, the Radiophonic Workshop’s work for the kids sci-fi show The Tomorrow People). “What Trunk puts out is much more interesting than the usual archivist labels,” says House. “Jonny’s more like a folk art scholar. That vision of a lost Britain that Ghost Box draws its energy from is hugely influenced by Trunk’s commitment to the neglected artists of post war UK culture.”
One figure Trunk hasn’t gotten around to unearthing yet is Tristam Carey, a composer who recorded electronic music for the Quatermass films and some pre-Radiophonic episodes of Dr. Who. Rather than figures like Stockhausen or Schaeffer who enjoyed government funding and the prestige of High Culture status, Ghost Box are attracted to a peripheral British tradition of non-institutional experimentalism. Closer to craftsmen than capital A artists, these composers were obliged to smuggle their ideas into a commercial context, whether working for radio and TV, or toiling for library labels like Boosey & Hawkes and Bruton. “Backyard Rituals and Spare Times,” a track off The Focus Group’s forthcoming third album We Are All Pan’s People, is musique concrete with a make-shift hobbyist aura that seems quintessentially British. “I like that Englishness, as if the avant garde is just another part of a certain off kilter whimsical sensibility,” says House, citing as example a piece called 'Major Bloodnok’s Stomach” by radio comedy absurdists The Goons that involved the fledgling Radiophonic Workshop.
Delia Derbyshire, David Cain, Paddy Kingsland and the rest of the Radiophonic crew are key figures for Ghost Box. “There’s a particular feel that you get from their older stuff, where they've used a concrete sound source or a sine wave, then endlessly dubbed it on to tape, until what you’re listening to, the music itself, is the reverb of a reverb of a reverb,” says House. “It’s like ghost music, made from the traces, memories of an object.” He and Jupp belong to a generation that was exposed to weird electronic sounds at a formative age thanks to the Workshop’s work for children’s television. The shuddery impact of those unearthly timbres has left an audio-erogenous scar, as if they were molested by aliens. “TV music from my childhood is a more important reference point than library music,” says Jupp. “I like to think of Belbury Poly as the kind of music that might have existed on TV programmes that were too difficult to schedule, too sexy or scary or odd to be aired”--an idea inspired by the first series of Oliver Postgate’s Pogles’ Wood, which was pulled by the BBC for its disturbingly witchy atmosphere.
Television itself is innately eerie, though, isn’t it? If record players can seem like magical devices (I still don’t honestly understand how they work, how so much detail can be trapped in those tiny engraved grooves then released by the scraping of a pin), television ought to invite even more superstitious apprehension. The word shares the “tele” prefix (from afar, far-fetched) with telekinesis, telepathy and other paranormal phenomena. The name Ghost Box comes from TV, originally sparked by an 1970s “Watch With Mother” slot children’s programme called Picture Box, but subsequently spiraling outwards in a rich complex of associations. “TV as a sort of dream machine,” muses House, connecting the idea both to “our shared memories and collective unconscious” and to “the spookiness of cathode rays, phosphor, after-images.” Then there’s the fact that Algernon Blackwood appeared on the first ever British television broadcast reading one of his ghost stories. “That’s such a great Ghost Box fact, you’d think I’d made it up,” Jupp chuckles. “I didn’t, honest!”
