An Electric Storm
1969; r: 2007
minute and a half into “Love Without Sound,” the first track on White Noise’s An Electric Storm, John Whitman sings “But now the laughter turns pale” with a voice that sounds like he’s pinching his own nose. A woman’s laughter ricochets. It turns into a quiet sob. The song, a trippy churn of goth-pop, dissolves for a minute; the synths detune and smear over the rest of the track like gore while clacking sound effects accelerate. A woman has an orgasm. On “My Game of Loving,” lots of people have orgasms. Then they fall asleep and snore. “Here Come the Fleas,” complete with honk-honk and boing-boing and fart-fart noises, is psych slapstick. Bewilderingly, it ends with a come-on.
It’s true that An Electric Storm, first released in 1969, is a triumph of tape edits and a pioneering work of electronically based pop. Yes. And the group was a quasi-arranged marriage of an American electronics engineer and double bassist (David Vorhaus) and two BBC composers, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (noted for their work on Dr. Who) by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell—that’s true too. But historical achievement and pedigree are easily the most sterile and perfunctory subjects you could cover when dealing with a reissue. What makes An Electric Storm still sound resonant is its emotional tenor: hilarious, strange, and volatile. There is no better metaphor for the reconciliation between the carefree, genital stench of American psych and its mannered British counterpart than the image of three scientists with microphones standing over a pile of hippies fucking each other.
But there’s a lot of birthing and bridging on An Electric Storm worth considering. A little more than half the album is filled with what are ostensibly pop songs: they have structure, melodic hooks, and they’re all roughly around three-and-a-half minutes. Some of the music is charmingly dated—“Firebird” would’ve been Spinal Tap’s version of late-60s Beach Boys with more dumb sound effects—but the atmosphere on most of the songs is remarkable, even today. “Your Hidden Dreams” has all the haze and lilt of Broadcast; “Love Without Sound” sounds, for a minute, like Throbbing Gristle—two bands for whom electronic texture has pretty much recouped for anything they don’t attend to in song structure. The album’s second half, however, gives way to two longer pieces: “The Visitations,” which is a sort of “Leader of the Pack” scenario but about eight minutes longer and with 100% more scary (campy?) whispering, and “The Black Mass,” which lets the trio squirt out whatever sonic malevolence they have left in the form of free-rock drumming drizzled with a lot of stock bad trippery.
After the ambitions of the first half, the belt loosening on the second can be a little bit of a slog. But that’s not to say that An Electric Storm isn’t something of an essential record—a lot came together here that hadn’t come together beforehand, and hasn’t come together with such charm since. In a way, it’s the archetypal ’60s psych one-off (even if Vorhaus continued to record with the name sporadically since then). It’s as insular and gross as Zappa, as corny as Strawberry Alarm Clock or any drippy Nuggets forgettables, as radical as Stockhausen or Subotnick’s experiments in electronics. Most importantly, it embodies its era’s contradictions—psychosexual trauma finally sounded funny, free love finally sounded stupid, and some nerds sitting over endless reels of tape with a razorblade finally sounded like they wanted to make you feel something, even if it was nauseous.