Broadcast – Spell Blanket – Collected Demos 2006-2009

Intriguing lost tracks from the Midlands soundscapers' archive

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Broadcast always attracted plenty of speculation and intrigue when they were active, but since the death of singer Trish Keenan at the age of 42 in January 2011, the band’s enigma – and reputation – has only grown. Eleven years after their final album – an eccentric soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, completed by remaining member James Cargill – Broadcast are more popular than ever. Their 750,000 monthly listeners on Spotify hammer the Birmingham group’s first three albums – The Noise Made By People, Haha Sound and Tender Buttons – which Warp have kept repressing since 2015 to meet demand. Walk into any coffee shop in Brooklyn, anecdotal evidence suggests, and there’s an 85 per cent chance they’ll be playing Broadcast.

There’s a sense today that Broadcast were on the cusp of further greatness at the time of Keenan’s passing, though it’s easy, with hindsight, to ascribe momentum to a career cut short. In fact, back then the group were deep in the midst of their most experimental phase when Keenan died from pneumonia after contracting swine flu at the end of a tour of Australia. By that point, Broadcast had become the kind of cult act they once looked up to in the mid-’90s – radical psych explorers like the United States Of America or White Noise – peddling esoteric sound collages drawn from a very British palette of trippy Hammer films, the smoke and mirrors FX of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the sinister air of arcane 1970s kids’ TV shows like Children Of The Stones and The Owl Service that, looking back, seemed entirely unsuitable for the intended audience.

This is best expressed on their final release as a duo, …Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, a 2009 collaboration with The Focus Group – the electronic project of their long-time graphic designer and Ghost Box label co-founder Julian House – in which Cargill and Keenan conjure lurid pastorals and anxious freakbeat full of tumbling jazzy drum fills and babbling circuitry, a cursed library disc of bad vibes and auditory hallucinations. The pair appeared quite content to keep exploring this obscure hauntological world from their home in Hungerford – live footage from late 2010 shows them playing versions of tracks from that record in Australia – but, compellingly weird as it is, what’s absent from this period is the warmth and emotion, the human touch, that Keenan brings. For Broadcast, her presence is the strange attractor.


Perhaps that’s why their last commercially inclined album, 2005’s Tender Buttons, has come to be regarded as their definitive release. This is the last collection of conventional songs composed by Cargill and Keenan, who, working as a duo after losing their drummer, stripped their sound back to rhythm boxes and electronics in a bid to move away from the ’60s chanson style that characterised their earlier work. Keenan’s pop instinct propels “Tears In The Typing Pool” and “America’s Boy” to great heights, but the music is colder, more primitive, the mood mysterious and restless. Coolly received at the time, you can hear its influence on Thom Yorke’s solo work, the sci-fi imperative of Flying Lotus and the LA beat scene, and even Paul Weller, whose love of Broadcast led to him releasing an EP of spooked exotica, “In Another Room”, on Ghost Box a few years ago.

Appropriately for a band whose enchanting music evokes memories that are at once familiar yet unknowable, Spell Blanket – Collected Demos 2006-2009 upturns everything we thought we knew about Broadcast during that final period. It fills in gaps we didn’t know were there, offers tantalising clues to their unfinished fifth album, and somehow ends up enhancing their mystique, despite laying all the cards on the table. Like opening a treasure chest and basking in the golden glow, Spell Blanket collects 36 demos and sketches from Keenan’s extensive archive of four-track tapes and MiniDiscs, recorded in the years after Tender Buttons, and which it’s assumed would have shaped the sound of their next record – all while they focused, as if in a parallel world, on the folk-horror experiments. It’s the first of two Broadcast archival releases this year by Warp; the second, Distant Call, due in the autumn, rounds up early demos of songs from the first three albums and will be the group’s final release.

Readers of Broadcast’s Future Crayon blog will know that, each September 28, Cargill posts a birthday tribute to Keenan, who was his partner. On a few of these occasions, he’s posted an unreleased Broadcast demo or audio clip, something that Keenan made. The first one he posted, in 2012, the year after her death, was a 40-second recording she made of herself, walking outside, cheerfully singing a verse called “The Song Before The Song Comes Out”, almost making it up as she goes. It’s intimate and unaffected, presumably never intended for wider circulation, and it opens this collection, setting the tone for a wealth of material that sheds new light on Broadcast’s songwriting process and Keenan’s approach to lyrics, providing insight into her state of mind through the words she wrote.


What strikes you is the sheer variety of styles and textures that Keenan and Cargill were playing around with. It’s a shimmering patchwork of ideas and moments, some more realised than others, some beautiful, some stark, and in this sense, Spell Blanket follows on quite naturally from Berberian Sound Studio, itself a series of short film cues. Ranging in length from 30 seconds to close to four minutes, there’s enough potential material here for three or four albums, if only the demos could be worked on and completed – but that will never happen and, in any case, there’s a certain charm to the brevity and roughness of these recordings that fits Broadcast’s aesthetic. In just the first eight tracks, there’s spectral hymnal drone (“March Of The Fleas”), choral loops (“Greater Than Joy”) and flute-laced witch-folk (“Mother Plays Games”), followed by the fuzzy soft-focus psych of “Roses Red”, an irresistible minute of “Hip Bone To Hip Bone” and the heavy ritual groove of “Running Back To Me”. Elsewhere, we hear Keenan trying a technique on “Singing Game”, there’s a lush synth surge called “Dream Power”, and a killer cut titled “The Games You Play”. The whole thing is an abundance of riches that illustrates how versatile and special Broadcast could be.

Keenan’s poetic lyrics touch on memories of childhood, the natural and supernatural world, her body and her dreams, seeking comfort in the domestic – familiar subjects for her, but here, presented in a beautifully designed booklet by House, it all represents something quite moving and substantial, a testament to her unique vision. Phrases stand out: “Hairpin memories loose in wish water”; “Mondrian child let loose with the pen”; “One by one the clocks fall asleep”; “The trees full of new leaves offering green tears to the earth”; “Drink up your water, Mother, watch your daughter growing tall”.

This is where the heart is, in these first takes and early demos, when the sentiment is true and the feeling is pure. Of course, it’s all we’ve got at this point, all that’s left at the end of the story. Spell Blanket is a glimpse at what might have been. A memory of the future.

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Intriguing lost tracks from the Midlands soundscapers' archiveBroadcast - Spell Blanket – Collected Demos 2006-2009