Pye Corner Audio
Martin Jenkins’ brainchild, Pye Corner Audio, has established its root system by drawing on cinematic, paired-back electronica to do the theoretical heavy lifting. In the past, they have traversed the dancefloor, refracting Derrida’s hauntology (via Mark Fisher) through a suspended wall of smoke in the air. This is to say that with a strong command of atmosphere and evocation, Pye Corner Audio pick up the threads of practice where theory leaves off.
This time, ecology is the realm of theory that Entangled Routes elects to open up to experience, carefully wrapped up in Julian House’s evocative, cult-status cover art . Synth lines bounce off of one another, interacting like broadcasters and receptors. The pipeline between the cyborg, cybernetic sound that Pye Corner Audio excavate, and concepts of deep ecological entanglement (as put forth by the album’s title, and track titles), is traced by Jenkins, as it has been traced previously by the likes of Donna Haraway. But here, outside of text, it is audible and inhabitable.
Allusions to facets of ecocriticism and rhizomatic existence proliferate like embodiments of a nostalgic, knowing gesture – the tap to the side of the nose that says ‘between you and me, you’ve got it in one’. Each track is a varying assemblage of satisfying discordance. The layering of sounds one atop the other creates a latter-day Latourian compost heap of experience.
Most impressive is that all of this is covered through suggestion and sleight of hand. Larger-than-life ideas and the more-than-human are carved out as moods and feelings. Entangled Routes could easily fill the longue-durée – becoming winding and self-indulgent – but it doesn’t. The quiet confidence of Jenkins’ brevity and his refreshing lightness of touch makes for a sharp, welcome intervention that balances the broad and gestural with close attention to the fine print.
It’s hard not to draw a Brian Eno comparison, as this is an album that manages to distill big, overarching concepts into accessible, and (above all) enjoyable soundscapes. Music for Smart Alecs, perhaps? Only Entangled Routes is imbued with an energy that compels into action, and like a mycorrhizal network, it succeeds in operating underground.
Ronnie Angel Pope
Over the past decade or so, Pye Corner Audio have forged a distinctive and instantly recognisable sound, its ominous drones and trance house 4/4 beats the very definition of the haunted dancehall, As well as becoming one of Ghost Box’s key acts, PCA’s music has been used on film and TV soundtracks whenever a feeling of inexorable dread is required, most notably in Adam Curtis’ ‘HyperNormalisation’ documentary from 2016. It evokes a world where machines continue to function long after extinction has done away with humanity.
Yet head technician Martin Jenkins is cannier than to pigeonhole himself as just a purveyor of post-apocalyptic electronica, as his latest album confirms. ‘Entangled Routes’ is the third in a loose trilogy of records theined around the concept of secret, hidden environments, with ‘Stasis’ (2016), and ‘Hollow Earth’ (2019) having previously tackled deep space and our planet’s interior respectively. This time, the idea mycorrhizal networks, the strange underground nervous systems that connect trees, plants and fungi, and suggest some kind of proactive vegetable intelligence – its title is perhaps inspired by ‘Entangled Life’, Merlin Sheldrake’s acclaimed study of fungi and our relationship with it.
‘New Roots’ is a beautiful opener, its limpid, melancholy notes drifting over the distant thump of a bass drum, and then the echoing slo mo propulsion of hats and claps. For all its splendid emptiness, there’s a hint of real emotion here too. Next up, the chiming, overlapping arpeggios of ‘Synaptic’ conjure images of time-lapsed shoots pushing their way unstoppably through the earth, while making a parallel with the complex networks in the human brain – electronic music is often used as an analogue for the artificial and inorganic, but electric neural signals are the very basis of life.
‘Growth Potential’ is dubby death disco that suddenly blossoms into a steely utopianism, but ‘Leaf Mould’ is like an undead Kraftwerk risen from the grave, suggesting that all those shiny dreams of ‘Europe Endless’ will one day just be decomposing ruins in the loam. But it ends with a banger, the spare synth bass and lovely spiralling high arpeggio of ‘Symbiosis’ offering a message of hope that man and nature can still learn to live together and communicate, rather than destroy each other.
Almost a decade has passed since Pye Corner Audio made its debut on Ghost Box. At the time, the label was vaunted as the epicentre of something called “hauntology”. The term, borrowed from the philosopher Jacques Derrida, had come to refer to a distinctly English aesthetic sensibility – a kind of stillborn futurism that instead of looking forwards, harked back to the quotidian dread of ’70s public information films and the blurry, saturated sound and visuals of VHS technology.
No-one talks that much about hauntology anymore. But rather than fading away with the waning of that movement, it’s possible to see how the influence of Ghost Box – and its carefully curated roster of sonic sorcerers immersing themselves in the analogue eerie – have percolated into the culture at large. You can see it in the dystopian internet satire Scarfolk; in films such as Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England; and even in the rediscovery of figures like the late novelist Robert Aickman, whose uncanny not-quite-horror stories have a way of lingering in the imagination. These days, it feels like ghosts are all around us.
You could also track the influence of Ghost Box by the gently rising profile of Pye Corner Audio itself. The term “itself” feels more appropriate than “himself”, because although Pye Corner Audio is one man – a former tape operator turned musician named Martin Jenkins – his habit of referring to himself as “The Head Technician” gives the project the strange air of a shadowy bureau, investing its darkly evocative synth music with an eerie charge. In recent years, Pye Corner Audio has unfurled its tendrils into the mainstream, remixing the likes of Mogwai and Mark Lanegan and creeping onto sundry film and TV soundtracks. Yet somehow, The Head Technician has steered the project in a way that retains its sense of shadowy obscurity.
