It’s 21 years since Plone – then a three-piece – released For Beginner Piano, an album infused by the spirit and wonder of the Radiophonic Workshop. Since then, Silence. Mike ‘Billy’ Bainbridge and Michael Johnston’s reappearance on Ghost Box seems apt. The vanguard of a sound dubbed ‘hauntology’, the label is home to a collection of electronic artists, like Pye Corner Audio and The Focus Group, creating music of a peculiarly British wistfulness, often inspired by library music and public information films. In many ways, Plone were progenitors. Puzzlewood, like its predecessor, plays tricks with your amygdala. Watson’s Telescope sounds like the theme to a long-lost kids’ TV show, blasts of synth brass punctuating a rhythm bouncing like a bus ride through sun-dappled dales. Harnessing rave pianos and an overload of melodies, Chalk Stream passes by in peak flow. Sweet Factory delivers a saccharine hit in arcade game soundtrack form. A charming jumble of melancholia and youthful exuberance.
Joyousness abounds! The return of these Birmingham-based godfathers of retrofuturist fun is cause for celebration itself, and the album is overflowing with grin-inducing melodies. With motes of dust dancing around the BBC’s test card girl and her grinning clown, ‘Puzzlewood’ is infused with the brio of vintage library music. The title track itself would have been the ideal musical prelude to “programmes for our younger viewers”, and ‘Miniature Magic’ sounds for all the world like Roger Limb or Paddy Kingsland hearing Bob Marley and giving it a go themselves.There is the odd reflective moment. ‘Red Kite’ Is clearly the wistful theme from some forgotten Children’s Film Foundation tearjerker, and ‘The Model Village’ is the melancholy last day of every seaside holiday from your childhood. But, 21 years on from debut album ‘For Beginner Piano’, Billy Bainbridge and Mike Johnston seem to have found a spiritual home at Ghost Box, and Julian House’s sweetshop inspired packaging is the perfect wrapper for this fabulous confection.
Who says all hauntings necessarily have to be sinister?
In the 1990s, Plone were part of a left-field Birmingham scene alongside Pram and Broadcast, recording a promising debut album for Warp, and a second that went mysteriously unreleased. This, for the home of “Hauntology”, isn’t that, but it does retain Billy Bainbridge and Michael Johnston’s unique talent for blending rinky-dink tunes (say “Sarcelle”, which skirts close to novelty pop) with a more thoughtful and melancholic edge. “Red Kite” and “Circler” here duly bring pleasant reminders of early Boards Of Canada and I Care Because You Do, but ultimately it’s the pair’s odd tone (all present here: reggae, dialogue samples, electropop) which feels most unique — risky in its willingness to be uncool.
Few musical acts are as joyous and endearing as Plone. I first discovered them via their debut album, 1999’s For Beginner Piano, back when I had just discovered the Warp catalogue and was furiously buying up everything I could find on the label thanks to the forward thinking redefinition of what music could be via Squarepusher and Aphex Twin et al. Plone always felt like an outlier to the rest of the catalogue, Autechre were too austere, Boards of Canada were too much into their own trip, Plaid were similarly fun loving, but Plone felt more innocent – almost childlike. There was something beautifully earnest in their music, something ridiculously bouncy and positively unencumbered by adult life.
So here they are some 20 years later and you’d have to expect that they’ve grown up now, developed medical conditions, accumulated divorces, struggled through financial issues and addictions, except well, no. This is a follow up to For Beginner Piano and its very much as wide eyed optimistic and joyous as its predecessor. Surprisingly the intervening years haven’t slowed them down at all, they’re as bright eyed as they’ve ever been, which is a good thing because if there’s anything we need right now its optimism.
It was apparently partly recorded at the time and again more recently as band members splintered off into various directions, and the three piece became a duo.
This music is the opposite of cynical; sweet electronic constructions that at one moment sound like soundtracks to educational films for children, Ennio Morricone at his most melancholic, or club music for pre-schoolers. While it feels very much like For Beginner Piano, there’s also a broadening of their scope, and a real (potentially red cordial infused) desire to progress the songs into new directions. This is Plone’s genius, they can create these beautiful earnest heartfelt sounds, but there’s so much more underlying their approach. Songs repeatedly move and evolve in novel and increasingly quirky ways. You get the sense that returning to this project has provided them with the opportunity to be playful and fun loving, to tap back into their inner child. I know it has for me.
