Saturday, May 5, 2012


Belbury Poly - The Belbury Tales
Ghost Box, 2012

Between the new Burial EP, the new Caretaker album, and the new Belbury Poly album--to say nothing of the rumours of a new Boards of Canada album, cruelly squashed though they were--this has been something of a banner year for hauntology. Perhaps even more than Burial at this point, whose Kindred EP was so fascinating precisely because it seemed the first glimpse of where his sound might go beyond hauntology, the releases on the Ghost Box label (and possibly those of the Caretaker) are the last vestiges of hauntology as that style was being defined in the middle part of the last decade, a kind of "pure" hauntology. The Belbury Tales is an able realization of that style, perhaps even a peak that's come long after hauntology is no longer fashionable. Drawing their power in part from the fascination that is generated by the uncanny as a mode of cultural and political critique, Ghost Box releases develop little worlds that are in contact with ours but that nevertheless remain alien, strange, and a little frightening. Existing just beyond the boundaries of time and maps, these worlds are powerful triggers for memories, longings, and desires (often ones that have been forgotten, suppressed, or dismissed). The label offers this overview of its releases:
Ghost Box is a record label for a group of artists who find inspiration in folklore, vintage electronics, library music and haunted television soundtracks.
Indeed, much of the aesthetic ground explored by The Hauntological Society is at the very least implied by the Ghost Box family, if not outright referenced: the Penguin Classics, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, library music, sound effects from radio serials, children's television, mid-century science fiction, and British folklore, all can be found on Ghost Box releases.

For me, the hauntological dimension of the Ghost Box project (and Belbury Poly's latest release in particular) develops out of its very heimlich rather than unheimlich associations (as, properly befitting the uncanny, it should--Freud is very clear that etymologically [and, I think, psychologically] the progression must be from the homely to the unhomely, the familiar to the made-strange, the secret to the revealed). Specifically, The Belbury Tales (and Ghost Box releases more generally) have a particular sound that I associate with home and with childhood. Unlike the British listeners whose exposure to the BBC offers a certain kind of shared media framework for these songs, though, mine comes via the CBC and its show openings and interstitial music on the radio.

My mother turns on the radio (permanently set on CBC) first thing in the morning and only turns it off when it is time for bed (or, more commonly now, when she switches over to the television to watch the news). As It Happens--a news and interview show with occasional flights of whimsy and the bizarre (such as its love of puns)--comes on during dinnertime, and its theme music ("Curried Soul" by Moe Koffman) evokes memories of my home and childhood stronger than just about anything else. Even as a child, "Curried Soul" seemed slightly magical and out of time, a remnant of something that had been day-glo, but was now slightly dusty and faded. Until Google and YouTube became prominent features in my life, I didn't even know it was a piece of music separate from As It Happens. When I was young, I'd imagined a longer piece of music that I had no access to, a part of a world in which music like that existed popularly and was able to be heard and listened to (obviously this was already the case, but it wasn't in my house). In short, I wanted the song to give up its secrets and to make my world weird and psychedelic (though I was then unaware of that term or its freight).

I don't claim to be an expert on anything when it comes to children--not their biology, not their thoughts, not their media--but isn't this somehow a typically uncanny act that children perform constantly? Demanding the secret to be revealed, demanding the hidden to be brought to light, demanding the strange and the new as a supplement (and at times a replacement) to the familiar? Isn't a certain romanticism--the power of childlike innocence and wonder, the new, clear sight of the child--an attempt at a kind of positive working out of the uncanny? Thus, the absolute horror of the scene in Children of Men in which Miriam tells Theo while they stand in an abandoned school that "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children's voices," when the uncanny can no longer be worked out. A few years ago, I was visiting my brother, his wife, and their daughter. As the grown-ups talked, my brother turned on the television to allow his daughter to watch her favourite show. It is, I'm told, quite a popular children's show these days. I found it at once terrifying and exhilarating, though. For me, it resembled nothing so much as a bad trip, an unconscious let wild and free, running roughshod over mundane reality. It was the same kind of energy that I searched for as a child. It was why I loved dinosaurs and science fiction so much and checked out the same books at the library over and over again. It's why I forced myself to try and watch In Search Of... even though (more likely because) it gave me nightmares. It's why the opening credits of The X-Files were at once so repellent and fascinating. All of these things were scary, but they hinted at other worlds within this one, secret worlds that you could have access to even in the daylight.

