Sketches and Spells
The Focus Group
(2011 Vinyl Re-issues)
In conversation with RC in September last year, Ghost Box masterminds Jim Jupp and Julian House recalled founding their imprint in 2003 on a basis of shared fascinations: horror stories, strange old TV programmes, vintage electronics, psych, folk, krautrock and library music. A wide berth indeed but, in their hands, a collection of esoterica which has, in the years since, seen the pair work up a perfect symbiosis of audio and visual collage with an unerring knack for melody. They’ve created a parallel world where the Radiophonic Workshop was as big as The Beatles and the sense of the supernatural was a more imminent influence in everyday life.
Particular to the western world and the UK in general is how death, and its acceptance as a part of life, is seen as something of a taboo. Jupp and House explore this, and the raw nerves of earliest memories, to tap into the nostalgia glands and provide alternate soundtracks to childhood: where your fondest memories get a little bent out of shape in the recollection. Song-by-song, and often within the tracks themselves, Julian House’s The Focus Group juxtapose the comforting and the anxiety-inducing, creating constant slippage. Perhaps it’s no accident that House gave his outfit such a name: Sketches And Spells‘ 25 short tracks offer ample choice for your preferred incantation. “Open The Gate” begins like a John Baker waterdrop piece, before Wicker Man flutes and indecipherable mumblings loop and yawn into a clock’s toll; perhaps a reminder that our time is finite. Elsewhere, House’s creations sound like Aphex Twin at the helm of a Zoltar fortune teller, with jazzier respites nevertheless packed to the gills with tape loops and birdsong enough to ensure you’ll never watch Attenborough in the same way again.
Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly leads us out to The Willows, providing the soundtrack to a good crop-circling – were it performed by a school assembly fresh from a lecture on Sonic The Hedgehog’s Star Light Zone. “Caermaen” buries an infant chant under a chain gang clang before expanding into overlapping sonic sheens, while an underwater madrigal struggles to break through to the surface. It gives over to “A Thin Place”, where Vangelis meets Berlin-era Bowie out in a used future, increasing in pressure before the bouncy release of “Famer’s Angle”. This wild swinging from impending doom to relentlessly cheery library piece characterises The Willows as a whole, with whatever’s going on down at the roots running deeper than it may at first appear.
With these albums originally receiving a limited, homemade CD-R in 2004, the label’s first two long-players – now fully available on CD and vinyl provide a turning point for modern electronica: inventiveness pushing right up against the boundaries, made accessible through a door left ajar to memories mutated through sound manipulation.