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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Movietone by Movietone
Ned Raggett , February 17th, 2023 08:27

Movietone's absolute resistance to easy categorisation is what has kept them consistently hidden from view over the years. Ned Raggett looks at the new World Of Echo reissue

You can, of course, throw 90s nostalgia under the bus. Neil Kulkarni said as much on this site eleven years back and those sentiments remain crucial. Not a new sentiment, but the idea that the nature of such remembrances – of that of any decade or any time – should be reduced to the easily consumable and most obvious is always to be resisted, as memory, history and cultural cachet should expand rather than contract. It also makes years and times where there wasn’t a presumed monostory at play all the more worth reconsidering.

An illustrative point: thirty years ago Mazzy Star suddenly, unexpectedly, got sub-culturally huge and arguably even more so thanks to 'Fade Into You'. To say this song has become a lodestone for the future understates – to this day I sense its impact, how the band and that song crystallised something that acts as a channel, a gateway, between hazy second-hand remembrances of psychedelic reflection and Laurel Canyon earthiness and the Instagrammable presentation of same. What it is, excellent as it is, is easily graspable. What it isn’t, say, is what was happening in Bristol a couple of years later when Kate Wright softly but starkly sang to quiet guitar for the first half of a song called 'Orange Zero' – only to have it chaotically explode, contract and regroup, and explode again.

Movietone are and aren’t easily summed up and remain so to this day; Neil includes them in his list of outside-the-easily-drawn-bounds line in that piece of his for a damn good reason. Their self-titled and newly reissued first album, emerging in 1995 as a consensus of what British music is was formed anew – always limited, always something that should only have been summed up that way with a gimlet eye – was never quite was one thing, neither was the group. Off in Mazzy Star’s California, chasing more and more after the kind of blown-out zone-out that bands like My Bloody Valentine had fully introduced to my consciousness, I started to hear more about a ‘Bristol scene’, ill defined but something to do with feedback and zone, a ‘next step’, and Movietone were among them. I thought I knew what the album might be like when I purchased it, and I was wrong, and I loved it precisely because it was its own thing.

To say something is resistance to the mainstream is too broad a sentiment to dig into. But the album evinces that, in ways that go against easy summary; it’s not just anti-, but it’s not another niche or slot to fit something into as well. (Apparently some noted the Bristol location, thought of Sarah Records and called it ‘twee’ at times – yeah, no.) Let’s say you decided to squint and call it slowcore – frankly, I could have seen myself doing that if I had encountered it first outside of that supposed Bristol scene context. As amorphous as Britpop, as meaningless, it was a term that over in America tried to grasp the idea of, indeed, the slow, the powerfully moody, that wasn’t rampaging so much as flowing like magma quickly cooling. But if you apply it to Movietone, does that quite explain the clarinet jam from Ros Walford against the echoing depths and halfway to polyrhythms of the conclusion of 'Mono Valley'? Doesn’t make me think of Codeine very much.

There is something in the band and its debut that absolutely captures the idea of exploring your own world against the strictures of expectation, a certain kind of self-willed bohemianism – that one song is called '3AM Walking Smoking Talking' is kinda perfect in this regard, and it has that feeling to a degree, though the faster pace (drumless, but thanks to the guitar speeding up, more active) suggests something more again even as Wright’s speak-singing hides just enough amid the feedback, lyrics conveying a clear sense of what the narrator doesn’t want to be as much as does – a defining against.

What makes this all notable isn’t the sense that Movietone wasn’t part of a scene even as much as it was – cofounder Rachel Coe had also been the launcher of another partnership with David Pearce as Flying Saucer Attack, guitarist Matt Elliott wasn’t far away from beginning Third Eye Foundation, drummer Matt Jones’s Crescent had been releasing material as well. Rather, it was a sense of seemingly understated ambition, that things could take on new, unusual shapes and forms, ones with their own derivations in the past but which sought not to celebrate but recombine and mutate. If you had to call it anything – and you don’t – perhaps you could call it with another much abused term, post rock. And I can hear the weary sighs from here, I think I was already sensing them at the time.

Here’s the thing, though. The way I’ve always understood the term once it became a term – bubbling up through what in retrospect might have been a last stand by a certain view of the weekly music press in the UK, however distantly read – was the idea that rock instruments as such had generally explored a certain variety of forms to the point where newer ones had to be grasped. It wasn’t that there weren’t innovators on guitar, bass, drums, and so forth before seeking to upset expectation in composition, in approach, in rewriting rulebooks. But a new stultifying form of classicism – classism as well, really – was emerging with ever more rapidity as the middle of the decade approached. Real songs! Real music! Sing along with the real people. Who defined reality is its own kettle of fish. The point was it didn’t have to be JUST that narrow version of reality. Why not other ways?

So Movietone don’t sound like Pram’s mesmerisms, though you could imagine them sharing a stage easily enough. They don’t sound like Hood’s fragmentation and contemplation, though a sense of wounded distance and obscurity connected across the country. They don’t sound like Disco Inferno’s future shock but they sound just as tired of what had already been done as that trio was. They sound like part of an aural kaleidoscope of possibilities as well as its own singular thing, uncaring of what they were supposed to do – whatever that was.

What they did instead was explore the spaces as much as the sounds. Movietone may have never sounded as noisy as they did on here, even if the noise emerged in specific moments rather as a constant, like so many of the other bands in their neck of the woods were seen to be doing. But how that noise emerged is. Something like 'Orange Zero' works not because of the rampage of feedback and freneticism but because it sits among silence that is strong but not stark and cold. Even those moments of noise sound, not carefully sculpted and orchestrated, but suddenly alive in that time. A band that knows when NOT to play is infinitely more powerful than one that always constantly does, that confuses maximalism with a brick wall. Movietone lives in the surprising tensions.

Where post rock failed, as much as all genres do, is when what was a path forward gains success, then becomes a hook, then a marketing term, then something increasing ill-defined and redefined in its feedback loop. By the turn of the millennium it was nothing but epic swells and skyscrapingly amorphous emotional rise, thrilling in its own right, but not so much post as it was epic. Movietone steered quieter as it went, but no less focused in its easy intensity and aim for connection, and then called active time two decades back as press and attention aimed for yet another wearisome cycle of mysteriously ‘real’ music that was apparently newly real and better at being real than the previous one. Thrilling.

So this reissue, as well as last year’s collection of Peel Sessions from the band – another message from another lost context never to be repeated – is worthy in its own right, and raises questions anew in turn. Is there space these days for something to be celebrated for what it is than denigrated for what it isn’t? Where Wright’s coughs on 'Heatwave Pavement' sound like part of the flow, a flow that, honestly, suddenly makes me think a precursor of a lot of current bands getting a lot of attention for their own vocal approach? Personally I always have hope because I’m a bit of an optimist, even still, and stories are there to be told. Maybe there aren’t as many out there consciously aiming for the synthesis here centered around Wright as there are doing so for other bands and styles of that era. But honestly, there should be – and there’s always this to hear and marvel at, once again.

Movietone s/t is out now via World Of Echo