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Reissue Of The Week

Soundtrack Of The Week: Flux Gourmet
Will Salmon , January 26th, 2024 10:54

Brilliant film director Peter Strickland has long flown the flag for psychedelic, eccentric and disconcerting European music but on latest film Flux Gourmet he put his money where his mouth was by including his own very curious group, The Sonic Catering Band. Will Salmon celebrates a singular soundtrack and vision

With perhaps the exception of his 2009 debut, the dreamlike but comparatively grounded revenge thriller Katalin Varga, all of Peter Strickland’s films take place in worlds that are several steps removed from our own.

His breakout feature, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, saw Toby Jones’ sound engineer Gilderoy losing his mind while working on a seedy Italian giallo movie. It takes place entirely within the hermetically-sealed walls of a post-production studio that serves to disconnect our increasingly worn-down hero from an outside reality that may as well not exist anyway given his obsessive frame of mind.

The Duke Of Burgundy took things a step further, existing in a soft focus sapphic fantasia where women spend their days leisurely cycling between lectures on lepidoptery and S&M sessions without a man in sight. In Fabric, meanwhile, explored both fear and fetish within the walls of a Luciferian department store in the faceless (and perfectly named) commuter town of Thames-Valley-on-Thames.

Strickland's most recent film, 2022’s Flux Gourmet pushed this aesthetic of heightened unreality further than ever before. It's set in a world that seems to have skirted rock, pop and other forms of conventional music entirely in favour of celebrating collectives made up of “sonic caterers” – avant garde performers who summon eldritch sounds using contact mics and food processors. It’s simultaneously a weird take on the rock biopic, a bawdy comedy and an apparently sincere study in the painful difficulties of living with irritable bowel syndrome.

You struggle to imagine what the elevator pitch was for this one – it's Spinal Tap meets Salò, maybe? – but perhaps the funniest thing about Flux Gourmet is how much of it is rooted in reality, with the story largely inspired by Strickland's time in the experimental music scene and the conflicts that sometimes arise between artists and the patrons that finance them.

While there may not really be a vast hive of competing culinary collectives (who, in the film, come complete with thirsty groupies and terrapin-murdering rivals), there is at least one act making this bizarre racket in our own world: The Sonic Catering Band, of which Strickland was a founding member.

Much like the nameless group of the film, The Sonic Catering Band conjured extraordinary sounds by preparing, cutting and cooking food, before electronically processing and layering the resultant material into coherent tracks. Formed in 1996 and made up of Strickland, Colin Fletcher, Tim Kirby, Zsolt Sõrés and Én, the SCB released a slew of defiantly strange EPs and two albums. They've been mostly defunct for a few years now, but Fletcher, Kirby and Strickland reconvened over the course of a weekend during the making of Flux Gourmet to record a clutch of new cues for the soundtrack, which is finally presented here, almost two years after the movie’s February 2022 premiere.

All of Strickland’s films are visually beautiful and there’s usually an appropriate – and equally sumptuous – soundtrack to accompany them, even as the movies themselves take a leap into darker and more psychologically dangerous territory. Broadcast’s score for Berberian Sound Studio was lush and baroque, indebted to library music and Luboš Fišer as well as more conventional horror scores, while Cat’s Eyes’ work on The Duke Of Burgundy was swooningly romantic. Flux Gourmet, by contrast, feels like a conscious inversion of that template. This is a bold and sometimes challenging record that largely straddles the concrète, ambient and noise genres, but it’s accompanying a film that is, by quite some way, the director’s lightest and funniest to date, a work that in its bleakest moments is more gently melancholy than, say, the outwardly hilarious but existentially horrifying In Fabric.

The Sonic Catering Band’s material resounds with unearthly life. Sometimes the humble origins of the sounds used show through: 'Vegetable Trash' sizzles with fat and sputters with the heat of boiling water. Other times it seems inconceivable that the demonic noises erupting here come from something as innocent as a bag of veg (despite the appearance of cooking flesh in the film, a notice on the SCB’s website politely notes that “The Sonic Catering Band don't endorse any meat or poultry products”). 'Death Borscht', which on screen accompanies one of band leader Elle's more deranged performance pieces, is genuinely alarming, a rising surge of white noise and a blunt yell, as actor Fatma Mohamed repeatedly slams a microphone violently against her forehead, while 'A Sedimental Journey' summons an image of blown microphones recording something ancient and monstrous as it dredges itself up from beneath the surface of the Earth.