This is growing unwieldy and slipping outside the bounds of a record review at this point, but it helps explain why I find Belbury Poly's The Belbury Tales the most satisfying Ghost Box release of the ones I've heard. It integrates itself seamlessly into the world defined by In Search Of... and "Curried Soul" and strange science fiction paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s and library books on ghosts, monsters, and unexplained occurrences to assemble a kind of alternative culture and place. I anticipate finding advertisements for comics and novels set in this world in the pages at the back of the used science fiction books I read (or old copies of Semiotext(e) I occasionally find). I expect to come across these songs on YouTube when clicking through episodes of In Search Of... or watching The Stone Tape or Threads (the latter two of which I've learned about because of Ghost Box and hauntology), one more example of strange cultural offshoots that no longer seem quite of this world.

Consider, for example, the description of Belbury Poly's project from the Ghost Box website, which is not only to insert Belbury Poly's music within these media, but also within the world described by these media, a world that never existed outside the page, the screen, and the speaker:
The music of Belbury Poly is, by turns joyous and naive and at other times shot through with terror or supernatural wonder. Parallel world TV soundtracks and nostalgia for an imaginary past.
Of course this is a project fraught with nostalgia, but an ironic nostalgia for that which never had a chance to exist but which might yet be brought into existence.* As Adam Harper points out, the crucial feature of hauntological art is its dual nature, that ironic nostalgia that critiques the present by positing it as the future of the imaginary past, a position in which the present is seen to inevitably fail in comparison to the future promised by that past. In this way, hauntological art is able to elucidate both the limits of our current thought--What can't we think beyond when it comes to the future? How has our future drawn in ever closer and, in turn, become ever more narrow? What changes do we no longer recognize as possible? Why do we hold them to be impossible?--and to recapture the utopian thrust of a different time, one that was before those limits and therefore freely posits a future (our could-have-been-present) without those limits. While this project has been criticized as being regressive, an exercise in simple nostalgia (or ostalgia) dressed up in PoMo clothes, its emphasis on reclamation and re-imagination serves a practical function. As Fredric Jameson notes in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, "the more surely a given Utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is, to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unimaginable" (xv) When such Utopias become unimaginable they fail at what Jameson calls "the most reliable political test" of a Utopian text, "its capacity to generate new [works], Utopian visions that include those of the past and modify or correct them" (xv). What does the theme song for As It Happens or The Belbury Tales say to me politically, in and of itself? Not a whole lot. As part of a constellation of cultural artifacts, though, they both serve as a foundation for utopian imaginings.

This is far too much context for a review and it will inevitably overshadow what I have to say about the music. Nevertheless, I turn to that now, starting with the record's highpoints: "Now Then" with its lysergically charged flute and analog squelches and "The Geography," which hovers just beyond the decipherable. These two tracks, to my mind, establish the basic types of songs on the album. There is the rough instrumental vs. vocal breakdown that they imply, but there is also a sense of the twin poles of Belbury Poly's project in this division. The former brings to mind the sounds of my childhood, while the latter suggests just how the strange the world behind that sound truly is. "The Geography" and the other vocal tracks--"Cantalus," "Green Grass Grows," "My Hands," "Unforgotten Town," and "Earth Lights" (though the latter is vocodored beyond all recognition)--supply the haunting, out of time residents of this world, their missives often brief and of Delphic inscrutability ("You are printed on the palms of my hands," "It's just what I didn't want!") but suggestive of something not quite right. On "Green Grass Grows" the child's voice is eerily bright, the sound of play in some unseen garden that has a hint of unease in its lyrics of compulsion, a sense of slight menace (possibly sexual) from the forces that can command the child to act this way. Certainly this balance between menace and ecstasy is key to the appeal of "My Hands," part drug trip, part cult ritual, part new age transcendence, and all the more affecting for never allowing one of those elements to overwhelm the others. As I keep saying, the world of Belbury Poly is strange, but its strangeness is neither rationalized nor forced into the realm of the supernatural. It's kept activated as a force through its indeterminacy, its deferral of explanation. To be sure, in the Belbury mythos, things are haunted, but what does that actually mean? The record keeps that tantalizingly unclear.

