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Berberian At The Gate: Broadcast & The Death Knell Of Hauntology
Berberian Sound Studio Lee Arizuno , January 30th, 2013 05:54

Reviewing Broadcast's OST for Berberian Sound Studio, Lee Arizuno casts a hex on the "painfully overwritten non-ology" of hauntology

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For nearly two decades now, Broadcast have been such a stellar presence and subtle revelation that the prospect of their no longer being around has yet to sink in. More than most, the group worked in their own time and space, a step aside from (and a league above) their co-travellers. So it feels, from this distance, oddly natural to be awaiting their final signals two years after Trish Keenan passed away. The good news is, there's another Broadcast album proper in the pipeline. The other good news is that we have this addition to their occult catalogue of offcuts, b-sides and experiments to tide us over.

There's a big essay waiting to be written about this group. Those analogue arrangements led reviewers up the retro reference path over the years, leaving the music's enigmatic operations under-explored. Those melodies, bold enough for Blondie, timeless as lullabies or folk songs. Those lyrics, intimate and economical, inviting you in and spiriting you away; playing with time, location, their own form. That astonishing soundworld: sumptuous, fierce, alien-beautiful, mutant-funky, always unexpected. Summoned through old equipment and arcane ideas, the whole show could make latest-tech electronica and pop peers alike sound played out – a quirk that seems less counterintuitive now that the digital dimension is such a prosaic fact of life.

As you might expect, that concentrated hit of surreal pop complexity is less forthcoming here than on previous records (the aim being to accompany the action rather than provide it all). Nonetheless Berberian Sound Studio is a nice confection with some transcendent moments that'll make you double-take. If you've seen the film you'll know that music doesn't dominate the soundtrack; its real stars are silence and the baroque screams and sound effects we see being performed. Broadcast's 'OST' was primarily written for The Equestrian Vortex, the unseen witches-and-goblins giallo around which the film's action is based. So what we're listening to here is non-diegetic sound designed as diegetic sound that the film's audience can only experience non-diegetically.

Given this and the staggering diversity in giallo music, Broadcast had free rein (ho ho) to take off in any number of directions. Overall, they've gone for a gentle, plaintive tone; themes that suggest tragic fates, distant diabolism and soft-focus sequences. Tracking the character names, you notice a slide between catchy hackwork and a deliciously strange late Broadcast sound. Collatina gets the prettiest ident, a descending flute line accompanied by one-note, period-piece 'la-la-la' backing vocals (the main motifs become proper earworms). But she also ascends to a Coil-like plane as a floating vocal ghost on 'Collatina, Mark of Damnation'. Its strange bob rises again in 'Teresa, Lark of Ascension', where it's weirded still further out by keening keys. Monica doesn't seem to have had any easier a time of it in The Equestrian Vortex than those two. She's a more ethereal presence even than Teresa, but the slight, seductive concoction 'Monica's Burial (Under The Junipers)', just a minute of echoed speech, bowed saw-like keyboards and stray sounds from a room, knocks you off balance.

There is some broadly retro styling – a heavy synth drone here, a churchy organ there – as the gig demands. But you'd have a hard time identifying nods to any particular horror soundtrack from the era (Morricone's alone contain a multitude of styles). Despite their sound palette, reference and pastiche have never been prominent in the Broadcast picture; neither were they a programmatic, disciplined band in the mould of Stereolab. So it comes as no surprise when their curiosity and ear for beauty gets the better of them; 'Our Darkest Sabbath', for instance, sounds like lights bleeding into each other – more Eno than Ennio. There aren't many groups whose lightest listening suite is the score for a horror film of sorts, but there you go.

Looking back, it's hard to imagine director Peter Strickland considering anyone else for the gig. From his film's inspiration – the meeting of avant-garde music and pulp cinema – it's a short leap to Broadcast's kitting out of pop songs with sonic tricks deployed by some of the composers involved. The supernatural has also been a regular visitor to Broadcast's world since the start ('Phantom', 'Valerie', their tribute to the surrealist-sensationalist vampire film and novel, 'Black Cat'), with witchcraft coming to the fore more recently on Witch Cults of the Radio Age. Too few people have had the pleasure, but the tour-only EP Mother Is The Milky Way took this tendency to its limit; it's a kind of lo-fi pastoral horror sound drama, all the more unnerving for being barely there.

