Various Artists

In A Moment… Ghost Box

From the very start, Ghost Box have understood that music is about memory. As well as providing sensory pleasure, music acts as a gateway to all manner of subconscious echoes and archived references, both time machine and personal lexicon. The genius move of Ghost Box founders Jim Jupp and Julian House is to have explicitly engaged with music’s power to invoke the past, digging into the cultural landfill and psychic mulch of the mid-60s to early 80s to create an entire world to soundtrack.

In A Moment is a celebration of the label’s first ten years, and features highlights from across its small but perfectly-formed catalogue. While Ghost Box has often been written about in overtly esoteric and theoretical terms – though Simon Reynolds mercifully avoids the ‘H’ word in his sleeve notes – what’s most impressive about this collection is the aesthetic consistency and sheer quality of the material, recalling the heydays of labels such as Factory, 4AD and Warp.

Broadly speaking, this parish supports two main churches. One still promotes a Tomorrow’s World-esque vision of a technocratic future, defined by bold proto-electronica and confident arpeggiated melodies – key advocates include The Advisory Circle and Pye Corner Audio. The other is more concerned with the specific texture of the era that Ghost Box inhabits, an Airfix glue and sticky-back plastic approach to song creation – key artists here are House’s The Focus Group and ex-Broadcast member Roj. Uniting these two faiths in ecumenical style is Jupp’s Belbury Poly, where folk memory haunts the cogs of modernity.

There’s an essential paradox at the heart of the Ghost Box project. The symphonic march and elegant precision of The Advisory Circle’s ‘Escape Lane’ sounds pregnant with scientific optimism and the promise of a better world. But it also feels terribly poignant, because something went wrong with the plan. Ghost Box evokes feelings of both childhood innocence and the disappointment of promises unfulfilled, the reassuring authority of the adult world exposed as a sham – no one’s in control after all.

But there’s an undeniable frisson in that disjunction, ramshackle kids’ TV shows and their perky theme tunes rubbing up against terrifying public information films and news of industrial unrest, oil crises and Cambodian genocide. Reynolds describes the feeling as "cosy unease", and Ghost Box is adept at conjuring this sense of pleasurable dislocation and discontinuity. The Focus Group in particular are happy to show the joins in their music, the needle jumping in the neural groove: ‘Hey Let Loose Your Love’ sounds like the presenters of Play Away on a boozy day trip to the country; ‘Bromiding Place’ is the young person’s guide to the orchestra while falling down the stairs.

There are intriguing intersections here with other genres and scenes, belying Ghost Box’s sometimes insular image. The sophisticated synth pop of ‘Almost There’ by John Foxx and The Belbury Circle makes clear the way in which the Radiophonic sounds of 70s Dr Who etc were assimilated and repurposed by a new generation of electronic musicians in the 80s. Elsewhere, Pye Corner Audio’s ‘The Mirror Ball Cracked’ connects its deserted dancehall vibe to modern club culture, though the tyranny of the beat is replaced by a sinister mechanical pulse.

But for me, the label is most satisfyingly represented by Belbury Poly, and this album features some of their finest, and most joyous moments. ‘Farmer’s Angle’ is a peculiar synthetic waltz where you can practically hear the oscillators and patch boards sing; ‘Owls And Flowers’ (the first Ghost Box track I ever encountered and still my favourite) has a half-exotic, half-classical melody that’s the epitome of space age cool and as catchy as hell; ‘The Hidden Door’ marries the slick propulsion of 80s Tangerine Dream with the 60s bohemia of the Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’. This last track in particular chimes well with Jupp’s concept of ‘eternalism’, where time is superimposed on itself and every sound and reference holds equal weight.

As Reynolds cautions, Ghost Box have created an exceptionally tempting canvas to project ideas and theories onto. I particularly like Taylor Parkes’ take on Ghost Box as "a howl of separation anxiety" brought on by the end of the progressive social democracy of the 1970s. But to just view the label as a symptom of some post-post-modern malaise is to sell them grievously short, as In A Moment amply demonstrates. If you haven’t ventured inside the world of Ghost Box before, this is an excellent entry point.

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