From an Ancient Star
The habitat of the hauntological shifts itself skywards into the dubious realms of pseudo- archaeology and paleocontact hypotheses with this release. Taking the ancient astronaut theories of Erich Van Daniken, Zacharia Sitchin and Robert KG Temple as its starting point, From An Ancient Star pushes the Ghost Box nostalgia trip into uncharted territories, to the stars and beyond.
Those same ideas which maintain that intelligent extraterrestrials have already visited Earth and that this contact is linked to the origins of human culture came to prominence at the back-end of the 60s. They’ve been heavily criticised for their unsubstantiated nature by, among others, the respected scientist Carl Sagan . A similar charge of simplistic naivety could be levelled at this suite of songs, but there’s no denying their quaint and quirky charms.
In keeping with the theme, of both album and label, this is a decidedly backwards- looking futurism, where fuzzy Moogs and burbling electronic brooks get heavy on the analogue, providing easy- listening facsimiles of what those in the past thought we’d be listening to in years to come (erm… maybe that’s now?). If you get a buzz from the gauzy, retro-lounge aesthetic of groups such as Boards Of Canada and Plone, then there’s plenty here for you to savour.
Belbury Poly’s Jim Jupp fashions analogue electronica under the spell of half-remembered, spooky 1970s children’s television shows. From an Ancient Star echoes the crypto-archeological concerns of the classic 1976 HTV serial Children of the Stones, and, as with all the Ghost Box label’s releases, Julian House’s stunning sleeve designs are inseparable from the music itself. Irradiated megaliths, warped algebra and quotes from HP Lovecraft, TS Eliot and a Miniature Railway Scenery manual combine to suggest that humankind is a pawn in some alien experiment, creating a mood that alters our perception of Jupp’s music. Banal melodies become compellingly sinister. Sampled recitations in received pronunciation are spliced to fit the rhythms of a cold, clean synthesizer. At times, as on the inanely jaunty, reggae-flavoured A Great Day Out, Jupp almost seems to be composing in character, conjuring the spirit of some frustrated BBC Radiophonic Workshop boffin obliged to appease a popular culture he does not care for. From an Ancient Star’s blurred appropriation of the past will leave middle-aged listeners feeling delightfully disorientated and a little distressed, but will it mean anything to teens and twentysomethings? Who cares? Let them watch Skins.
Sunday Times Culture Magazine
(Reviewed with Ritual and Education a Ghost Box sampler)
You could never accuse the men behind Ghost Box of lacking ambition. Most people start record labels with the aim of signing a few bands, perhaps making some money, maybe gaining a reputation in the music business for their prescience and ability to pick a winner. Jim Jupp and Julian House, on the other hand, seem unconcerned with any of this. Their label began as a humble website flogging burned-to-order CDRs of the music Jupp records as the Belbury Poly and House puts out under the name the Focus Group. Even today, five years on, with their releases so critically acclaimed they have warranted their own genre (the critic Simon Reynolds borrowed the phrase “hauntology” from Jacques Derrida to describe their very British brand of spooky electronica), Ghost Box still eschews conventional distribution channels and publicity. Perhaps Jupp and House have their minds on higher things: their stated intention was to create “not just a record label but an imaginary world”.
Big talk and hyperbole is something to which those who run record labels are prone. The most remarkable thing about Ghost Box is that it genuinely appears to have achieved its goal. Buying one of its releases feels like stepping into another world: like Factory, it seems less interested in developing individual artists than maintaining an overall aesthetic. It makes short films and publishes a periodical, Folklore and Mathematics, the latter replete with fake newspaper articles describing supernatural events, old listings from the Radio Times and quotes from explorer and “psychic researcher” TC Lethbridge. Its CDs come lavishly packaged. Early releases looked like 1970s Pelican paperbacks or school textbooks: the latest, the Belbury Poly’s From an Ancient Star, arrives in a sleeve that recalls the torrent of paperbacks published by Erich von Däniken, the Swiss pseudo-archeologist who spent the 70s informing the world that God was an astronaut. Notice is thus served that their artists are unlikely to sound like Stereophonics.