The real stars of the album, though, are the instrumental tracks. I've singled out "Now Then" for special praise (it is the track that inspired my "Curried Soul" remembrances), but there is plenty here to chew on. "A Pilgrim's Path" rides gently insistent piano to some beautifully technicolour synth work, while both "Chapel Perilous" (a Monty Python reference?) and "Goat Foot" take the funkiness of "Cantalus" and amp it up to hard-charging levels. "Goat Foot" in particular, with its vague whiffs of exoticism alongside some heavily flanged metallic textures, is a joy on headphones. "Unheimlich," ironically, is perhaps the only real miss here, a too obvious evocation of "uneasy" sounds, it reminds me of video game menu music (not necessarily a bad thing) and, in light of how masterfully the whole album works together to evoke the uncanny, doesn't seem to earn its name. The true third highlight of the album, though, after "Now Then" and "The Geography", is "Summer Round" which feels at once wholly recognizable and stubbornly tip-of-the-tongueish beyond recognition. I imagine pagan ceremonies during the dying light of the solstice when I listen to it, but it could just as easily soundtrack the opening of a news program in 1970 or a weekly show based around time travel. As an example of Jim Jupp's compositional prowess and his ear for period synth tones, it is pretty much peerless.

Those period synth tones are an interesting aspect of Jupp's work as Belbury Poly and of the Ghost Box label as a whole. In his review of the album for Tiny Mix Tapes, James Parker made an intriguing observation:
I think it's also worth pointing out that a record like The Belbury Tales works whether or not you were born between 1965 and 1975. . . . I came to the Radiophonic workshop and library music actually through Ghost Box, rather than the other way around. And I grew up in a Britain that was always already suburbanized and gridlocked with traffic.
The real genius of this record, and of Ghost Box's output more generally, is that it works even if you don't "get" the references in anything like a conscious sense, even if they don't make you feel "nostalgic" per se. Because the reference points Ghost Box is playing with are hardwired deeper than that, part of a more complex network of cultural memorization. And I can't help but think, therefore, that one of the reasons I love Ghost Box so much is precisely the fact that I don't really "get it," that I never could, that I never can quite tell the difference between the old and the new, but that these strange, hallucinatory feelings arise unbidden anyway, the result of some mysterious collective nerve being touched.
I agree with Parker. As someone who was born in Canada in 1986 (to parents who left England in 1976), Ghost Box is not mining a culture I grew up with. Oh, my father introduced me to Dr. Who when black and white reruns came on from time to time, and since then I've watched Nigel Kneale shows and episodes of Out of the Unknown on YouTube, but this has always been in retrospect; it has never been my culture that Ghost Box is mining. My pathway to Ghost Box is through bands like Stereolab and the cultural signifiers mentioned above, not from first hand knowledge of the label's typical sources.

What's more, the powerfully rural aspect of Ghost Box and Belbury Poly is something that I--as a pretty much lifelong resident of the suburbs--don't quite understand. The horror of the countryside, yes--in my one experience staying in a house in the Welsh countryside as a young child, I thought I saw a ghost and wet my pants in terror; not one of my finest moments--but not what the life that is being remembered and mourned in this music was like. In this sense, while I don't doubt that a grounding in the music and culture that makes up Rob Young's notion of Electric Eden and an attachment to the idea of Albion might strengthen appreciation for what Ghost Box releases do, it's the inability to know the new and the old, as Parker points out, that makes Ghost Box so enticing for those of without access to (or at least ignorant of) that culture. I don't imagine a future--except a dystopian one--that involves some return to the land in agrarian communes or that involves life in quaint little villages in the countryside (which seems a little too much like The Village); the future for me is urban (when it's not in cyberspace). As fuel for hopefully utopian dreams, though, The Belbury Tales pinpoints moments that connect and resonate with (and even haunt) me. The album's forty five minutes are weird and strange in the best possible way. It's not an everyday listen, to be sure, but when you need to escape to that parallel world, there's little else as beguiling as what's on offer here.

*Strange typo that initially ended that first clause: "never had a chance to resist." But it does resist. Isn't that the point? Hauntology suggests the possibility of and depicts the places that can exist in a society with what Mark Fisher calls a "Marxist Supernanny," a government that recognizes that:
the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk. The Marxist Supernanny would not only by the one who laid down limitations, who acted in our own interests when we are incapable of recognizing them ourselves, but also the one prepared to take this kind of risk, to wager on the strange and our appetite for it. (76)

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