Pye Corner Audio
Ghost Box’s ongoing collective hallucination reaches the haunted dancehall.
The sleevenotes to Martin Jenkins’ latest research document playfully refer to a state of ‘deja entendu’, but though much is composed of vintage electronic ingredients, its generic coordinates remain as unfixed as the ‘non places’ he aims to evoke in the melancholic, occasionally sinister silicon suite. “Into The Maze” and “The Mirror Ball Cracked” are techno composed of dust and drizzle, while “Nostalgia Pills” and “Chlorine” are woozy synth reveries. Like the kind of memory-sprites often evoked by Ghost Box releases, this is music that continually slips away from you even as you chase down its essence.
Pye Corner Audio’s latest [is] the marquee example of Ghost Box at their most distilled, their most essential: reaching beyond by reaching within.
In 1979 the Lancashire novelist Trevor Hoyle wrote the Man who Travelled On Motorways, a nightmarish sci-fi novel set in the service stations, fast-lanes and back-roads between Manchester and London, its main character weighted down by a vast “collective unconsciousness”, generated by the rhythmic monotony of the motorway itself. Hoyle’s novel now reads like an eerie Ur-text of the Ghost Box label aesthetic, where municipal buildings and road works are sites of temporal slippage. If Hoyle’s novel is ever made into a movie, this release from Jenkins’ sinister ‘audio transcription service’ would provide the perfect soundtrack. The opening tracks’ motoric rhythms – all Juno-G keyboards and Roland bass – suggest an M1 retread of Autobahn undone by the spectre of sleep, but later tracks like the howling Pennine drones of A Non-Place imply a final destination far from the hard shoulder; somewhere overgrown, primitive and ancient.
It was only a matter of time before Ghost Box Records and Pye Corner Audio got into bed together. Both have existed in the same universe for years – creating unsettling, out-of-date electronica – and now thanks to some manoeuvring by Martin Jenkins and label head Jim Jupp, they’ve come together on Sleep Games. Marrying the ambient weirdness of Pye Corner Audio with Ghost Box’s eerie school video skits, Sleep Games gives both sounds a dark, disco edge, resulting in a hybrid that feels like Johnny Jewel being allowed a seat at a séance.
In many ways, Sleep Games is everything fans of both the artist and label could have hoped for. Tracks alternate between the lurid, the psychedelic and the funky, and the bare-faced thefts from John Carpenter soundtracks. ‘Yesterday’s Entertainment’ focuses on cool, free-floating keyboards that sound like French house exiled into Belgium, while ‘The Black Mill Video Tape’ is thudding electronica built around a brass synth line that melts away into sirens. Referencing Ghost Box’s Cold War keyboards and Pye Corner Audio’s decayed pop, this album wants to keep you disturbed but in motion, and for every chiller – ‘Experimental Road Surface’, wind and screaming, a blizzard that changes chords – there’s funky, more inviting stuff like ‘Deep End’ or ‘Palais Spectres’, both of which could be an alternative Knight Rider intro.
On occasion the balance tips into double darkness, which is where Sleep Games will shed its casual listeners and retain only those who survived Jenkins’ Black Mill Tapes compilations. ‘Print Thought’ is a minute of solid static, while ‘Into the Maze’ is a keyboard program that decides midway to morph into Orbital Green-album techno. Both don’t seem to fit the possessed physics video theme that Jenkins is aiming for, but they can’t be faulted for their own power to unsettle. Neither can the icy wind of ‘A Non-Place’ or the popcorn tones of ‘Remanence’ – these give Sleep Games a hissing aura, copying the ‘my cat slept on this’ noise of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92.
Shapeless moments aside, Sleep Games emerges as a strong enough entry point in either Pye Corner Audio’s discography or the murky world of Ghost Box. The few middling tracks at its centre reveal an emotional final third, with ‘Chlorine’ sounding like a haunted house theme played on ice cream sirens, and ‘Nature Reclaims The Town’s sad synths crying out for Owen Ashworth to groan about girlfriends over them. Sleep Games’ crowning moment comes with the beautiful ‘Nostalgia Pills’, which could be the long-awaited high-five between Vangelis and Boards of Canada. A symphonic TV network ident played in shimmering fog, it rubber-stamps the album as a strange, inviting vision, and shows in two minutes how Ghost Box have got stronger with every release. It seems fitting that it’s taken Pye Corner Audio to realise their world fully and map it out with such care.
Drowned in Sound