THIS IS MY ENGLAND
When I heard the first transmissions from Ghost Box, I felt like their music was like an emanation from Michael Bracewell’s id, the dark dub version of his book England Is Mine (an examination of English identity as refracted through pop music and 20th Century fiction). If that Meek/Radiophonic lineage represents a homespun/homegrown English equivalent to the dub wizards, the array of reference points invoked by Ghost Box truly are my “roots ‘n’ culture”. My earliest aesthetic experiences are precisely things like Doctor Who’s Daleks and hair-raising theme music, all those strange post-psychedelic yet terribly-English animations like the Postgate oeuvre of Pogle’s Wood/The Clangers/ Bagpuss, kids s.f. series like The Tomorrow People, and, hovering in the background and at the limit of my child’s comprehension, Radio 4 afternoon plays, games shows, and comedies. Perhaps this music feels ghostly because it is a form of “memory work,” Freud’s term for mourning. What’s being mourned is, says Jupp, “a particular period of time in British history--more or less 1958-1978. All this might be tied up with a special kind of national identity, nothing at all to do with jingoism, flags, sports, borders, anthems.” Such evocations tug particularly poignantly on the heart-strings of this Englishman in New York, an expatriate for over a decade now. But those who never left the motherland are hardly less bereaved, having witnessed first-hand the gradual eradication of the vestiges of this old Britain by the bright, brash U.K. of New Labour and chav culture.
You can track the emergence of an elegiac sensibility through landmarks like Martin Parr’s Boring Postcards book and Adrian Maddox’s Classic Cafes, requiems respectively for the motorway service station and the greasy spoon; through Saint Etienne’s London psychogeographical film Finisterre and the emergence of online cultists who profess fond admiration for the eyesores built by the Brutalists in the 1960s, right up to the TV comedy Look Around You, a retro-pastiche of a “popular science” show from the late 70s. There’s a musical geneaology too. I mentioned Saint Etienne--their early albums Foxbase Alpha and So Tough featured between-song interludes like “Wilson,” a sound-collage using ridiculously antiquated English voices from a late Sixties decimal currency training record, or snatches of dialogue from movies like Peeping Tom and Billy Liar. At the other end of the Nineties came Position Normal’s 1999 album Stop Your Nonsense, its English-as-dry-rot version of sampladelia drawing heavily on old tape reels gleaned at rummage sales and found voices eavesdropped at Cockney vegetable markets and school swimming pools. In between, there was Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right To Children, with its unique palette of detuned synths that sound like washed-out Super-8 films look and its unparalled capacity to trigger reveries of equally faded childhood memories. On their second album Geogaddi, BoC crystallized their project and provided an advance slogan for Ghost Box et al, with a sample that talked of uncovering "the past inside the present."
The new eldritchronica is very much a development out of Nineties UK electronic dance music. You can hear the links not just to the “cool” BoC/Skam/Aphex end of things, but also such once-rated, now-denigrated genres as big beat and trip hop/downtempo/lounge.There are moments scattered across the Ghost Box catalogue that recall Wagon Christ (Luke Vibert compiled Lo’s Nuggets series of library music), carboot sale fiends Bentley Rhythm Ace, obscure big beat outfit Beachcomas (who sampled Radio 4 gardening programmes back in 1998) and the Avalanches, the Aussie act who built the wondrous Since I Left You out of a thousand samples from bargain-basement albums. The difference between the new ghostified music and its precursors is that the emotions tend to be more plangent and unclassifiable, rarely veering into that blatantly “cinematic” mode of dance-producer as soundtrack-composer-wannabe, and giving a wide berth to the easy-cheezy mood-food-for-pot-smokers zone.
A crucial aspect of Ghost Box is the way they forge a link between the wired and the wyrd, between Nineties electronica and today’s freak-folk scene (with whom they share at least two talismans, Comus and The Wicker Man.) Jupp and House are obsessed with this country’s pagan heritage. The new Focus Group album is called We Are All Pan’s People, a deliberate collision of kitsch and eldritch that reimagines the 1970s Top of the Pops dance troupe as maenads cavorting in a nympholeptic frenzy around the goat-man nature god. Ghost Box’s most thorough-going invocation of Britain’s folk heritage, though, took place on Belbury Poly’s “Caermon” (from The Willows), which uses a 1908 cylinder recording made by the song collector Percy Grainger of one Joseph Taylor. Jupp did more than sample the tune, “Bold William Taylor”, he “changed the speed and pitch and reconstructed it to make a different melody with unintelligible lyrics”. Liking the “Rorschach audio” effect that makes the brain project meaningful word-shapes onto the vocal, he has tried the trick again on The Owl Map’s “Wetland”, this time using a 1945 recording of Harry Cox singing “Just as the Tide Was a-Flowing”.
