It’s a curious musical dilemma, possibly unique to the collective talents behind Ghost Box Records. When your label exists in a perfectly-formed parallel universe of your own devising, how much of the real world do you allow to intrude? Even in times of international crisis? ‘A response to the situation’ was the brief that Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp gave to the roster of artists involved in this superlative collection of new material, ‘but in no way about the situation’. And the idea of an “intermission” informs proceedings from the off, with Pittsburgh writer Justin Hopper impeccably channelling Rod Serling’s introductions to 1960s episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’. “Let’s take a moment to forget all of the actions and events of our lives” he deadpans, in the album’s spoken prelude. ‘And gather up, instead, all of the gaps. String them together into one long memory of intermissions..,`. The implication is clear: this crisis is temporary. After the loss, the pain, the disruption, something at least approximating normal service will be resumed. This is a gap. Indeed, an intermission. And one that Ghost Box have attempted to fill in the only way they know how: with music that transports, With every Ghost Box A-lister present and correct, it’s a veritable Showbiz XI of reassuring, immaculate musicality. Jon Books, in his Advisory Circle persona, offers ‘Airflow’ and ‘Forward Motion’, a brace of wistfully soothing instrumentals, The revitalised Plone combine the peppy ‘Running And Jumping’ with the comforting ‘When Everyone’s Asleep’, losing none of the heart-bursting momentum of April’s comeback album ‘Puzzlewood’. And the spectral beats of Pye Corner Audio, the perfect soundtrack for the country’s deserted, cobweb-coated dancefloors, are also present and very much correct, Ghost Box co-founder Julian House brings his wonderfully fractured Focus Group, of course; alongside Jupp’s own prog-tinged Belbury Poly, arriving like a gentle cavalry charge at the album’s conclusion, It’s a touching show of uniform solidarity from a label whose work has nestled firmly in the hearts of so many. Born from the collective British memory of Public Information Films and fuzzy test cards on rainy Tuesday afternoons, Ghost Box has long since sought to transcend the boundaries of its own origins. The mellifluous trans-Atlantic tones of Hopper are the perfect embodiment of the label’s increasingly international feel, and elsewhere the spiky playfulness of Germany’s ToiToiToi provides the perfect counterpoint to the psychedelic tropicalia of Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. All three of these offerings broaden the label’s musical palette in the most invigorating fashion.
Sharron Kraus —whose 2019 Ghost Box album ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ was a moving collaboration with Hopper brings a folk sensibility too, with the wistful, recorder-laden ‘Tell Me Why’. And Frances Castle, guiding light of spiritual sister label Clay Pipe, assumes the form of The Hardy Tree, offering the bucolic charm of ‘Woodberry Vale’. But the greatest surprise? Hang out the bunting, it’s the return of Raj Missing in action since 2009’s acclaimed ‘The Transactional Dharma Of Rol, one-time Broadcast keyboardist Rol Stevens re-emerges from the ether with ‘The Animal Door’, a delightfully juddering concoction of David Cast-style radiophonics and wonky, offbeat guitars. It’s the gleeful trump card of an album whose very existence came as a surprise to many, appearing without advance warning one sunny Friday at the height of communal lockdown misery. An unexpected postcard from that strange, parallel universe, with wisps of exotic smoke still curling from the stamp. And while the nature of the Ghost Box universe may be constantly evolving, its essence remains consistent. The label still provides a haven for those of us whose early years were defined by battered John Wyndham paperbacks and ‘Children Of The Stones’, but — in parallel to its exploration of what early journalistic champion Mark Fisher once defined as “lost futures” — it is also perhaps now gently picking at the seams of “lost” childhoods. A world of old documentaries, forgotten jazz poetry and unsettling central European animation that barely impinged upon the psyche of three-channel British children, but which now seems like an impossibly exotic alternative to our own cloistered upbringings. ‘Intermission’ stands as testament to Jupp and House’s musical and cultural curiosity. Always the most forward-thinking of retro obsessives, they have ensured that Ghost Box’s output. in the label’s 17th year, sounds as fresh and exciting as ever. “Maybe the gaps are where memory comes into its own` concludes Hopper, in the album’s thoughtful coda, ‘Intermission Conclusion’. “Maybe is it at its most accurate when it joins us here… in the intermission”. The real world may have rudely intruded. but Ghost Box’s universe will always be our refuge.
