Friday, April 15, 2022

The Machinery of the Moment - The British Space Group

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in independent record, CD and tape labels offering electronic, synthesizer-based music with strange, SF or supernatural themes. These labels and musicians take their inspiration from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and the title and incidental music of 1970s children’s TV programmes, cheap and cheesy horror films, public information films, schools programmes and background ‘library music’.

They often use or replicate the sort of early synthesizers that would have been deployed at the time, so that there is an exploratory, what-happens-if-I-press-this-button-here feel to them.  The leading example is the Ghost Box label founded by Jim Jupp and artist Julian House in 2004. Its artists include Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and The Advisory Circle, and they have acknowledged the influence of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and M R James, reflected in album and track titles and sleeve notes.

Some label or band names adopt the titles of public institutions of the time, such as the Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan, and the Central Office of Information. The Polytechnic Youth label, launched in 2014, references the colleges of further education that sprang up in the Seventies, sometimes offering radical and experimental art and technology courses. It describes itself as ‘library sounds | electronic experiments in kosmische | primitive electronics as a soundtrack to physical education’.

Some artists invent a film or TV programme that sounds authentic as a product of the Seventies and then purport to release the music associated with it, though this is in reality of course newly composed. The Brighton synth musician Hattie Cooke released The Sleepers, seeming to be one of those John Wyndham-esque ‘cosy catastrophe’ series from the time, while Disciples of the Scorpion by Stephen Stannard of wyrd folk group The Rowan Amber Mill is presented as the original soundtrack album to a shunned 1975 low-budget horror film.

There are also literary homages. The Heartwood Institute did a lovely, atmospherically sinister imagined soundtrack to Penelope Lively’s Astercote, about children who find a Grail-like cup, which you could easily imagine really was the accompaniment to a BBC serialisation of the story. A cassette label called Bibliotapes releases ‘soundtracks’ to cult books with a Pelican style cover.

I must admit to finding the whole scene highly enjoyable. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, and clearly affectionate, yet also recreates the authentic thrill of the garish horror or earnest apocalyptica of the time. I also like the fact that most of this work is being created by small scale, low budget outfits: it’s not uncommon for their albums to be issued in limited editions of 50 or 100-200 copies. In some ways this is analogous to the independent imprints in the supernatural fiction field, such as Tartarus, Sarob, Swan River, Egaeus, Zagava, with a similar spirit. 

Ian Holloway, the curator of the highly enjoyable Wyrd Britain blog, is also the cosmic aetherialist behind The British Space Group, who have just released a new album available as a download or a limited edition CD. The Machinery of the Moment 'tells a story of an extended moment. Of the point where perception of time - or perhaps even time itself - collapses and we exist in a state of timelessness; a minute in an hour, an hour in a minute, a lifetime lived in the second between the tick and the tock'. Readers of classic supernatural fiction will recognise just the sort of experience described here, and the eerie music itself may well offer another 'opening of the door'.

(Mark Valentine)


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