What “Caermon” did—and you get an intimation of this just from the sound of the song, even without knowing the backstory—is restore the strangeness of sampladelia, something lost thanks to the ubiquity of the technique, the attrition of repetition. I vividly recall the disorientation induced by the first hip hop records based entirely around sampling, productions by Marly Marl and Herby Azor-- the sensual but uncanny friction caused by “different auras, different vibes, different studio atmospheres, different eras” being placed in “ghostly adjacence” (to quote something I wrote in 1987, inspired by the Azor-produced Salt-N-Pepa album Hot, Cool N’Vicious). If phonography has never fully shed its Edisonian function of keeping the dead alive, then sampling is even more unnatural: a mixture of séance and time-travel.
But we’ve become blasé about such sorcery, barely blinking an ear at abominations against all that’s wholesome and proper like the reanimation of dead stars to perform with the living (a trend pioneered by Natalie Cole’s duet with her dead dad Nat King Cole and turned into a grave-robbing racket by the estates of Tupac and Notorious BIG). Yet all sampling, if you really think about it, has an element of violation. What Jim Jupp did to Joseph Taylor—make a dead man sing a new song—is really no different to what all sampling entails: the creation of a zombie. In voodoo, the zombie is a cadaver brought back to a robot-like half-life; it has no will of its own, just follows the bidding of the sorcerer who reanimated it. Sampling takes the once embodied exertion and breath of drummers, horn-players, singers, etc, and pressing it into service. Looping transforms these vivisected portions of human energy into treadmills of posthumous productivity. For instance, what happened to the Amen breakbeat—originally just five seconds in the life of Winstons drummer Gregory Coleman—makes me think of Disney’s the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the broomstick chopped into a thousand pieces, proliferating in ungodly swarms.
There’s another dimension to sampling that connects to the spectral undercurrent, or horror-movie essence, within capitalism itself: investors/shareholders/financiers/entrepreneurs as a vampire class, sucking the lifeblood of labour and using their ghosted energy to perpetuate their dominion. The late Sixties and early to mid Seventies remain the prime seam for sampler-prospectors: that golden era when studio recording techniques were at their most developed but live playing had yet to be displaced by drum machines and sequencers, laid down inexhaustible-seeming deposits of hot licks and cool grooves.
Pop music has been living on borrowed time and off stolen energy. That’s been increasingly true since the late Eighties, when sampling first became widespread. But I think this state of affairs would have come about even without the digital tricknology that enables rampant recyling. The retro culture—a sort of reverse vampirism, young bands drawing nourishment from ancient blood—was already emerging even before the price of samplers dropped massively. There’s a sense in which the sheer richness of pop’s surge years—1963 to 1983, more or less—has made it too tempting to be derivative, too easy to engage in sampling-without-a-sampler, as it were.
Obsessed with the past to the point of being sonic antique collectors, fetishists of vintage tat and bygone grot, the hauntologists don’t, on the face of it, appear to be going against the grain. Yet I think they do represent a dissident tendency. Call it (with apologies to Mark E. Smith) spectres versus retro. On one side, the official mainstream of retro culture: young guitar bands ransacking garage punk one year, postpunk the next; Coldplay heisting, with Kraftwerk’s blessing, the melody from “Computer Love” for one of their songs; the craze for artists to perform onstage their most legendary albums in their original running order. Everywhere, the presiding sensation is “anechronosis”, my ugly but necessary coinage (anachronism + necrosis) for the curious “undead” quality exuded by musical artifacts that seems neither fully modern nor properly period-bound, but instead belongs to some ersatz limbo, a Zeit without a Geist. The anechronotic sensation (think Goldfrapp, the White Stripes, virtually any “new” British rock band) is queasy and not-right, but it’s not the least bit uncanny. In fact I’d say it’s the exact opposite of the vibration given off by hauntological music.
