The Focus Group / Eric Zann
Sketches and Spells / Ouroborindra
B- / B-
hostbox is a label co-founded by Julian House, probably best known for his packaging design for Primal Scream, Razorlight, and most relevantly, Stereolab and Broadcast. Most relevant because the least obviously structured, most texturally concerned moments of those groops is a good place to start thinking about the sounds that emerge from the Ghostbox. Start there and take three good paces outward.
Ghostbox artists deal in a very British style of sound manipulation; perhaps it could be called music-hall concrète. But this is not the Britishness of the lad-mag lie-dream of Michael Caine driving an open top sports car, filled with women that know when to keep their mouths shut, down Carnaby Street after kicking the winning goal in the 1966 World Cup (perhaps we can change one letter and call that brutishness.) This is an open ended form that can easily accommodate a Pole, Roman Polanski, travelling with a French actress, Françoise Dorléac, to Holy Island in the far north of England to film Cul-de-Sac in 1966.
Sketches and Spells by The Focus Group reveals them as non-idiomatic cratediggers searching for the bits other than the beats, for the reflective moments that the headz miss. This is music by and for shoppers who come home with dirt ingrained deep into their fingerprints from flipping through stacks of old books and records at jumble sales and charity shops. It is as refreshing as the cup of hot tea served by the church bric-a-brac stall where you’ve failed to find anything interesting among the Sven Hassel novels and stained flannel shirts.
Sketches and Spells is as warm and strange as a clockwork sunrise accompanied by a dawn chorus of steam driven birds. Super-dry jazz hi-hat work mixes with offhand synth-bass and slivered chirrups of sound sliced thin enough to be just impossible to place. There’s a lot of percussion but it’s the click-clack sticks, spacious triangles and tentative, carefully considered woodblocks of primary school rather than the dense free-for-all of the hippie jam (you can almost smell the wood-shavings covering childish vomit.)
It is tempting to give these tracks descriptions redolent of those found on the back of the library music albums that obviously serve as an inspiration. So tempting that I will:
“Corn Holes”Ghostbox music is a hairs breadth from novelty music (and that’s meant as a big compliment), almost a Mogadon and Brown Ale UK equivalent to Raymond Scott or Bruce Haack, almost a post 20th century “Slippery Rock Seventies” or “Mouldy Old Dough.” A hairs breadth away because of the realisation of the possibilities of noise—not loud and abrasive noise as automatically comes to mind when confronted with the word, but disquieting noise, barely there noise, comforting noise, sweet noise.
---disconnected staccato acoustic guitar & droll electronics
---pinball percussion ballet; eerie & silly male and female harmonies
---cool machine rock; sensuous tape-grot
“What Are You Seeing?”
---jazz drums disguise sinister nebulous quasi-melody; moderne
---dreamy fanfares with anxiety xylophone
The name adopted by Eric Zann is one of the few non-Anglo references in the Ghostbox catalogue. It’s taken from New Englander H. P. Lovecraft’s gnarled 1922 weird tale The Music of Erich Zann, in which Zann plays his viola so madly and intently, so beyond earthly means that he becomes lost in the unutterable void. Ouroborindra is correspondingly darker and more miasmic than Sketches and Spells. More electronic and more like ‘classic’ music concrete with longer, deeper, darker swathes of matte sound rather than the constantly changing, glinting chops and loops of The Focus Group.
Ouroborindra is music that has leaked from a world at an angle a single degree different to our own, where Philip K. Dick is rightfully acclaimed as the 20th century’s greatest realist author and where George Lucas is less popular than Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale. The beautiful sleeve appropriately contains a quote from Kneale’s 1972 BBC TV play The Stone Tape, in which the walls of a house have acted as a recording device, capturing moments that when replayed later are perceived as a haunting.
Again, notional library idents:
“It Is Narrow Here”These records are nostalgic, but it is a counter nostalgia that aims to balance the scales of the passed, that obliquely references the near-hidden. A nostalgia for what gets discarded, for geography and physics textbooks that accidentally reveal the hidden dreams of a nation. These records are nostalgia as a starting point, an on-going process; they are clues rather than a map.
---immobile synth drone, church bells processed to sound like clattering shutters, female voice shudders
---space frequencies and bleary synth calls obscure negative ticktock heartbeats; exotic - features sitar
“The Obsidian Pyramid”
---falling sine tones spark electro-yoghurt pot percussion; cool, like the grave
---light, sophisticated viola of Zann segues into the absolute blackness of deep space
Reviewed by: Patrick McNally
Reviewed on: 2005-10-18