The Belbury Circle
Future-Facing Retroists More Than Get By With a Little Help From Our Friends
From the Ghost Box myth factory comes the second release from The Belbury Circle, another featuring John Foxx, whose own electronic psychedelic tendencies mesh rather neatly with the Ghost Box world of wonky Brit dystopadelia. It’s a world rooted in childhood days off school in the 1970s, dosed up on medicines, vaguely hallucinating through BBC’s daytime TV for schools with their abstract Radiophonic theme tunes.
There are two Foxx collaborations here, ‘Forgotten Town’, an anxious, twitchy four minutes of swirling synthetic strings punctured by jumpy synths which showcases a classic Ultravox-style synth solo as it plays out. The other is ‘Trees’, a spacious and melancholy interlude that seems to be a rumination on perception, or lack of it. They both bear Foxx’s unmistakable stamp, elegiac electronic torch songs that act as steadying walls to lean against when the rest of the album’s psychic engineering makes you a little dizzy.
Guilty parties here are ‘Cloudburst Five’, its carefully chosen sounds feeling like they have been unearthed in some kind of sonic archeological process, scraped out of a long-forgotten TV theme. Similarly, the upbeat ‘Transports’, takes the squelching synth and propulsive drive of library music churned out with synths in the late 1970s and polishes it, making a virtue of what was once its terminal unlistenable naffness, while ‘Light Industry’ uses Vangelis/’Blade Runner’ fanfares to communicate its imagined corporate mission.
Ghost Box is famously the home of hauntology, a genre named by the writer Simon Reynolds. It’s all about the idea of the past haunting the present. It is, perhaps a peculiarly British experience that has the fug of a charity shop about it, where you inhale the lives of the owners of the endless boxes of weird vinyl albums, forgetting that, one day, your gear is more than likely going to end up here too.
Listening to ‘Outward Journeys’ is like living in the world as created on the cover of the first Black Sabbath album, in a dislocated state of 1970s medieval credulity. Perhaps, then, the soundtrack to post-Brexit Britain.
Like many other releases on the Ghost Box label, Outward Journeys imparts the niggling feeling that all is not well beneath the surface. However, the vocals of John Foxx transport this record to a different place; where the works of Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle (Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks respectively) often feel like a programme for schools on the subject of divining rods, tracks such as ‘Forgotten Town’ are closer to an episode of Top Of The Pops where Ultravox lured Bruno Brooks into a wicker effigy.
In a genre that they themselves have helped to create, develop and characterise, the sonic terrain is now very much post-Box. The art of nostalgia is not what it used to be – it has grown older. The Belbury Circle, then, have posited their own furthering of this aesthetic. Instead of childhoods half-remembered, this is an ’80s teenage memory half forgotten.
The Belbury Circle Outward Journeys Ghost Box CD/DL/LP The cold, holographic vocals of former Ultravox frontman John Foxx feature on this latest from the Ghost Box label, a shimmering synthetic odyssey through 1980s video arcades and glowing Tron grids. The icy keyboards and tinny machine beats of John Carpenter and Harold Faltermeyer echo through these nine tracks, two of which (“Forgotten Town” and “Trees”) have Foxx chiming in with his distinctive robotic langour. The sounds on offer are cosmically aligned with the throwback synth pop of Minnesota’s John Maus, channelling as they do the questing vibes of an intergalactic exploration, or bringing a more earwormy and less anxiety inducing take on Faltermeyer’s theme to the late 80s Schwarzenegger vehicle The Running Man.
Outward Journeys is the first full-length release from the double act of Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle) and Jim Jupp (Belbury Poly) who combine to become The Belbury Circle, and follows up their 2013 debut EP Empty Avenues, to which John Foxx also contributed. Compared to previous Ghost Box releases Outward Journeys feels almost pop-orientated, moving away from Brooks and Jupp’s previous weirdo faux-library ditties and nostalgic, haunted oddities.
That said, the nods to forward looking 70s and 80s sci-fi TV shows gone by are still in evidence, along with sparkles of celestial kosmische and driving beats on tracks “Cloudburst Five” and “Transports”. The album concludes on a euphoric note with the pulsing last track “Heading Home” – a slow build of astral keyboards, tough beats and bouncy computer melodies, as if colouring in a soaring, bleeping, imaginary inflight mixtape for the curved silver spaceship gliding through the skies in 80s adventure film Flight Of The Navigator.
The decade-plus long journeys through the hinterland of British library music that have been undertaken by the Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly have already been responsible for some of the most exhilarating, and adventurous, electronic music of recent years.
It stands to reason, then, that when the pair combined as one, the results would be spectacular… although Outward Journeys, their first album-length collaboration, goes beyond even that.
The overall mood is not too far removed from the kind of airs and atmospheres that Tangerine Dream conjured at their mid-seventies peak, but there’s an air of playfulness at work here as well. It’s a scenario that is only amplified when John Foxx climbs aboard as well, to add vocals to a couple of tracks (the buoyant “Forgotten Town,” the somber “Trees”), but it’s contagious – “Cloudburst Five” and “Transports” are both gloriously danceable; “Cafe Kaput” is agitated retro fed through backward sounding melodies; “Heading Home” is the so-accurately titled closer, Jean Michel Jarre riding the Trans-Europe Express.
The Ghost Box catalog is already renowned among that handful of distinctly targeted labels whose output just gets better and better. By its own standards, then, Outward Journeys is less a giant leap forward than a logical progression. In the outside world of electro rock/pop (or even, given Foxx’s involvement, rockwrok), however, this album demands more than the applause of the connoisseurs.