It’s tempting to characterize the revenant tendency as the id to retro culture’s ego, a dank subterranean passage as opposed to the brightly-lit run-way of pop. Music that doesn’t leach off the past but allows the past to leak into it, to pass through in an almost mediumistic way. The flaw in this contention is that Ghost Box and their kinsmen are no less knowing and self-conscious than the tongue-in-chic retro bands. Often, they resemble “conceptronica” artists like Herbert and Matmos, where every last bleep and glitch is freighted with footnotes of rationale and resonance. But perhaps it’s naïve to expect naivete from artists in this day and age. And wizards are always scholars, aren’t they? They need books of spells and incantations to make their magic.
"Seediness has a very deep appeal ... It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost"—Graham Greene
Mordant Music have an uncanny amount in common with Ghost Box. The two outfits share a love for library music (Mordant trumping the Ghost boys by actually receiving a commission from Boosey and Hawkes to produce “atmospheric drones”) and an obsession with the UK television of yesteryear (Mordant’s logo is the classic testcard, but with the little girl replaced by a magpie). A “symbol of canny plunder”, the magpie is a member of the corvidae family (crows, rooks, ravens, etc), a genus that Mordant identify with. Partly because corvids are saturnine critters who give people the creeps and partly because the duo, Admiral Greyscale and Baron Mordant are sampling fiends who feast on cultural carrion.
Dead Air, Mordant’s compelling debut CD, contains around 256 samples, some musical (a reverb-trail from Eno’s “In Dark Trees”, a malevolent whirr of Electric Prunes guitar, a mangled fragment of Japan’s “Ghosts”), some from TV (a shuddery synth-twinge from the theme to 1970s post-plague sci-fi drama The Survivors) and others that are environmental (ambiences from the derelict nuclear bunker Kelvedon Hatch). In an eerie parallel to the Advisory Circle EP, one track features the voice of Donald Pleasence, culled from a 1970’s Public Information Film called Dark Water about the dangers of playing near river banks.
“Dead air” is what broadcasters are supposed to avoid at all costs, what continuity personnel are employed to plug up with pleasantries. Mordant’s fascination with that lost figure, the TV announcer, led them to track down Philip Elsmore, whose warm, soothing tones will be recognizable to anyone who grew up in the UK in the 1970s from his work for ITV regional franchises like Tyne Tees and Thames. The duo persuaded Elsmore to come out of retirement and provided continuity for Dead Air, his reassuring voice applied to an increasingly bizarre series of utterances, from "apologies for the sundry glitches… in the meantime, keep your nerve" to “the following contains graphic scenes of a strobing magpie's wing" to “keep sporing in the nessst”. Near the CD’s end, Elsmore declares that "Mordant Music will be back once the dust has settled with more vague unpleasantness." Insinuating unease and “faint queasiness” are the duo’s modus operandi, as opposed to corny/ campy Gothick/black-metal/power-electronics attempt at shock-horror. “A mild sense of apprehension is actually far more acute than out-and-out drama,” says Greyscale. “It’s everyday, what the Mordant virus feeds on.”
In the CD sleevenote, Dead Air is described as “the lost broadcast from a ghost transmission mast”, a Ballardian image of the abandoned radioscape (after the Catastrophe, or perhaps, more mundanely, when everything’s gone digital/cable, leaving the airwaves deserted except for a few lone deranged voices). Decay is a Mordant Music obsession. “The Black Crush” gets its title from “an old TV production term, referring to the degradation you¹d get around type on screen”, explains Admiral Greyscale, while “Proof-Read by Spores” is a fantasy of “government protection literature gone musty and bacterial post-apocalypse, sporing and telling it’s own truth, growing a tale fresh on the pages...very stop-motion”.