“What are the dimensions of a memory? What is its square footage and where do its boundaries lie?” Asks Justin Hopper, backed by the medieval nostalgia of Belbury Poly.
In uncertain times many of us find comfort in the past when everything was so much better. A simpler time with good honest folks and smiling faces. It’s a kind of nostalgic blindness that leaves out the inconvenient stuff, the daily grind, the struggles, the pain, if favour of airbrushing the past as a rose coloured reaction to the present. In this introduction to Intermission Hopper speaks of gaps in memories and suggests that there’s as much richness, life and noise living in the gaps as the memories.
It’s a provocative and quite meta conception to begin a collection of tunes from a label that is renowned for its uncanny obsession with creating a yearning kind of nostalgia for a past that was never quite there. Even the title is interesting, because if ever the world needed Intermission its right now.
So who better to shepherd through these troubled times, with an exotically escapist playfully nostalgic compilation of all new works from Ghost Box alumni and friends – with either a sneak peek of forthcoming releases or material recorded specifically for this compilation.
It would be remiss to not begin with possibly the greatest song that this writer has ever heard. The weird slightly demented tape experiments of Roj (Broadcast), who’s track The Animal Door possesses a woozy kind of cartoon Joe Meek dementia that pretty much defies everything that has come before it. It’s ridiculous and addictive and worth the price of admission alone.
As if their first album in 20 odd years wasn’t enough, Plone return with another jaunty new track , whilst Berlin’s ToiToiToi, delivers another two idiosyncratic sound collages that are as compelling and jaw dropping as his 2017 Ghost Box album Im Hag, where we wondered how all these disparate and playful elements made so much musical sense.
The Advisory Circle offer two pieces of what you’d swear was early 80’s earnest electronica (if such a thing existed at the time), and the results are effortlessly sweet and reverential. The ridiculously prolific Pye Corner Audio also pops up with two groove laden minimal retro futuristic dystopian jams.
With contributions of whimsical electronic sweetness from The Hardy Tree, Portuguese tropicalia exponents Beautify Junkyards, weird electronic cues from The Focus Group, and English folk singer Sharron Kraus, this is a pretty eclectic collection of tunes. Yet like everything on Ghost Box it all is infused with an often quite explicit link to the past. It feels equal parts escapist and reassuring – particularly at the moment. There’s a real joy in just submerging yourself in the nostalgic bliss. Who cares if its your nostalgia or not?
Bob Baker Fish
The pandemic parade of hastily assembled, but immensely rewarding, label comps continues with this bountiful batch from British imprint Ghost Box, a fine thing to haunt your household with.
They describe their roster as “artists exploring the misremembered musical history of a parallel world”, and their collective sensibility might be summed up as a vision of electro-pop fed by everything but pop music proper. Lines can be drawn, if you want, to library tracks for commercial licensing, mood music and self-help tapes, nature documentaries and archival audio files, sound installations in the loft district, even the auditory by-products of office tech – all as though the Top 40 never even existed. Ingredients are of course usually stewed in a thick, rich psychedelic sauce.
ToiToiToi’s “Die Dosis macht das Gift” validates the label’s name, popping the lid on a Pandora’s Box of noisy phantoms before resolving itself as a slice of schizophrenic exotica. Elsewhere, equally enjoyable are the clockwork synthwave of Pye Corner Audio’s “Photon Dust”, The Advisory Circle’s aspirational and/or motivational “Forward Motion”, and the vaporous dream-folk of Beautify Junkyards’ “A Garden by the Sea” and Sharron Kraus’ “Tell Me Why” (hope you like recorders). Justin Hopper’s spoken-word bits are fun, as are a pair of new tracks from the recently resurrected Plone, analog investigators in motion again after 20 years.