Compilation of the Week: Broadcast’s Spell Blanket (Collected Demos 2006-2009)

Will Salmon feels a strange mix of melancholy and joy on hearing this valuable collection of demo tracks

There’s a strange kind of emotional whiplash attached to Spell Blanket, the first of two demo albums that mark “a closing of the door” on Broadcast. On the one hand there’s a real sense of surprise and joy in hearing this music – the first significant amount of “new” material from the band in over a decade. On the other, it’s also a sorrowful reminder that this band, largely a cult concern at the time but now rightfully celebrated, still had so much to offer and an over-abundance of ideas.

The songs on Spell Blanket “lay the groundwork for what would have been Broadcast’s fifth album", according to Warp, though how they’ve arrived at that number is debatable given – and bear with my pedantry on this – that both Work And Non Work and The Future Crayon are compilations, Witch Cults Of The Radio Age a collaboration with The Focus Group, and Berberian Sound Studio an OST. Regardless, the tracks here offer a glimpse at the music that Trish Keenan and James Cargill were making in the years post-Tender Buttons, arguably their most distinct and creatively fruitful period.

In the wake of Keenan’s tragic passing in 2011 it was suggested that Cargill, her partner in life as well as Broadcast, would complete a final album using the vocals and instrumentals that she left behind. As the years passed, however, that has seemed increasingly unlikely for reasons that are of course entirely understandable. Instead, Spell Blanket presents 36 tracks, seemingly unaltered from their original 4-track and MiniDisc recordings.

Although some of these pieces are simple fragments – the 25-second ‘Grey Grey Skies’ is the title intoned over some dissonant radiophonics, while the opening ‘The Song Before The Song Comes Out’ sees Keenan poignantly freestyle lyrics into her dictaphone – the majority of the tracks here are far fuller and more complete than you might expect from demos and the sound quality, some gentle tape hiss aside, is remarkably good.

Some of the material feels like a natural extrapolation of the band’s final completed works, while other pieces hearken back to the early days. Broadcast were consummate crate diggers as anyone who has listened to Trish’s Mind Bending Motorway Mix a compilation CD Keenan made for a friend, full of the likes of Emerald Web and The Vampires Of Dartmoore, will attest and that’s reflected here. Spell Blanket sees the band firing in all directions, exploring new ideas and trying on different genres for size. A more polished record would likely have winnowed these down into a coherent statement, but there’s a real pleasure in being able to leaf through Broadcast’s scrapbooks.

‘March Of The Fleas’ and ‘Running Back To Me’ are smudgily psychedelic and reminiscent of their under-heard tour EP, Mother Is The Milky Way. On the latter, throat-singing provides an ominous rumble for Keenan’s cooly detached voice to airily float over. Elsewhere they conjure the same occult creepiness utilised on their soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. ‘I Blink You Blink’ is genuinely sinister – an a capella track, with Keenan’s incantatory multi-tracked vocal making up the entire piece. It leads into ‘Infant Girl’, a haunting folk song played on guitar that can’t help but invoke the soundtrack to The Wicker Man – a favourite of Keenan’s – as well as the finger-picked guitar work of their friend and label mate Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst. First single ‘Follow The Light’, meanwhile, is perfect in its minimal beauty, a near complete gem with Keenan singing against herself and a simple synth melody that evokes another Warp favourite: Boards Of Canada.

By contrast, ‘Hip Bone To Hip Bone’ is a surprisingly groovy cut and a reminder that, for all the band’s love of Luboš Fišer, library music and The United States Of America, their earliest records were also indebted to the softer side of 60s pop. ‘Colour In The Numbers’ – the last “big” track on Spell Blanket is a cheerful cut of toytown psych, while the pastoral elements hinted at on the astonishing Witch Cults Of The Radio Age are in full effect on ‘Petal Alphabet’ – originally released online in 2018 to commemorate Keenan’s 50th birthday – which pledges "No more ladder anxieties" before settling on a bright chant of "Happy!" as if to underline the point. She was an admirer of 60s duo Wendy & Bonnie and both ‘I Want To Be Fine’ and ‘Fatherly Veil’ would sit happily alongside the sun-dappled San Francisco pop of their album Genesis.

Amidst the new stuff, a few songs will likely stand out as familiar to the Broadcast faithful. ‘The Games You Play’ adds a bright and earwormy vocal to the rigid, mechanistic drum track titled ‘DDL’ from The Future Crayon rarities compilation. The original purely instrumental track is full of static bursts and glitches, but the version here transforms it into a lovely cut of weirdo electro-pop that wouldn’t have felt too out of place on Haha Sound. ‘My Body’ – a stark spoken word piece delivered in a Nico-esque stentorian tone – is the opening of the live song that fans have come to know as ‘Ruth White’.

All of which is to say that Spell Blanket is great. Not the record that you’d give to new listeners but, for devotees, a cathartic way to put a cap on the band even if it’s not quite the final release – a companion album of older demos, Distant Call, will follow in September. Still, as I said at the top, there’s also a degree of melancholy here. The band’s later works hit around the same time that hauntology was starting to become a thing that people were talking seriously about and Broadcast tapped into that same current, while never quite going down the purely retro "Who remembers lard and space hoppers?" route of some of the latter-day "h-word" artists. For all their mustier reference points, Broadcast were always a band who engaged with the present as well as the past, with Tender Buttons (itself a collection of tracks originally intended as demos to be filled out later) still hitting that sweet spot between retro-futuristic and actually-futuristic. There’s a sad irony, then, that Spell Blanket itself now feels a little like an artefact from a lost future or a dispatch from a parallel world.

Having said all that, it shouldn’t go unmentioned just how much fun the album is. There’s a huge sense of play in these tracks as the band try out ideas (the goofy synth part that opens ‘A Little Light’, or the playground melody of ‘Hairpin Memories’) and indulge in wordplay or lyrics that occasionally move into pure dadaist nonsense. It’s bittersweet, then, but also triumphant. What a genuine treat to be able to hear this in 2024. The broadcast has ended, but the signal carries on forever.

Spell Blanket by Broadcast is out on Warp today

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