“Musty” is a big Mordant buzzword. Dead Air sounds like early ‘90s UK techno gone to seed, the pristine electronic surfaces mottled with mold. Baron Mordant, the main music man, has a long history of involvement with post-rave and post-industrial dance, most recently associated with the reformed Portion Control, and prior to that making records under various names for 400 Blows’ label Concrete Production, Orbital's Internal imprint, and Leftfield’s Hard Hands label. Admiral Greyscale’s input is largely conceptual and design-oriented. Like Ghost Box, the label aims for total congruence of audio and visual. Their 2001 debut release Nijmegen was actually a magazine, or as Greyscale puts it, “a CD booklet without a CD”. It was followed by the View-Mastur stereo reel, an obscene parody of the retro toy fad. Each Mordant release is a covetable fetish object, from a mini-CD encased in a petri-dish to the one-sided single by guest artist/dubstep maverick Shackleton that features a sealing wax seal burned into the blank side (hand-done, heated on an electric hob) to Dead Air itself, with its unusually shaped, dingy Dijon mustard-hued fold-out sleeve. Then there’s the magpie-adorned picture disc single “Dark Side of the Autobahn,” at attempt to hijack the irritating “bastard pop” fad of a few years back. Less a mash-up than a séance, it fuses the whooshing down-the-tunnel ominous bit of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” with Pink Floyd’s proto-techno tune “On the Run”, then garnishes the chimera with Genesis P-Orridge from TG’s “Very Friendly” (the phrase “drinking German wine” giving the tune a drunk-driving theme) and a “hello darkness” from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”.
DESIGN TO THRILL
“Packaging that’s wrapped inside the music”: that’s how Julian House conceives the crucial the role of design in Ghost Box output. He approvingly cites a comment made by Tim Gane of Stereolab (for whom House has designed some sleeves). “Tim said he doesn't consider a record finished until the cover is designed.” House and Jupp typically work on the music and the artwork simultaneously, using “mood boards” of relevant images and words as inspirational cues. The Ghost Box catalogue is conceived as a numbered series, like a mood-oriented imprint of library records or a set of school textbooks. House is especially fond of the color-coded, grid-template design of Penguins, Peregrines and Pelicans, the covers typically housing that 1960s/70s genre of “popular thought’ purveyed by long-forgotten figures like MB Devot and TC Lethbridge. In the polymath spirit of Devot’s monograph Tangled Beams (a title borrowed for a tune on The Owl’s Map) and Lethbridge’s Ghost and Ghoul, there are plans for a Ghost Box periodical called Folklore and Mathematics.
More than merely wanting the packaging to reflect the atmosphere of Ghost Box music, House sees direct technical parallels between his music-making as the Focus Group and his design work for Intro’s clients and for the label. “With visual collage there’s always a sense that however incongruous the elements and surreal their juxtaposition, they exist in the same space--or at least a space that is defined by their arrangement. Even images with different textures, maybe from different print media, feel they belong together in that space. With the audio collages I try to achieve the sensation that there is a real acoustic space that all the sounds exist in, even if it sounds slightly unreal. So reverb may be added to some samples to make them fit the space if needed. There’s also a strange sensation when the reverb reflections of the different sounds bind together, it’s a sort of acoustic glue.”
House is a fan of the inadvertent avant-gardeness of “bad” or “clunky” design, as seen in Polish movie posters or library music sleeves. He intentionally achieves similar effects through “bad looping… looped samples that change their start and end points. With visual collage there's a way in which images that are cut out 'badly', maybe with bits of their background or surrounding image, make it difficult to discern where one part of the collage begins and another ends. This trompe l'oeil effect brings you deeper into the collage, confuses your ability to discern images as surface. In the same way the shifting loop points of the samples mean that it’s difficult to discern which sample is which. Indeed, if you can't identify a definite loop, it’s difficult to label it as a sample at all.”