And so it proves. The music on both From an Ancient Star and Ritual and Education (a budget-priced downloadonly compilation that provides the perfect introduction to Ghost Box) conjures up what David Peace might call an occult history of 70s and early 80s children’s television, the soundtracks of stuff invariably forgotten in who-remembers-the-Wombles? roundups: the station idents of long-lost ITV franchises; Schools and Colleges programmes; the grimy, low-rent British horror films that provided a cheap way of filling time until the Epilogue and attracted an unintended prepubescent audience thanks to the rise in portable bedroom sets; the public information films that suggested a flatly terrifying broken Britain, filled with people who spent their time Fooling With Fireworks, playing Frisbee near power stations and jamming the bare wires of electrical equipment into sockets with matchsticks.
The point doesn’t seem to be nostalgia, with its attendant warm laugh of communal recognition, although there’s a certain kind of obscure telly trainspotter who might delight in noting that the female voices on the Advisory Circle’s Mogadon Coffee Morning are swiped from a 1973 public information film about supermarket pickpockets.
Instead, Ghost Box’s artists deal in eeriness, of varying degrees of subtlety. At its most sumptuous and melodically benign, it’s merely vaguely disquieting, as when the electronics chafe at the folky tune of From an Ancient Star’s Widdershins. Occasionally, it’s genuinely scary: you really don’t want the Focus Group’s Hey Let Loose Your Love, with its mangled hippy folk sample and disembodied electronics, cropping up on your iPod if you’re walking alone late at night. If you’re of a certain age, you might say the music conjures up the sense of creepy otherness that accompanied viewing most of the TV listed above: the weird indulgence of watching Schools and Colleges programmes while sick or skiving from school; the extra layer of terror lent to the goings-on in Death Line or Blood On Satan’s Claw by illicit long-past-your-bedtime viewing on a tiny black and white screen; the way public information films appeared without warning, disrupting ad breaks with death by electrocution or drowning. But you don’t need to have grown up square-eyed in the 70s to find the music Ghost Box release entrancing. Even stripped of their careful packaging and devoid of their arcane pop-cultural connotations, From an Ancient Star and Ritual and Education would fulfill Jupp and House’s intentions, creating a strange, spellbinding imaginary world with their music alone: electronica rarely comes as intriguing and atmospheric and laden with weirdly unshakable tunes.
(Reviewed with Ritual and Education a Ghost Box sampler)
It is now five years since Jim Jupp and Julian House unveiled Belbury Poly’s Farmer’s Angle EP, the inaugural release on their DIY label Ghost Box. Then a humble conduit for their aesthetic of weird Britishness, Ghost Box have since found themselves in the perhaps unenviable position of leading a scene that is, appropriately enough, almost entirely spectral. This anniversary offers the perfect opportunity to assess their achievements so far, hence Ritual and Education, a comprehensive, download-only label sampler.
The sampler is a good illustration of how Ghost Box offer more than simple nostalgia. Perceiving post-World War Two methods of education and social engineering as transparent attempts to harness ancient impulses, Jupp and House present their impression not of a golden age, but a grey area perpetually overshadowed by a Gothic foreboding established by fin de siècle writers Arthur Machen, Ambrose Bierce and Algernon Blackwood, confounded by the very real horrors of the Holocaust, and later reappearing in the form of 1980s Cold War paranoia. Their concerns could be dismissed as parochial; yet if we consider Ghost Box to be positing a form of synthetic folk music, should this really prove problematic ? The music could conceivably offer an exotic frisson for non-UK listeners, something that is thrilling partly because of its unfamiliarity – consider the reaction of African- Americans in the Bronx to Kraftwerk, even the current Brooklynite craze for African polyrhythms.
Judging by From an Ancient Star, however, it would seem that Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) is actively anticipating his critics. He has expanded his textual lexicon to incorporate the extra-terrestrial origin theories of Erich von Daniken and the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft, while further developing the textural and structural complexity exhibited on 2006’s The Owl’s Map, folding in elements of disco (“From An Ancient Star”) and dub (“A Great Day Out”) to create music that’s both highly atmospheric and melodically rewarding. From An Ancient Star is proof that for Ghost Box, there is life beyond the village green.
The fourth outing for Belbury Polv finds Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp musing on familiar themes. Lovecraft’s fascination for the uncanny and von Daniken’s belief in extraterrestrial intelligences are both referenced in the accompanying booklet. These concepts run through the album, filtered through an innocent Anglo Saxon eccentricity, and channeled through a panoply of vintage analogue equipment. The result as ever is mesmerising.