Back to the film's pitch: a fusty Englishman bringing witches to life via lovingly shot analogue sound equipment, in a reimagined 1976. If you're sensing a further brand tie-in, it might be time to put a hex on a miniature cult: 'hauntology'.

Speaking as someone drawn to the uncanny across culture of all vintages, it's been dispiriting to see this critic's egg belatedly pushed in Broadcast's direction. The word itself is a pug-ugly tautology, the 'ontology' part already explicit in the spectral sense of the word 'haunt', leaving that quasi-academic 'ology' hanging like a spare blogger at a wedding. Yes, we know it's a pun by Derrida. But it would take a tin ear to think it translates, let alone travels lightly from the teetering text of Spectres of Marx to the music it's been forced upon.

There's the ontology: a theme either heavy enough to crush poor Belbury Poly and their niche retro pootling, or so banal it could apply to anything. There's the politics: if we're being haunted by post-war social democracy, where do The Caretaker's 1930s ballrooms fit in? There's the awkward fact that memory, nostalgia and the supernatural have always been present in pop – so what's in and what's out?

Because the traits touched upon are both too broad and too disparate to be tied up in a word, 'hauntology''s champions end up pulping their subject matter to feed their theory. Like the similarly détourned 'psychogeography', it deadens the senses to the qualities (you'd hope) it was intended to reveal. Both are cases of theory slipping into ersatz theology – fated attempts to capture elusive, unspeakable experiences in yards of self-referential explication guaranteed to stamp out their pleasures. There's nothing wrong with men in their forties enjoying shared tastes and nostalgic triggers, but do they have to be so po-faced about it? Do they really need their peccadilloes underwritten by such a painfully overwritten non-ology?

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Jude Rogers
Jan 30, 2013 11:44am

I love this linem Lee: "There's nothing wrong with men in their forties enjoying shared tastes and nostalgic triggers, but do they have to be so po-faced about it?" You've nailed something that's been getting under my skin for a while, and I'm as up for a bit of spooky public information film synthesiser drone as the next person.

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peter cushing
Jan 30, 2013 12:11pm

Could the reviewer tell us who, exactly, is being po-faced about it, and where?

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Jan 30, 2013 12:58pm

The music of Broadcast, Ghost Box & their ilk only risked becoming "po-faced`' when thesaurus-wielding journalists at The Wire & The Quietus began spouting off about it under that erroneous, unhelpful "Hauntology" banner, fruitlessly attempting to tie them in with the (albeit superior) darker strands of dubstep (Burial, et al) that were emerging at the time.

Virtually all of Broadcast's records were issued before the (faux) generic "Hauntology" tag had been coined. Their initial flurry of releases had far more in common with Joseph Byrd's United States of America & European musique concréte than the restrictive "Witchfinder General on acid" depiction so many writers have since tried to lumber them with. If they were still around, I'm sure their next record would've been different again, in the same way that Tender Buttons bears little relation to The Noise Made By People, etc.

Broadcast (&, to a lesser extent, Ghost Box) were many things to many people. They're not museum fodder yet, so stop trying to pin & mount them.

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Rory Gibb
Jan 30, 2013 1:13pm

In reply to Rooksby:

Have you read the piece?

"Speaking as someone drawn to the uncanny across culture of all vintages, it's been dispiriting to see this critic's egg belatedly pushed in Broadcast's direction."

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Jacques Ranciere
Jan 30, 2013 1:20pm

Wow. What an intellectual tour de force. You've really shown the Mark Fishers of this world what for with that forensic critique. Would love to know your thoughts on dialectical materialism and real abstraction. You're a wasted talent, mate, you should be lecturing at the Université de Nantes, not lowering yourself to commune with these fools.

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Joseph Stannard
Jan 30, 2013 1:54pm

I think if we all calm down a bit and acknowledge that 'hauntology' isn't a genre in any way, shape or form, but possibly a way of looking at certain intersections of magic, history and art - then we'll all be a lot happier really. Well, maybe a little bit happier. The question of what's in and what's out is entirely subjective but for me there really isn't any in or out at all. The uncanny is expressed via rather than contained by certain artists and cultural currents. It's powerful and also powerfully elusive.

