Radiophonic Workshop

Burials In Several Earths

1984 and the leering face of a devil roars exultantly as it smashes through the wall of an old English church, drawing upon the mounting forces of turmoil and unrest fermenting in the strife-torn countryside in order to gain power and strength. 1975 and the British Isles have reverted to a de-industrialised fear-strewn land where outsiders and unbelievers are viewed with suspicion and hostility as self-proclaimed witchfinders seek out those who would question this return to a prelapsarian idyll. And there’s 1972, the metal corridors of an offshore sea fort clanging discordantly to the scuffled, wheezing pursuit between dreaded ocean-borne intruders and island dwellers desperate to defend what they view as rightfully theirs. Fearful episodes resonating down the years like folk tales.

If you grew up in the blighted United Kingdom between the 1950s-1980s, then these images and the sounds which not only accompanied but enabled them may well be imprinted onto your memories to the point that they’ve formed part of your own consciousness. Sound generated from within the television to the point that it formed a crucial link between ourselves and the screen, way beyond notions of mere incidental music. In the 1975 BBC children’s drama The Changes, it is sound, in the form of a hyper-pressurised all-enveloping electronic scream courtesy of the Radiophonic Workshop’s Paddy Kingsland, which signals the fall of Britain back into a devastating yet almost welcomed Dark Age.

“We also have sound houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds”. These words form part of Francis Bacon’s 17th century text The New Utopia and were utilised by Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram in 1957 as aspirational desire for the production of experimental electronic sound worlds within the BBC’s output. Sixty years later, with utopian notions further from view than at any time since Oram’s hopeful manifesto, the Radiophonic Workshop here release a new body of work based around five improvised pieces which also take their titles from Bacon’s poetic future vision. The album credits the line-up as being Mark Ayres and Paddy Kingsland along with Martyn Ware and Steve Jones. It’s strangely odd and disillusioning to think of the Workshop being just another “group” as opposed to government funded collective of isolated workers researching the limits of sound and music under the guise of light entertainment.

The lovingly rendered packaging for Burials in Several Earths very much plays up to the Workshop’s influence as indirect progenitors of hauntological tendencies within strands of musical and cultural thinking throughout the 21st century thus far. Houses crumble under swirls of murky vortices and analogue synthesisers wash up as flotsam amongst wrecked ships on rocky shores. Yet, for all the imagery of one era’s decay superimposed upon another, the music chimes with clarity and freshness reminiscent of Cluster at their most benevolently aqueous and formless. The five extended pieces, filtering waves of ambient shingle with fragmented piano patterns and sudden outbursts of Gilmour-esque guitar wail, are clearly intended to demonstrate the Workshop’s abilities once freed from their duty as public servants to provide memorable themes. Sometimes, as on ‘Things Buried in Water’, the desire to break from these past boundaries can result in elongated passages of aimless meandering. But, considering the BBC’s short-sighted disbanding of the Workshop in 1998, you can forgive the surviving members and acolytes occasional wish to drift and wander down blind alleys at will. While there is the odd lapse into grisly power-riffing, the overall mood is sedate if haunted. It has the same effect as dormant memories or lingering dreams, seemingly placid and harmless but then suddenly coiling itself around you.

Listening to Burials in Several Earths is like encountering background music for 2017 which was conceived forty years ago. There is certainly nothing here which could date it beyond the mid 1980s. But future and past, reality and fiction, seem to have completely lost any meaning in this present day. Pink Floyd, once counter-cultural totems, are feted with a heritage exhibition yet the real counter-culture sounds were being broadcast into children’s television programmes and wildlife documentaries. Perhaps this means we are all the counter-culture now; we carry its inheritance within us and must pay heed to its warnings and urges. The sound houses become empty mausoleums as we hurtle further away from that utopian ideal. The future crumbles into dust while the past traps us in a perpetual time loop.

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