The Focus Group / Belbury Poly
hey let loose your love / The Willows
A- / B+
n John Corbett’s book Extended Play, he links the root of the word “dub”—reggae, in this case—to the Jamaican patois “duppy,” meaning “ghost.” Language feels just flexible enough to dignify him but just purposeful enough to make the speculation seem like fascinating bullshit (“double” sounds like a more likely contender). Etymological joshin’ aside, his conceptual connection is strong: dub—a vastness of trace elements, a half-erased canvas, a batch of warped negatives—is always a séance in process if not a full stable of ghosts already.
The UK label Ghost Box, while not dub by any formal stretch, seems to have similar values in mind for its conceptually rich but highly engaging work: the inherent eeriness of recorded sound and a mystical, suspicious relationship to technology—like natives fearing that photography will shear off a sliver of their soul, like Thomas Edison trying to make a phone to contact the dead, or like another night home alone with your AIBO.
The Focus Group’s 25-minute Ouija sample session hey let loose your love isn’t howl from the beyond histrionics so much as a gentle suggestion that here and there might be the same place, playing like a spacious purgatory with no doors out on either end. Rough bits of flute and harp drift through the warm expanse, half-chewed samba patterns refrain from coalescing into full songs; two vocal samples – “Hey, let loose your love” and “I am the great sun, but you do not see me”—are the best traces of true human contact, but even then they feel like slogans under erasure, mission statements turned ellipses. It’s the crude way in which the otherwise quaint samples are sewn together: figures abruptly drop off (to where?), patterns overlap in inconclusive, unsettling ways. The ‘60s of soundtrack jazz and EFX clatter gets resurrected with shaded intentions, and the blend wheezes like a somber banshee, uncanny and untraceable. Kids who get the really good dreams—none of this standard, unambiguous bedwetting nightmare stuff—the downright disorienting ones, don’t run for mom and dad because they know it’s a rare experience worth reveling in. hey let loose your love opens a portal, but it doesn’t quite cross into it so much as fiddle with the possibility of doing so, instead playing like a good body stretch gone indefinitely tantric; a stiff tease with no resolution and a difficult thrill to track.
Jim Jupp’s work as Belbury Poly doesn’t have the same disjointed agitation of hey let loose your love but the spirit of The Willows follows a similar thread. More song-oriented and built largely with analog synths, the record plays with the clouded otherworldliness of undersea documentaries or the oversaturated hues of old chemistry book covers. Funnily enough, it’s Jupp’s queasy muzak that seems most in tune with The Focus Group’s professed aspirations to ‘a varied programme of musical activities for educational and ritual use,’ also bringing to mind the unintentional crossroads of both camps—think about TV test patterns, think about public childhood television programming; yes, they were that strange, that oddly beautiful. The Willows is a specific kind of mood record, informed by “library music”: sounds designed for use in commercials or advertisements, a characterization which produces tension between passive, subservient qualities in the songs and the notion that it was created with the purpose of either setting or guiding the tone of preexisting content.
Together, the records—and the entire Ghost Box aesthetic—joins Ariel Pink, the newest Caretaker release, and William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops under a loose, developing umbrella of “hauntology,” a murky term borrowed from Derrida. Essentially though, “hauntology” is a pun on “ontology,” the nature of being; “hauntology” is the nature of something—like a ghost—whose “presence” is its “absence” to begin with—an unstable, paradoxical existence. But fuck theory and jargon, really; the Ghost Box sound is captivating without having a chinstroker like me here to unpack them. Like spook stories, you could sit and explain how they work for hours, but nothing compares to the quiet chill of hearing a good one.