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John Doran
Jan 30, 2013 2:10pm

In reply to Rooksby:

You're talking about my favourite bit in The Quietus' history; when we made a time machine and went back to two years before we started and started being unhelpful to Broadcast and the Focus Group by calling them hauntological. Well spotted.

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Will C.
Jan 30, 2013 5:58pm

What a lazy "takedown"! A few cheap paragraphs full of non sequiturs ("either heavy enough to crush poor Belbury Poly and their niche retro pootling, or so banal it could apply to anything." Because there's no alternative for the term; it certainly can't be, say, a handy term used to highlight certain strains and tendencies in experimental music).

If you're too dumb to write logically, fine. God knows there are enough inept writers nattering about their feelings toward music without any impulse towards analysis; you'll fit right in. But why try to dissect a term used by more thoughtful listeners, when you're clearly not able to do so effectively?

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John Blonde
Jan 30, 2013 7:02pm

I remember how exciting it was seeing Broadcast on the cover of WIRE a few years ago. For me they are the perfect blend of pop and "experimental" sounds and Trish Keenan's voice always had an dreamy emotional tug. The WIRE article was dense with vocabulary and references that had me reading it next to my laptop for hours in order to better understand what the hell they were all talking about. While this piece has some google-needed moments, the second paragraph is a perfect description of what enthralls us about this band. There's some songs on the soundtrack where you can hear her voice and they provide a goose bump preview of the forthcoming Broadcast LP. I really still can't believe she's gone.

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Jan 30, 2013 11:51pm

"There's nothing wrong with men in their forties enjoying shared tastes and nostalgic triggers, but do they have to be so po-faced about it?"

Here the author moves beyond the immediate subject matter to confront a near universal truth.

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Jan 31, 2013 7:10am

this is really funny to me considering that their first two albums were very lazily "dismissed" as Portishead meets Stereolab... and the third was considered budget Ladytron... what a difference a decade makes

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Jan 31, 2013 11:12am

It's quite simple really - Broadcast were/are, in my opinion, one of Britain's best ever things.
This article says so much about nothing. Giallo this, Giallo that. Upon listening, music transcends these pernickety analyses of relevance and reference.

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Jan 31, 2013 1:04pm

Decent music journalists invariably stimulate my curiosity to search out records that i would otherwise only be aware of in print,but the earnest forensic dissection employed in this article to describe the work of Broadcast and the 'Hauntology'idiom is fatuous arbitrary and ultimately pointless,a conceited thinly veiled excercise in pseudo intellectual thuggery merley to display the authors extensive palate of existential bullsit and make us feel like unflushed turds lying in the fetid bowl of a public toilet
Much like the recent attempt to grapple with the motives behind Scott Walkers last work i am left demoralised at the floundering verbal diarrhea which passes for faux undergrauate intellectual insight to elucidate meaning and criticism into clearly an art way beyond the writers understanding
The approach is not to read this shite and just listen to the music in impartial isolation,without discrimination or phoney intellectual artifice these pretentious cunts projectile vomit on an inherently emotional artform,no academic shit necessary

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Feb 1, 2013 1:33am

In reply to John Doran:

Splendid. Another wet fart from your flabby arse. Will you ever learn to wipe properly?

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A Goblin
Feb 1, 2013 1:43am

"There's nothing wrong with men in their forties enjoying shared tastes and nostalgic triggers, but do they have to be so po-faced about it?"

Pot. Kettle. Black. There's nothing more po-faced than music bloggers taking genre names too seriously and whining about how inappropriate they are.

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Chris Carter
Feb 1, 2013 11:52am

In reply to Rooksby:

but "Witchfinder General on acid" fuuck... wish I'd thought of that.
It would suite a track I'm working on perfectly - well that or a new band name.
Any objections to me using it?

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Feb 1, 2013 12:23pm

In reply to Chris Carter:

Only if you let Gen sing on it.

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Apr 26, 2013 7:17am

Amusing article. While hauntology has spawned a lot of (at times incomprehensible) verbiage, it seems as good a term as any by which to discuss the sense of the uncanny that nostalgia can evoke. Is there a problem with bands like Broadcast retrospectively being called 'hauntological' if they could be seen as precursors or progenitors of a musical trend?

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mark lally
Aug 28, 2013 9:26pm

how can GHOSTS be dead

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