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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Broadcast – Microtronics, MITMW & BBC Sessions
Hayley Scott , March 4th, 2022 08:56

Hayley Scott casts her eyes of a trio of timely Broadcast reissues, Microtronics, Mother Is The Milky Way and BBC Maida Vale Sessions

“The unstable future according to the open archive produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out of the future”
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever.

Current critical discourse dictates that hauntology has become a buzzword used to denote any work of art remotely inspired by the following: musique concrete, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, psychogeography and horror film soundtracks, culminating in a collective feeling of hauntology fatigue, or the listener being haunted by hauntology. Given that Broadcast’s work is heavily defined by retro-futurism and looking through archives via the use of sampling, tape loops and old equipment to make something new but familiar, however, it would be remiss not to recognise its significance here.

It’s part of the human condition to be preoccupied with the past. We only have to look at the current fascination with "indie sleaze", seemingly constructed by existential millennials looking for ways to idealise their youth, in order to negate the present. Nowadays, we use nostalgia to disassociate from a reality informed by an excess of information and stimuli. Nostalgia makes us feel safe because it’s familiar, which is why we have a tendency to historicise the present and romanticise the past.

Psychoanalysis, like history, aims to retrieve from the past lost thoughts, lost memories and lost stories that can help us in the present. With that in mind, all the songs across Microtronics, Mother Is The Milky Way and BBC Maida Vale Sessions don’t sound like products of a specific time. Rather than acknowledge these works as artefacts, it makes more sense to bring them into the present. Broadcast were a band that experimented with time. Perhaps a way of cementing their legacy is to experiment with time ourselves. We’re living in an era of throwaway culture – as a society, we consume music like it’s ephemeral. Revisiting an art form doesn’t always have to be about pointless reissues in the name of capital. There’s a radical element to recycling art because the act itself is inherantly anti-capitalist – it contradicts the ideological habits of our society in which we “throw away” something once it’s been consumed.

By revisiting Broadcast’s music in a contemporary setting – most tracks on BBC Maida Vale Sessions will be familiar to fans, while the other two consist of genuine rarities – we encounter magic that feels novel but is already in existence. Those who had already fallen for Broadcast’s body of work won’t be strangers to the notion of repeated listening. Everything the band ever put out – from the space-age domesticity of 1997’s Work And Non Work right through to 2013’s posthumous Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack – was a lovingly rendered spectral masterpiece of idiosyncratic 60s nostalgia, taking cues from library music and musique concrete.

Although the repurposing of 1960s counterculture during the 90s wasn’t an anomaly, Broadcast’s ice-cold sophistication was a revolutionary contrast to the feel-good temerity of Britpop. While still indebted to music’s past, this new interpretation was a more European (think of the smoke-filled sleekness of French New Wave cinema), less male-centric and had a more progressive take on vintage psychedelia. It’s confounding to think that some of these songs were written and recorded in the mid to late 90s, a time not always associated with the idea of cultural boldness. During this time, Broadcast pioneered the use of proto-electronics in a modern pop context, and made elements of the popular weird again. As Trish Keenan said: “The avant-garde is no good without popular, and popular is rubbish without avant-garde.”

The recordings for radio allow us to hear the music organically and without embellishment. On BBC Maida Vale Sessions, Trish Keenan’s oblique storytelling becomes crystal clear. Not that her narratives were occulted on record but here they truly flourish in the light. Keenan’s affinity for Gertrude Stein goes beyond just the title of 'Tender Buttons'. Stein’s abstract stream of consciousness apparently informed Trish Keenan’s own writing, from its fractured nature to the shattered syntax. She was interested in the dissociative power of automatic writing, the sense that it created a second identity. "Suddenly you’re not yourself, as though you’ve created another you", she said in a Wire interview from October 2009.

As well as alternate versions of many revered Broadcast songs, the Maida Vale Sessions also contains rarities such as the funereal ‘Forget Every Time’ (which was only ever captured for posterity in the 1996 session included here) and a typically glitchy, overtly cool cover of Nico’s ‘Sixty Forty’. Elsewhere, the subtle tweaks on live incarnations of much loved songs like ‘Come On Let’s Go’, ‘The Book Lovers’ and ‘Echoes Answer’ genuinely elicit the feeling of hearing these esoteric treasures for the first time all over again. 

Remastered from the original tapes by Calyx in Berlin, Mother Is The Milky Way was originally issued in 2009 as a tour only CD, limited to just 750 copies. Sold on the band’s final tour to promote their collaborative album with the Focus Group, Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, the original CD has since become highly coveted, alongside 2003’s Microtronics Vol. 1 & 2, also originally issued as a tour only CD. Both Mother Is The Milky Way and Microtronics coalesce analogue textures with modern digital recording techniques, such as the distant crackle of vinyl with the innovative use of sound collages, but they also document Broadcast’s journey into more experimental realms.

Broadcast possessed an inimitable eeriness that sounds like the musical equivalent of an M.R. James short story. It’s made for weird fiction and the dusty pages of old English ghost stories. Across each release are nuances and textures to marvel at, but at the heart of each track is Trish Keenan – her voice as detached as it is commanding. Oftentimes you can hear it lingering in the darkness, threatening to break into song. It’s within these moments you feel a gnawing sadness, repressed but ever-present. Broadcast occupy a liminal space between the uncanny and introspective. Their music is sentimental, never cloying, but often plaintive, further haunted by the knowledge of Trish Keenan’s untimely passing.

Imagined histories and the need to go back to move forward have been talking points of alternative culture recently, because artists are no longer borrowing from the immediate past. Influences can be taken from anywhere, and from anything, and not just from musical trends. This has accelerated the practice of intersecting genres; we only need to look at artists as disparate as Caroline, Dry Cleaning, Space Afrika, Blackhaine and Gazelle Twin to observe the reclamation of the past, space and form. Indeed, if Broadcast were still active today, they would no doubt inhabit a space among the New Weird Britain contingent.

When describing his cut-up technique and its predictive powers William S. Burroughs felt that it was a new form of tarot. (“When you cut into the present the future leaks out.”) Broadcast rejected the then contemporary idea of making music by the post-modern technique of resurrecting old formulas. Their work elicits the very human desire of needing to move away from the post-modern world in which we find ourselves overwhelmed. Perhaps Broadcast’s proclivity for hypothetical pasts and futures was more than just an interesting stylistic choice but an attempt at solving the post-modern problem. As Frederic Jameson said: "The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings."

The sound of Broadcast is one of picking at railings in a park when it’s raining, turning around and feeling like someone’s following you when they’re not. It’s the English countryside expressed through future technologies, like two disparate histories on top of each other trying to communicate. It’s the “occult on your doorstep”, as Mark E. Smith once said.

All three releases clarify the band’s status as one of the most innovative British acts of the past 30 years. It’s about time that history remembers them as such. These albums join an already unparalleled body of work that have etched themselves in the cannon of the British weird alongside the likes of Lewis Carroll and Nigel Kneale. Above all else, they enable the listener to experience the transcendent power of what’s just under their nose – look closely and you’ll find genuine magic.