A collaboration between Jon Brooks of The Advisory Circle fame and Jim Jupp from Belbury Poly, the debut album from The Belbury Circle is a record full of warm synth tones and a light wistful air. With stunning packaging designed by Julian House, Outward Journeys is a nostalgic trip into the 1970s/80s, a time when synthesisers seemed exciting and new. Opener, No Cat’s Eyes is a tender, soundtrack inspired slice of melancholy. Recalling the pensive ambiance of the Stranger Things soundtrack, the introduction of shuffling beats towards the end injects a welcome sense of momentum into the song. Next up, Forgotten Town is the first of two tracks to feature the highly influential John Foxx on vocal duties. Deadpan lyrics and electronic flourishes ensure that those with a penchant for new wave pop will go a little misty eyed. Other gems include the motorik groove of Cloudburst Five, the wide eyed wonder and soft bass clanks of Transports, the tender ambience of Cafe Kaput, and the electronic romanticism of Departures Int. The entire album is a thing of sonic beauty, making the purchase of Outward Journeys a must.
With the zeitgeist in full swing and America and the world at large back in the throes of their favorite horror-synth duo and the TV show they rode in on, it’s good to remember that the sound underwent a ton of iterations before this point. It’s also enjoyed a few revivals in the last few years, with high water marks from Outer Space, Emeralds, OPN and Pye Corner Audio picking up the Goblin/John Carpenter reigns well before Dixon and Stein found their calling. Add to that list The Belbury Circle, the duo of Ghost Box honcho Jim Jupp and The Advisory Circle’s Jon Brooks. The pair have followed up an excellent synth-mining EP (that featured the legendary John Foxx) with an equally adept full-length. The duo proves that there’s still more inspiration left in the well and show the youths how to make the most of your influences.
Both have explored moments of uneasy nostalgia in the past, though their mainstays, The Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, spend a lot more time in the hypnogogic light-end of the spectrum than the anxious depths they plumb here. Outward Journeys is taken from the school of synth that populated Italian Library issues, crafting sweeping scores that aren’t just rooted in the nail-bitten horror end of the spectrum. Instead they manage a bittersweet ache that’s punching holes in nostalgia’s preciousness. Both halves credit television scores as the impetus to pick up synths in the first place and the album is a clear love letter to their memories of an evolving medium.
Then there’s the kicker – two more collaborations here with synth legend and Ultravoxx frontman John Foxx. The one-off collab from the EP seemed like a stroke of luck, an impossible scenario that wouldn’t be repeated. He returns, however, to hand down lessons in how to get the most out of synth-pop’s brooding atmospheres. In just two turns at the mic, Foxx outpaces the whole lot of synth-pop imitators hoping to grasp at the thread of ’80s pop permanence. The record’s soundtrack feel, prime guest spot and packaging tie-in (Julian House design as always with Ghost Box) make this one a key 2017 release and a reminder that there’s no need to settle for average synth.
Raven Sings the Blues
Superior 80s-style retro futurism from Ghost Box linchpins; John Foxx guests.
The Belbury Circle are two of Ghost Box’s key artists: Belbury Poly’s Jim Jupp and The Advisory Circle’s Jon Brooks. While Ghost Box have built their reputation on curating an uncanny version of the pre-modern 1970s, perky proto-electronica with a hint of existential horror, Outward Journeys takes its inspiration from the synth-pop and rock of the early 80s. It’s wonderfully accessible, full of haunted dancefloor fillers and windswept digital ballads, but retains the melancholy longing for a vision of the future that’s a dream of the past. ‘No Cat’s Eyes’ sets the tone, a warm bass pulse and snapping machine snare against a menacing synthetic backdrop, the sound of sodium-lit acceleration on suburban ring roads. Forgotten Town, featuring a luminous vocal from John Foxx, ramps up the alienation, the line “Someday they’ll say they’re not forgotten now” both threatening and regretful. ‘Transports’ is a particularly groovy stretch of Ceefax, and ‘Café Kaput’ is the lilting sound of zeroes and ones at play. There’s also fun to be had spotting references: ‘Trees’ is Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy on Mogadon; ‘Departures Int.’ channels the exquisite sadness of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’.
There is nothing strictly “weird England” in the new long player by Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks, but this time both nostalgia and the past have a decisive part. The imaginary element is not so much disturbing, but very evocative of synth pop and 80’s library music; in the background – suggested by the cover of Julian House – is computer science that entered the collective imagination and homes of all. As in the co-operative EP of 2013, Empty Avenues, the duo is accompanied on a couple of tracks, by John Foxx, very much at home here on tracks dominated by analog synths and synthetic rhythms. As for its appeal to those less attracted to eighties sensibilities? Well, there’s the duo’s knack for instant melodies and their undeniable talent of submitting their machines to the oxidizing power of melancholy.
Non c’è nulla di strettamente weird England nel primo album in lungo del circolo, ovvero Jini Jupp e Jon Brooks, ma anche questa volta la nostalgia e il passato hanno una parte decisiva. L’immaginario è quello meno perturbante, ma a conti Tatti non meno suggestivo, del synth pop e della library music anni 80; sullo sfondo — la copertina di Julian House — l’informatica che entra nell’immaginario collettivo e nelle case di tutti. Come nell’EP cointestato del 2013, Empty Avenues, complice del duo in un paio di brani è John Foxx, topo nel formaggio in una scaletta dove dominano synth analogici e ritmi sintetici. Punti di forza, per i meno sensibili all’appeal eighties? Il gusto dei due per le melodie immediate, e un innegabile talento nel sottomettere le macchine al potere ossidante della malinconia.
Alessandro Besselva Averame