Fredric Jameson, glossing Derrida, defines “spectrality” as that which “makes the present waver: like the vibrations of a heat wave through which the massiveness of the object world--indeed of matter itself--now shimmers like a mirage.” That’s the sensation transmitted by House’s most powerful work—ultra-abstract pieces like “The Leaving” on last year’s Hey Let Loose Your Love or “The Falling Leaf Beat” on We Are All Pan’s People—a sense of flickered glimpses into another reality behind or beneath the one we inhabit. Sometimes the music is an idyllic flutter, like the slow-dance of light that is “Modern Harp” or the cascade-in-reverse of “Lifting Away”. Often, it’s a crepuscular, cobwebby sound of writhing ivy and ectoplasmic tendrils. Playing on the proximity of ecstasy and eeriness, the Focus Group sound veers back and forth between bliss-mist and ghost-fog.
Yes, there’s a lot of ghosts about. Plenty of death too: each month, it seems, a new god leaves us--Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, and, if a TV programme can be seen as living being, Top of the Pops. It can hardly be coincidence that one of the year’s best records, Burial’s self-titled debut, has a funereal cast (the most persuasive reading of the record takes it as a requiem for the lost dream of rave culture), while label-mate Kode 9’s debut Memories of the Future also feels like a threnody for the forward-surge of the Nineties.
Did we run out of future somewhere along the way? Rock/pop has reached that advanced age--late forties, early fifties, depending on when you date the era’s start--when there’s more life behind it than ahead of it. It’s as though the sheer drag caused by the mass of its own memory-flesh has arrested pop’s forward motion, inducing a kind of temporal implosion: the black hole of retro without end.
Ghost Box and their allies merge two opposed, yet connected, responses to this predicament. One is a “nostalgia for looking forwards” (as House put its), for that bright, clear-eyed spirit of post-WW2 modernism. The other strategy involves a reinvention, or rewriting, of history. Given the absence-without-official-leave of the Future, those with radical instincts are forced to investigate the past. Renegade archivists, they seek to uncover alternate pasts secreted inside the official narrative, a strategy pioneered in different ways by Add N To (X), Royal Trux, Broadcast, Stereolab, and a fair few others. “I used Stereolab as my case study in my MA dissertation, which was about discovering the future in the past,” says House. “About how this sort of crate-digging, record collector world needn't be Beck-style empty check-my-reference.” Aspects of We Are Pan’s People involve precisely this sort of alternative-history research, looking for latent, undeveloped possibilities in glam rock, light entertainment (one track is inspired by the Swingle Sisters, television variety show regulars who also made a record with Berio), and that genre of movie-score Britjazz that fills your mind’s eye with hues of brown and yellow. “Albion Festival Report” is an attempt, says House, to imagine “what if rock and roll didn't happen, jazz continued on a strange trajectory. I had this other image of a mass hysteria at the Festival of Britain.”
More than a Proust-like quest to recover “lost time,” the Ghost Box project is really an attempt to turn the past into a foreign country.
insanely detailed footnotes to this piece posted on Blissblog at the time of its publication can be found here under the name haunted audio: dubversion : deleted scenes/rematerialized tangents/bloopers/offcuts
Mr. Reynolds, this article is absolutely precious to me. Thank you for it.
In its own way, this piece is actually now something of a ghost itself - a ghost of a time when it seemed as though this kind of cultural movement could be a potent political statement of resistance, before it turned in on itself and degenerated into an ever-narrowing and ever-pettier cycle of incestuous - and of course depoliticised, meaningless - reference-games.
Of course, it's arguable that the individualism of pop and rock culture *did* come from the same roots as that of Thatcherism (viz offshore radio), that rock'n'roll not happening - a kind of perpetual Festival of Britain - would have been the price to pay for that kind of culture to persist. The question is; would it have been worth paying? The sickly, glutinous near-MOR tones and no-direction proggery of later Ghost Box strongly suggests that, whatever I once thought, it wouldn't have been.
Zeitgeist would translate literally to "time - spirit". "geist" could also mean "mind" or "wit"
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