The new Broadcast album, in the company of Julian House’s Focus Group, has proved to be one of those records that resist, in some way, being written about. Perhaps it may be something to do with how “Broadcast And The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age” is a slippery, fragmentary listen; a collage of 23 disjointed, often dislocated snippets that feel as if they’ve been harvested from a dusty collection of neglected old soundtracks. An album that slips in and out of focus and of your attention, sneaking up when you least expect it.
Which, I suppose, is at least some of the point, and something which has a lot to do with the hauntology micro-genre which it so comfortably inhabits. I’ve been very wary of the hauntology term in the past, often thinking of the scene as the confection of some occasionally over-wrought critics who are, essentially, striving to give some intellectual legitimacy to a) being nostalgic for TV soundtracks from their ‘70s childhoods; and b) remembering that some of them could be pretty discomforting. In other words: wow, wasn’t “Children Of The Stones” creepy?
A fair point, of course. There’s a good argument to be made about the subversive and creative aspects of making somewhat uncanny music inspired by semi-kitsch TV shows and unreliable memories; it’s certainly more imaginative, or at least post-modern, than the more orthodox mystical fascinations of many of the folk and psych artists I write about here.
But hauntology seems to have an orthodoxy all of its own; I can barely recall a genre, however minuscule, that has embraced a critical rhetoric and a compunction to define itself so keenly. That aesthetic has clearly spread to Broadcast; ironically, really, since you could argue that their crotchety, bewitching brand of retro-futurism, their obsessive mining of lost library recordings, was one of the key inspirations of the artists gathered around House’s Ghost Box label.
“Witch Cults”, then, buys into the whole haunt-ideology wholesale. And, if it feels a bit tortuously over-conceptualised at times, it also sounds largely great and compelling. Where once Broadcast appeared to be soundtracking a cocktail party on the wheel in space (I think I drew that allusion in maybe their first NME review, self-referentially enough), now the vibes are much more arcane.
Eerie playground chants sometimes emerge out of the crackly morass. Harpsichords and pipes flutter unsteadily through the mix, sometimes facing off against dazed, jazzy breaks. A slightly dank atmosphere predominates, redolent in some ways of Geoff Barrow’s current Beak> project. Broadcast’s old habit/asset of writing most of their songs in waltz time has been solved – by them not writing many things that could be adequately called songs.
When they do – most notably on the second track, “The Be Colony”, blessed with a rare and lovely Trish Keenan vocal – the unavoidable reference point remains the United States Of America. Broadcast’s links to Joseph Byrd’s band are now so strong and enduring, it seems churlish to see them as being under an influence. Maybe, more kindly, Broadcast have assiduously pursued the sound that Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz and the others abandoned so prematurely.
It’s a terrific song, anyhow, which soon enough dissolves into a haphazard clutch of potent, odd, rapidly-discarded ideas. For a while, it’s easy to drift away from properly listening to the album, then something will drag you back: the drones, breaks and panpipe freakout of “Ritual/Looking In”, maybe, that kicks off the quite brilliant last third of the “Witch Cults” where many of the preceding ideas come to a very cinematic fruition.
The plot, of course, is obscure. But when the determinedly spooked chant of “What I Saw” emerges out of various field recordings, liminal melodies, clank and creak, it’s hard not to think of “The Maypole Song” and “The Wicker Man” in general. Soon enough, though, some glass breaks, a toy squeaks, and a severely warped choir carries on into “Oh Joy”. The title, I think, may be ironic.