Thursday, 1 September 2016

Broadcast's Use Of A Refracted Past

If venturing into the unknown is a central idea of the psychedelic ethos, then where do Broadcast stand within this picture? Their music is cluttered with references to all manner of different sources - some well known, though most cultish and largely forgotten. Their Psychedelia stems from a past which has been refracted and contorted, the original sources made into malleable sound, which can be stretched beyond recognition. This doesn't become a boorish post-modern pick'n'mix of trendy underground sounds, more a fully developed and singular world which can never be fully explored.

The fragmentary collage quality was something which slowly ebbed its way into the bands music. Beginning in the mid 90s the band were very much the antithesis to the hegemonic Britpop scene, which went hand in hand with the grim neoliberal reality of New Labour. Tony Blair gave the impression that capitalism was forever inescapable, despite his retreat from Thatcher's harsher policies and his implanting of some (though few) socially progressive ideas, he was a politician very much in the shadow of her ideology. Thatcher famously claimed that her greatest achievement was "Tony Blair and New Labour."

If politically the perception recalled Lydon's famous "no future" mantra, then British guitar music at the time offered little alternative. Unlike rave music which bravely surged onwards, splintering into dozens of compelling and innovative scenes, guitar music was intent on opting out of the present, and instead choosing to live in their rather dull fantasy of past. The whole scene also came with an ugly patriotic and laddish side. In response to the rise of globalisation (particularly America's rising influence) Britain became obsessed with its own musical ancestry - and with a very limited set of sources at that.

As much as I detest Britpop - a genre pretty much vapid in the ideas department - I should note that there were some who looked at the past in a far more exploratory manner, not bound up with the ridiculous idea that we need to restore things back to the way they were. The most obvious and popular example of this would be Pulp who excellently delved into the heart of the British psyche, exploring English identity in a frank - often hilarious - manner. A more underground example - and one entirely separate from Britpop - of using the past not just for the purpose of pastiche would be Broadcast.

The group were definitely voracious in their consumption of music's history. It would be daunting to list off all the different influences that feed their way into the bands music, either upfront on inadvertently. Archaic folk music, the avant-garde soundtracks of early Morricone, the radiophonic workshop, hip hop, contemporary electronic music, science fiction novels and the pioneering electronic psyche of the Untited States of America, are but a fraction of the whole picture which make up the Broadcast Universe.

Their signing to Warp provides a link - albeit a tenuous one - to dance culture, but really there isn't much you can do in the way of contextualising Broadcast among their peers, as clich├ęd as it sounds they were out there on their own. If Britpop's narrow set of influences meant it would inevitably become somewhat of a creative cul-de-sac, then Broadcast's eclecticism ensured they would not befall similar dead ends.

The groups early material can be found on the compilation 'Work and Non Work'. Their singular aesthetic becomes clear from the opening track 'Accidentals'. The backing lounge sample sounds weathered and worn down. The rough cut loops in a way which prevents any coffee table relaxation goals.

Trish Keenan's stunning voice - partially disconnected but always compelling - is the source of consistency within the bands music. Over the years the instrumental side would continuously undergo a process of metamorphism, her vocals remaining the binding force. She began playing music on the Birmingham folk scene, and an element of that can be detected in her voice, but like everything within Broadcast it cant be that simply codified or explained. Folk singing has certain implications to do with being 'down to earth', however in contrast with this connotation, Keenan's voice has a palpable sense of the uncanny.

By the time of their debut album 'The Noise Made By People' - released after the turn of the millennium - the sound had shifted towards almost Phil Spectorish proportions. The gorgeous pop of  'Come on Let's Go' could feasibly in some warped dimension be topping charts, but sadly this brings us to another grim reality. Broadcast struggled to produce and release their music, not due to a form of creative block, but largely due to financial reasons. They had a devoted following, but small in comparison to even other Warp artists like Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada.

On their 2003 album Haha Sound the group started to experiment with clashing forces. Beauty and abrasion were made inseparable from each other, the collage quality becoming all the more prominent. The albums opener 'Colour Me In' sets the tone for this newfound exploration of opposites, a nursery rhyme melody sits on top of maniacal and clattering percussion while snapshots of various synth tones attempt to penetrate the cacophony. Some tracks like 'Distortion' abandoned any pretence of traditional beauty, embracing the barrage of sound with a delirious and deranged grin.

What 'Haha Sound' started 'Tender Buttons' finished. The band were now stripped to a duo comprising of Keenan and James Cargill. On the album they shredded some of the unneeded excess, resulting in their most direct release. The delivery has a punchy motorik quality whilst the once lush musical textures are now scorched and distorted, often flirting with irritation. The confounding 'Arc of A Journey' manages to make the sound of faulty tech infinitely more moving than any tiresome dickhead with an acoustic guitar and trilby.

Around about the time of 'Tender Buttons' a theory started circulating. In an essay on the scene, Simon Reynolds coined the phrase Hauntology. This was in relation largely to the Ghost Box record label - run by the graphic designer Julian House and fellow music artist Jim Jupp. The idea basically cantered around a nostalgia for a lost future. A utopianism which was dreamed of but never realised. The music looked back to a time when the future didn't come with doom laden connotations but could be looked upon with a degree of wonder. This music was made by artists like Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and the Advisory Circle. The scene had a melancholic air - inevitable due to the theme of lost utopias - but also a playful sense of messing with the past.

Though not sharing the same sound a number of different artists were loosely linked to the scene. The dubstep of Burial was said to be a reaction to the reality of the rave dream not coming into fruition, Boards of Canada used warm analogue synths over contemporary electronics to explore ideas of innocence, childhood and nostalgia, whilst Arial Pink created a lo-fi interpretation of forgotten pop music. Broadcast are also a band which has been linked to this idea, and I think that there is some truth in that, however I still believe the band are not that easy to pigeonhole.

The link was made more undeniable due to the 2009 collaborative mini LP 'Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age'. The album seamlessly blends the worlds of both artists, creating possibly the most challenging release in the Broadcast Catalogue, but a fascinating evolution which was achieved through a collaboration with another fascinating artist. The collage component within Broadcast is brought even more to the forefront on the release - no doubt due to Julian House's influence - the songs themselves receding further and further from obvious viewpoint. What we're left with is series of fragments, clues and remnants. House is hugely influenced by the cut up styles of cult author William Burroughs. This album is very much a musical manifestation of this creative method, though not the easiest or best-loved release in the Broadcast catalogue, it remains endlessly fascinating.

Sadly aside from an incredible soundtrack album for the Peter Strickland masterpiece 'Berberian Sound Studio' - which delved into the strange world of 60s and 70s Italian Giallo cinema - the 'Witch Cults' LP is the last officially released Broadcast project (There is also the excellent compilation 'The Future Crayon'). In 2011 Trish Keenan tragically and suddenly passed away at only 41. The music left behind will no doubt be an endless source of cult fascination, after all the worlds which were created over the years that the band was active were genuinely apparelled. What musicians and artists can learn is that Broadcast were able to use the past for more than purposes of recreation. They managed  to uncover secrets, further blur the lines between styles and above all make some of the most astonishing and unique music of their generation.