At other points the album is almost serene. 'Dossier de Canteen' and 'Greed' are more conventionally ambient – a touch sinister, but also wholly enveloping. You could theoretically meditate to the latter, as long as you remembered to turn it off before the following 'HLA-DQ8' – which sounds like a woman screaming as she’s chainsawed in half – comes crashing in.

Despite this change of emphasis from the beautiful to the bracing – and the lack of the film’s sole concession to pop, Gene Pitney's 'Backstage', which plays over the end credits but has been omitted here for rights reasons – the soundtrack doesn’t mark a complete break from Strickland's cinematic past. In places it recalls Steven Stapleton and Geoff Cox's sparse and understated electronics for Katalin Varga. It's not a surprise, then, that Stapleton appears on the LP under his Nurse With Wound alias, providing one of the album's most menacing moments.

'Hindu Monastery Breakfast' is a 2010 remix of The Sonic Catering Band that wafts in and out of the on-stage colonoscopy scene, but is presented here in its full eight-and-a-half minute form. It opens with an unsettling rattling and gurgling that eventually forms into a sort of lopsided march while cymbals crash and rumble in the background. It’s reminiscent of some of NWW’s peers – you can hear echoes of Coil's ‘How To Destroy Angels’, and Throbbing Gristle's unsettling 'Medicine' in the track. A word of warning, though: if you’re squeamish about the sound of people loudly eating, you might want to give this one a miss.

Another fellow traveler is Roj Stevens, the former-keyboardist with Broadcast who released a terrific album on Ghost Box back in 2009 and who is also one-third of Children Of Alice, the musique concrète trio made up (with James Cargill and Julian House) entirely of the director's collaborators. He supplies 'Trip To The Shops', an eerie soundscape that recurs throughout the album in various mutated forms. According to Strickland it's the sound of a gong fed through an Arp 2600 semi modular synth and the first version of the track sounds pretty much exactly like that. Its second iteration 'Trip To The Shops (Footfall)' is altogether doomier and somewhat reminiscent of Mark Jenkins' similarly subterranean score for Enys Men. The third and final '(Closing Down)' version fades out on what sounds like chiming bells – angelic and serene, yet touched with a note of the uncanny. On screen, the intermittent trip to the shops scenes are a parody of drama class exercises but Roj scores them as he would a ritual or a seance.

Other notable contributions from outside The Sonic Catering Band come from A Hawk and a Hacksaw's Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes (who, it turns out, contacted Strickland following his Baker's Dozen article on this site). 'Early Gardens' and 'The Funeral Table' are effectively the same composition, a simple but unabashedly lovely arrangement of arpeggiated keys (initially on what sounds like a harpsichord, though the instrumentation changes across the numerous different versions) and Trost's sighed, wordless vocals. It's gorgeous, a soaring piece of music that effortlessly evokes the joy of artistic creation – something that ultimately proves to be, for all its “balling”, police parties and other absurdist detours, the film's abiding theme.

Artistic creation in the film world is, of course, currently under threat. Strickland has spoken matter of factly on Twitter recently about the difficulties of getting his own features into production due to a lack of funding and you can only imagine that it's many degrees harder for newer and marginalised voices. It's a dispiriting indictment of the UK’s post-Brexit attitude towards the arts and culture that one of our most unique filmmakers is struggling and that doors, which were previously held open for emerging talents outside the blockbuster mainstream, appear to be slamming shut.

Still, if Flux Gourmet really does mark a (we would hope very brief) pause in Strickland’s directorial output, then it's fitting that this soundtrack sounds the way that it does. It feels personal and exposing, an idiosyncratic record that draws a line between the young experimentalist having fun with his mates, a blender, some pedals and a bag of avocados in the 90s, and the creative mind who has since steered five unique feature films more recently. It’s a nexus point for his various collaborators (Cavern Of Anti-Matter also show up briefly) and a chance for The Sonic Catering Band to finally step out of the shadows and take centre stage with a set menu of food music that's as delicious and nourishing as it is adventurous and exciting. Let a thousand hands applaud tonight.