hey key to the Focus Group is syntax. Not vocabulary, not esoteric references to all-star Satanists or discarded crusts of weird Britannia, but syntax: “a connected or orderly system.” The sloshed-together BBC soundtrack samples, wisps of jazz and folk, and distended synthesizers on 2005’s Hey Let Loose Your Love were freaky like retarded people—there are plenty of things you recognize, but nothing falls together in a way that makes sense. And because the Focus Group are still, on some essential level, easy listening in the way that retarded people are still human beings, the disquiet runs deep.
I’ve always been a little shocked and dismayed that people in my generation stuck with Air and Boards of Canada until they turned into the equivalent of a prostate massage, but that’s not the point—yapping at middlebrow signifiers (music-as-living room accessory, music for salads and the eating of salads) is bloodless and easy and not at all daring. What’s startling about the Focus Group’s Julian House is that he takes soothing elements and makes them dangerous again; there’s a butchering of comfort right where you need comfort to survive. I’d bet you fresh fruit that if you offered the average listener ear-splitting noise and We Are All Pan’s People, they’d sooner take the former, without word, on the same principle that you’d rather deal with a bunch of snakes in the forest than catch one slithering away from under your pillow.
It is, admittedly, harsher than Hey Let Loose Your Love—a spanner in my crusade to assess a growing number of musicians who have managed to make weird, upsetting music without any of weird, upsetting music’s token signifiers (Excepter, Juana Molina, the rest of the artists on the Focus Group’s Ghost Box label). So while the quaint psych rumblings of “Albion Festival Report” crystallizes the album’s feel by sliding into a soft-focus tangle of boing-boing noises, trilly flutes, and mashed harpsichords, the subversive, addictive essence in House’s music is always going to be in quiet moments like “The Harmony Programme” or the hobbling, e-z boogie of the title track (easily the most sarcastic, violent music in his catalog).
It’s true that the Focus Group have plenty to do with history. And while their historical reference points are fascinating—doubly so for people born in England in a certain era—saying that House’s power only lies in his ability to jostle the cultural memory isn’t giving him a fair shake. Listening to We Are All Pan’s People reminds me of musicians whose ability to mince a musical sentence into vomit or nonsense or confetti—Pere Ubu, John Zorn—gives them power over the current moment, the ability to fracture the present, put it like a kitten on some uncertain pool of chocolate syrup: weird, thrilling, sliding toward nothing in particular.