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Broadcast & The Focus Group
Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age Lee Arizuno , October 30th, 2009 20:59

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Perhaps it’s the 15-year working relationship, perhaps it’s just a question of talent, but this 'hauntological' Hallowe’en excursion is in a different league to just about anything else that’s arrived with that (first) h-word attached. Julian House (who is The Focus Group) has been Broadcast’s, er, house artist since day one, helping to manifest their peculiar pop plane in our own through his cover art and film backdrops, and finally collaborating with them in performance earlier this year at the Belbury Youth Club film/music night. Both sides were taken by the prospect of "Broadcast songs becoming entangled in the world of The Focus Group", and so this synthesis was born. Initially planned as an E.P., it ended up as a far more ambitious 50-minute, 23-track album — and, trust us, Witch Cults is something special. It combines both groups’ discomfiting aesthetics seamlessly: Broadcast’s poised pop, transmitted through heady echoes and electronics; and The Focus Group’s oddly jaunty, soundtrack-y discursions, which could describe the topography of a model village where the weird still has a place.

As such, Witch Cults has already been talked up as a quintessentially English experience. In fact, both bands’ relationship to Englishness is more complex than that might suggest, and remains so in union. There’s no room for the parochial, staid or cosy. Broadcast's Trish Keenan found in US psychedelia (and indeed The United States Of America) a way out of the Cathy Come Home limits she’d inherited, further enhanced by esoteric influences ranging from American jazz to mainland European cinema. And while House has made alien and exotic the Pelican paperback-covered world of the just-distant British past, it’s his obvious love of hip hop that sets the pace here. Witch Cults, a concatenation of lop-sided grooves with glimpses of song and sense around every corner, is structurally the cousin of those early, sensational Wu Tang albums where the musical point of view is always first-person — where you’re thrown straight into the action without time to find your feet.

If that old hack staple, the 'soundtrack to an imaginary film', fits Witch Cults like a Victorian lace glove, its hackneyed implications do not. This could be the score for a Hammer horror (re)directed by David Lynch. It zooms in on the interstitial bizarre, the psychic labyrinths beneath the pop surface; chance happenings, channelled identities, orgies, séances, catoptromancy and drug rituals all sit naturally in its world. Perhaps the most impressive quality of this long-distance collaboration, edited together by both parties in a weekend, is the singular voice that emerges. Broadcast’s rich, personable presence is lent real bite by House’s relentless shifts in pace and perspective; in turn, their textural intoxication allows him to sweep you up and drop you into new scenarios more dramatically than he’s managed alone. The human resonance supplied by Broadcast breaks down the barrier between House’s toytown world and quotidian reality — you feel that this is all really happening, and you’re in it up to your neck.

The glorious ‘The Be Colony’ — styled after Syd-era Pink Floyd sunburst songs like 'Flaming' or 'Chapter 24' — ushers you in. From there on, it’s perhaps best just to recall some of the sense memories that chart your journey.

There was the supernatural hip hop vibe of ‘Will You Read Me’. The sudden, brilliant light of ‘One Million Years Ago’. Keenan’s lo-fi vox in ‘A Seancing Song’ pinning you to your chair, the realism enhancing the magic, with audio detritus including an old-fashioned dial phone looped behind, Tricky-style. The spiked groove of ‘Drug Party’ (it doesn’t sound like fun) suddenly blown adrift by terrible gusts of wind. The affectingly weird lament ‘Libra, The Mirror's Minor Self', a ghost of a typical Broadcast song. An influx of bees(!) on ‘We Are After All Here’. The woozy, bee-stung tones of ‘A Medium’s High’ segueing into ‘Ritual’’s jazzploitation loops, suggesting airborne spirits have been raised in the room. The story ending with ‘What I saw’, Keenan delivering an incantation from the Witches’ Handbook in a style that would sit happily on the closing credits of her beloved Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. A return to the beginning in ‘Let It Begin/Oh Joy’; a hint at perpetuity in ‘Round and Round and Round’; and a flicking, fractious half-life in the overlaid flashbacks of ‘The Be Colony/Dashing...'.

As with all the best mysteries, Witch Cults resists summary. It’s difficult to shake the impression that you’ve been subjected to some brand of home magic: tuned into a paranormal frequency via shortwave radio, or seen something that you can’t quite shake conjured up using only a children’s chemistry or magic set. At the end, you’re still not quite sure what happened — but you know that it did. You’ll begin, trip and fall again.

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Rich M
Nov 2, 2009 10:55am

My favourite album of the year, for whatever that's worth. Just to get incredibly nerdy I'd say it was the soundtrack to an imaginary TV series. Sky meets Gangsters meets Children of the Stones. Awesome.

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cantonaahh
Apr 29, 2010 3:44pm

In case anyone's interested, there's a splendid review of Broadcast & The Focus Group's 'mini-album' at: icrappoetry.com

(see the tunes section)

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