Entangled Routes is Jenkins’s fourth album for Ghost Box, and the third in a trilogy of releases exploring the high-concept sci-fi themes. The conceptual jumping-off point this time is “mycorrhizal networks” – underground fungal pathways that, some scientists believe, constitute a kind of plant communication. It’s a fitting idea for a style of music rooted in analogue synthesis – imagine nature as an underground web of patch cables, creating circuits that run deep into the earth. (You might say there’s something in the soil, as Ben Wheatley’s 2021 horror film In The Earth explored a similar theme.)
Certainly, this is some of Pye Corner Audio’s strongest output to date. The synths have never sounded better – hear how “Phantom Orchid” and “The Creeper” summon up thick, viscous tones that bring to mind the saturated colours of an ’80s TV ident. There is a sense of propulsion here, meanwhile, that separates Pye Corner Audio from his waftier kin. The Head Technician’s music has often lurked in the shadows around the edge of the dancefloor, and tracks like “Growth Potential” and “Earthwork” couple arpeggiated synths to thunking rhythms in a way that is unquestionably gripping.
Ultimately, though, this music is all about building atmosphere, and on that count even the interludes deliver. “Paleolith” and “The Long Now” are brief but evocative, intensifying the sense of narrative beat – little moments of repose before the tension cranks up again. The virtues of restraint pay off on a track like “Hive Mind”, a masterclass in slow build that resembles a rain-sodden English take on the ’80s horror soundtracks of John Carpenter. One can only guess at the specific plot details of this imaginary film, but you just know that this is the moment the pursuit begins.
The last decade or so has seen experimental musicians such as Blanck Mass and The Haxan Cloak make the leap from underground music ubiquity to become actual film composers. It’s a path you could certainly see Pye Corner Audio taking. Yet so well-crafted is his music, so fleshed out are his concepts, that you can perhaps see why he’s chosen not to hitch his sounds to another’s vision. An album like Entangled Routes doesn’t need to be tied to moving images to reach its potential. Press play and it works its magic, imprinting its strange and fantastic visions direct onto your mind’s eye.
Final part in a trilogy of albums that started with 2016’s Stasis.
This fourth outing recorded for Ghost Box and the follow-up to 2019’s Hollow Earth sees Martin Jenkins, AKA the Head Technician, take the idea of mycorrhiza, the symbiotic relationship between a green plant and a fungus, and apply it to the human race. The result is 13 instrumentals (titles including New Roots, Growth Potential, Symbiosis) built around minimalist synth sequences that are slow-building and tense, with agitated pin-prick rhythms and pulsing stabs evoking a vastness of space and the associated emotional states – from agoraphobia-induced terror to wide-eyed wonder. Jenkins’ core influences remain the same: sci-fi fiction, Italo horror soundtracks and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and running parallel throughout is that sense of ‘faulty memory’ and half recognition – are these lost ’70s TV themes? That is part of the Ghost Box label’s fundamental allure.
Pye Corner Audio’s Entangled Routes has in fact been billed as the third entry in a high concept SF trilogy for Ghost Box, following on from Stasis (2016) and Hollow Earth (2019). Here Martin Jenkins takes listeners on a journey through mycelial networks, as if utilising psilocybin to recreate the effects of a galaxy-hopping spore drive; somewhere between Altered States and Star Trek then. Thus spacey synths, slow-and-spare techno chug and full sonic immersion is the order of the day. Unlike much of the current synth scene, Pye Corner Audio’s work is informed by club culture and Entangled Routes is another evocative portrait of post-rave dystopia. Equivalent practitioners might therefore be sought outside of the usual haunts, with Space Afrika’s post-soundsystem experimental night-time music springing to mind. What these sounds have in common is that they hold echoes of the past yet offer passage into the future.
There’s something incredibly comforting about UK artist Martin Jenkins, aka Pye Corner Audio’s unique brand of retro futurism. There’s a real warmth to his analogue synth fetish that conjures up something between 70’s sci fi film music and the narcotic edge of the dancefloor. Everything is tightly controlled, pieces develop sequentially as each elements reveal happens at the exact perfect moment in time. The edges are smooth, there is nothing to lull you out of a hypnotic reverie, nothing is left to chance.
It’s difficult not to admire this kind of control, this attention to detail. Ridiculously prolific he has released albums, EP’s and singles in all kind of limited edition configurations on various labels across the world and there’s a certain degree of trainspotting involved in working through his various monikers and labels. Entangled Routes is the third in a loose trilogy that he has completed for Ghost Box starting with Stasis in 2016 and followed by Hollow Earth in 2019. Not surprisingly its based around science fiction, but to be honest its not the concept that draws you in, it’s the melodic sequences, the fetishistic reverence for the timbre of the analogue synthesizer and these deep warm melancholic grooves.
If anything Entangled Routes feels a little more upbeat than its predecessors, with a greater diversity of approaches between the tracks. But I might just be imagining it. His music is so immediately identifiable. When you see a Pye Corner Audio album you know exactly what you are going to get. What’s so fascinating is how within this realm he continues to find ways to make such compelling essential music. It’s like he’s done all the hard work in initially creating this world/ genre and now he gets to play around in it. Entangled Routes reveals a real mastery of the form, but we kind’ve expected that, between its wistful throbbing sci fi grooves, his offering earlier in the year of Black Mill Tapes Volume 5: The Lost Tapes, and his more freeform, less beat orientated album under the moniker The House in the Woods, it’s been a pretty good year for Jenkins – and I’m probably missing about 7 other releases.
Bob Baker Fish