As The Crow Flies
The Advisory Circle
Inspired by the sounds of 70s ‘polytechnic’ TV – Open University, Public Information Films, Play For Today – Jon Brooks’Advisory Circle tap into a collective nostalgia for a post-war paternalistic Britain. His 2008 album, Other Channels, was an eddying, whisper of ghostly broadcasts, the family telly as portal to otherworlds. Blending chiming folk acoustics with wistful analogue electronics, As The Crow Flies feels like a more personal work, both a soundtrack to dreamlike childhood summers and an imagined government guide to the cycles of the seasons, complete with linernotes by historian and folklorist Ronald Hutton. With the current government’s attempts to strip the country of its libraries, forests and broadcasting corporation, anything that reconnects us with richer ideas of nature and culture should be cherished. As such, imagining a departmental handbook on the primal power of the pagan year feels positively revolutionary.
On this exceptional album’s inner sleeve, a sixties bypass bisects a prehistoric earthwork, and the folklorist Ronald Hutton discusses seasonal rites. Within, a set of tuneful, tonal, slices of clean and cold electronica hums with post-war optimism, warped by echoes of the transcendentally bland music that underscored Seventies architects’ pitches for concrete car parks. The comforting irony cloud, that shadowed earlier Ghost Box label experiments in emotionally manipulative nostalgia, has evaporated.
Without anything so prescriptive as lyrics, The Advisory Circle offers a disarmingly sincere, pellucidly beautiful, and hauntingly disorientating exploration of your civilisation’s problematic relationship with the landscapes of its past.
The recent closure of the Central Office of Information (COI), announced in June 2011, was mooted as an effective and essential means of governmental cost-cutting. But it also brought about the sad dismissal of a weird and mysterious authoritarian figure, affixed in the memory of a certain generation; an obsolete and creepy uncle with a firm and distinctly clammy grip. For this was the agency responsible for producing endless cautionary, but downright scary, public information films such as Dark and Lonely Water, Play Safe and the famed ‘Charlie Says’ animated series. These brief vignettes couched grim messages of alarm aimed at adolescence, all the while maintaining a decidedly Albion-like air of menace. Donald Pleasence was even brought in to narrate. But with the COI dispatched, who’s left to shepherd our vulnerable young flock?
Step forward Jon Brooks aka The Advisory Circle, whose project, by its very designation, demonstrates its architect’s overt fascination with these filmic artefacts of a bygone British age. Brooks’ music draws heavily upon the uncertainty of an era (1978’s Winter of Discontent, Cold War brinksmanship etc) from which these broadcasts held their nightmarish sway, employing the edgy electronics, burbling synths and, frankly, unhinged advice proffered by our former big brother. His previous works, such as 2005’s brilliant (and recently reissued) Mind How You Go, encapsulated this strange infatuation, bristling with a troubled paternalism and bucolic, magical beauty, at times sounding like the ominous soundtrack to a supernatural Arthur Machen yarn.
Now Brooks is projecting his creations upon a seasonal compass, traversing the annual moods and atmospheres of this great isle via a broadening of his tonal palette. While still honing a nostalgia-inducing circuitry, part defiled public safety manifesto (“The Advisory Circle, we make the decisions, so you don’t have to.”) and part Boards of Canada reverie, As the Crow Flies also incorporates the organic patterns of past folk outsiders such as Heron, Forest and Trader Horne (check the echo-laden arpeggios of the baroque-flavoured Ceridwen). Album closer, Lonely Signalman, marries plaintive acoustic strum with cyborg croon, encapsulating in microcosm the curious hex being woven throughout. It shouldn’t really work (Pentangle meets T-Pain?), but the artistry resides in the conveyance of the uncanny.
All told, this is arguably The Advisory Circle’s most fully-realised set to date (accompanied by a typically eye-catching sleeve by Ghost Box’s in-house designer, Julian House), exhibiting a stronger sense of (dis)place(ment) than before and, as such, constitutes the perfect entry point for anyone looking for a way into Brooks’ enchanting, wistful realm.
Past recordings by the Advisory Circle sometimes felt like long-lost Cold War transmissions held in reserve in case the British government needed a reason to assure the general public that everything was okay. Jon Brooks, who has functioned under this moniker since the mini-album Mind How You Go in 2005, plugged into the fear and paranoia induced by such declarations. If you feel the need to assure people that everything is alright, they’re going to wonder what caused you to tell them that in the first place. Or, as Brooks put it in an interview: “Everything’s fine, but there is something not quite right about it.” Brooks is obsessed with the government-sponsored enmity that flows through many of the public information films (PIFs) Britain produced in the 1970s and 1980s, often recreating the stern, authoritarian tones of their announcers at certain points in his albums. As the Crow Flies, his third record as the Advisory Circle, also begins that way, with a female voice claiming: “The Advisory Circle. We make the decisions so you don’t have to.”
Another album modeled on such austerity might feel like Brooks was over-egging an idea that partially helped inspire the hauntology sub-genre. So
instead he’s slowly evolved the Advisory Circle sound, bringing in acoustic instrumentation to supplement the banks of old analog equipment that remain his primary source tools. This pushes As the Crow Flies a little closer to the kind of darkly pastoral electronic work Boards of Canada were tinkering with on Geogaddi. But this has more conceptual weight than that record, with Brooks concocting a series of songs inspired by the dueling qualities of stasis and change that cycle through the changing of the seasons. It’s even got some wonderfully apt sleeve notes by Ronald Hutton, the head of History at Bristol University, who points out the various merits of seasonal festivals in Britain. Like most Ghost Box releases, the attention to detail is impressive, with designer Julian House completing the package via a series of images of an imagined TV title sequence, aimed at dredging up damaged memories of barely remembered children’s dramas from yesteryear.
On listening to As the Crow Flies it’s easy to picture Brooks fully taking to his task. You can almost see him clad in a thick wool sweater, watching the droplets of snow amassing on his window frame as he prods at an old synthesizer during the wintery “Now Ends the Beginning”. On the sci-fi fantasy “Learning Owl Reappears” it feels like he’s been gazing up to a star-filled sky through a telescope on a long autumnal evening to find inspiration. This is a less foreboding record than prior Advisory Circle outings, but it’s no less sad. “The Patchwork Explains” might be one of Brooks’ most impressive pieces yet, with its icy synth tendrils spiking away at a plodding Kraftwerkian throb, somehow managing to be both playful and quietly beautiful. That it’s dedicated to the memory of Broadcast singer Trish Keenan couldn’t be more appropriate, reflecting her group’s sense of wonder and love of offbeat pop.
Brooks carefully varies the character of the album as it progresses, nudging the listener down a subtly shifting stylistic gradient that takes in a Renaissance era lament (“Ceridwen”), steely Europop with prog intonations (“Modern Through Movement”), and a lone vocal venture reminiscent in mood of Air’s underrated 10,000 Hz Legend (“Lonely Signalman”). It’s evocative, touching, and nostalgic, with the simple keyboard melodies often making it feel like this is all being experienced by a child blinking in bewilderment and amazement as the concept of the natural world is explained to them. But mostly there’s a strong sense of discovery, of someone attempting to make sense of their surroundings, with Brooks cast as a voyager trampling through vast stretches of the British countryside, crisp leaves crinkling underfoot as he expertly funnels everything he sees and feels into song.