Bob Baker Fish
Retro-futurists Plone return after two decades with Puzzlewood, a magical mechanical mystery record that couldn’t be more at home on Ghost Box
With Puzzlewood, Ghost Box invite eager listeners to climb into that great glass elevator and take a trip with cosmonauts of inner space Plone. Embark upon a joyous journey into electronic psychedelia that is as slyly addictive as e-numbers and as delightfully nourishing as chewing three course dinner gum. The manner in which Puzzlewood was created is itself no small marvel, for Billy Bainbridge and Mike Johnston pulled together recordings made across the past twenty or so years. The final product might therefore be expected to be rather disjointed and strained, but this is a cohesive work of art that remains light on its feet throughout.
Plone might be new to Ghost Box, but it isn’t as if they have just been bussed into the town of Belbury with no prior connections to the non-place. An afternoon spent studying faded micro-film records in the Belbury public library reveals new town planning that references the work of the Birmingham retro-futurists. It must therefore be considered that Plone were an influence all along. That they can so easily be slotted into the quotidian otherworld of the Ghost Box label is in no small part due to their “lost” second album. Puzzlewood is officially viewed as their third LP, yet a follow-up to their debut For Beginner Piano (Warp, 1999) never emerged, despite rumours surrounding bootlegged demos in the early 2000s. Like a street that ominously skips a house number, perhaps that second album can only be heard by employing the aural equivalent of looking where you never want to look, behind you out the corner of your eye.
“Years and Elements” sets the mood with breezy, primary coloured electronica that drifts and squelches. Hints of a fourth world and a droplet of darkness dispensed on the way out show that there is more at play than the lovely immediate. Indeed, the addition of a horn on “Miniature Magic” has Plone dabbling in lounge music whilst crafting a lopsided children’s television theme from a bygone era. If Boards of Canada filtered their sort-of-nostalgia through a gauze – like listening to the past down a tunnel – then Plone have excavated that feeling of now from then and presented it on the surface in the present. The title track is an eerily jaunty head nodder and floor throbber; think the odder realms of Warp and Mo’ Wax as conducted by a dark mage Geoffrey from Rainbow. “Day Trip” takes things in a different direction as it closes the side. A neon dream disco cut that shimmers and glows, like Patrick Cowley collaborating with Jon Brooks across space-time and captured in amber.
Plone plunge into side two with “Just a Shadow”. It is nothing less than Grange Hill reconfigured as a show about adepts of Cthulhu navigating their teenage years, with multiple scenes of ancient, rotting texts being read behind bike sheds. “Sunvale Run” extracts the sugary goodness from novelty hardcore such as “Sesame’s Treat” and calmly delivers miniature toytown almost-rave as a result. Weirdly, listening to this doesn’t feel as if you have been guzzling sweets like Augustus Gloop. The more plaintive aspects of the album are given space to breathe on “The Model Village”, which would make a fine bedfellow with the pastoral electronics of Vic Mars’s Clay Pipe Music output. “Circler” gets gentler and more fragile, the shifting currents of a stream reflected in at least the suggestion of keys and strings, momentarily recalling Erland Cooper’s musings on Scottish waters. There’s a feeling that this aching beauty runs through the core of Puzzlewood, but is only exposed in moments. Nor is this less-than-a-theory contradicted by the trilogy of giddily bleeping ZX Spectrum platform game soundtracks that close the record. The Ebeneezer Goode old egg Dizzy of “Chalk Stream”, Charlie Bucket meets Pacman of “Sarcelle” and the quest completed skip off into the pixelated dawn of “Sweet Factory”. These are music box pleasure machines that put a smile on the face and manage to cut deeper on repeat listens.
Plone have crafted a series of memorable delights that positively crackle with imagination. For Puzzlewood is a mood lifter and head scratcher, offering inventive electronics to intrigue, excite and unburden.