The Focus Group
Another set of super surreal vignettes from Ghost Box big cheese Julian House.
We need more of this sort of thing.
More burbling and curdling. More under-the-spine tinglers. More back-of-the-knee tremblers. More dog ears and yellowing and baby spiders running for cover. More wrong way up and through the other side. More elsewhen. More attic room creaks and tippy-tapping in the middle of the black-as-your-hat, quiet-as-a-mouse dead-to-the-world nighty-night. More fuckthatwasodd. More tickled pink and malarkey. Yeah, definitely more malarkey. As much malarkey as you like. The more malarkey the better.
If you’re a fan of Julian House’s work as The Focus Group, most of that will make sense to you. And you’ll be happy to know that ‘Stop-Motion Happening’ is every bit as stimulating as ‘The Elektrik Karousel’, its 2013 predecessor. Don’t be misled by the spelling of ‘Groop’ on the front cover, by the way. That’s just Julian House messing with you. He does it because he can. He does it brilliantly too.
‘Stop-Motion Happening’ seems more bleepy and clattery and wind-up mechanical than ‘The Elektrik Karousel’. As before, though, most of what’s here are short vignettes. It’s not until the 13th track that we get anything longer than 90 seconds, at which point House chucks in the seven-minute ‘Medium In The Mirror’. At any given moment over the course of this album, you can expect to hear pretty melodies, bursts of snare, snatches of chattering voices, woodblocks, chimes, dainty steps, heavy vibes and backwards stuff. Plus all that malarkey.
But what’s important here isn’t the music, it’s what each piece triggers for you. So while I’ve got a bad circus experience (‘Arpington Main’), kissing Donna Upton (‘The Hazy Whom’), Butlins in Skegness in 1973 (‘The Gone Outside’), and the terrible state of my car (‘Kinodrome Koolaid’), what you’ll get depends entirely on you and your life. It’s dangerously clever when you think about it.
Anyway, as I was saying, we need more of this sort of thing. The problem is nobody, absolutely nobody, does this sort of thing other than Julian House. He really is on his own out there. And actually, now I do think about it, that’s probably just as well.
The title of The Focus Group’s latest album is a perfect description of sole member Julian House’s modus operandi. Using a by-the-eye method of cut and paste assemblage, he creates animated films for the ears in which everything is slightly misaligned, but follows a dream logic of its own. Akin to channel-hopping on a TV tuned between the ’50s and the ’70s, the effect could be disorientating, but soon becomes curiously immersive, mimicking in sound the rush of abstract images the mind produces as it enters the hypnagogic state before sleep. Over the course of 25 tracks we hear crazy fairground mechanicals, over-wound music boxes, heavenly voices and harp, a groovy beat that never resolves, spy movie cues and science doc electronics, the echoes of a psych-pop recording session trying to break through the walls of time… It’s the most intense hit of the Ghost Box aesthetic to date.
Nostalgia crossbreeds with psychedelia here to create a deeply wonky collection of mutant electronic fragments. It’s the work of Julian House, Ghost Box co-founder and graphic designer for his label plus the likes of Stereolab, Can and Broadcast. All of Ghost Box’s weirdo touchstones are touched on in Stop-Motion Happening: playful, demented samples; nightmarish flashbacks to 1970s TV horror and kids’ shows with their dark and nauseating theme tunes; warped radiophonics. Ghost Box’s aesthetic is distinct enough to get it a mention in a feature in June’s Fortean Times about “The Haunted Generation”, alongside mentions of other cratediggers and nostalgists, like obscure library music archivist Jonny Trunk and Scarfolk, Richard Littler’s website about a fictional English town, trapped in the 70s. Much like the documentary maker Adam Curtis, House takes inspiration from the Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium Is The Massage, and places a quote in the album’s press release: “Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness”. Just as McLuhan’s creepily prescient 60s text spoke about the vanishing of space, and the constant pouring in of new information in a “global village”, House fuses and blends a time-travelling blur of jaunty Wurlitzers and sci-fi terrors, as if those twisted horrors from decades past are seeping into now. Most of the samples are very fleeting; the bubbling and bleeping “Popperall” is 33 seconds long and could be background music from the cult 60s TV show Lost In Space while the heavily processed, echoey vocals on “Refractional” wobble as if they’re part of an LSD dream sequence in a trippy B-movie. House isn’t just cobbling together fun and fucked-up noises from our collective childhoods. He is also asking some strange questions about the present. The answers are at once sinister, baffling and entertaining.
Four years on from The Elektrik Karousel, Julian House opens the doors to its paradoxical universe again. This time more than the phantasmagorical overlaps and dissonant sonic ectoplasm, the structure of the songs seems to suggest a stronger sense of assemblage and matching. In some fragments (all part of a single hallucinatory flux, as usual) you perceive, if not exactly a closer approach to pop structures, something more decipherable. For example, Medium in the Mirror with its blurry Canterbury echoes mixed with hints of library music vocals and manipulated by a DJ Shadow reared on music concrète rather than hip hop. This does not lessen the perturbing nature of music that is pure mirage, destined to evaporate after listening.
A quattro anni da The Elektrik Karousel Julian House spalanca di nuovo le porte sul suo universo paradossale. Questa volta più che la sovrapposizione fantasmagorica e la dissorvenza di ectoplasmi sonori la struttura dei brani sembra suggerire una prevalenza del montaggio e dell’accostamento, e in alcuni frammenti (tutti parte di un unico fluire allucinatorio, as usual) si percepisce, se non proprio un avvicinamento a strutture pop, una maggiore decifrabilità (splendida in questo senso Medium in the Mirror con i suoi sfocati echi canterburiani misti a suggestioni vocali library e manipolati da un DJ Shadow cresciuto con la musica concreta al posto dell’hip hop), la quale non erode minimamente il carattere perturbante di una musica che è puro miraggio destinato a evaporare dopo l’ascolto .
Alessandro Besselva Averame
Quixotic musical collage from Ghost box co-founder.
Graphic designer Julian House’s art-work has graced sleeves by the likes of Broadcast, Oasis and Primal Scream. His music as The Focus Group — or Groop, as here — feels a lot like his design work: a collage of blurry textures and unusual sonic ephemera, chewed-up library music, snatches of percussion and snippets of speech. Atmospheric and apparently structureless, “Village Of Numbers” and “The Hazy Whom” are drifting Sgt. Pepper dreamscapes that long to be accompanied by the swirl of a liquid light show. For all their warm fuzziness, these gentle fantasias are strangely compelling.
It has been a fabulous few years for British label Ghost Box. Releases by Pye Corner Audio, Belbury Poly and The Pattern Forms have seen the imprint reach a creative peak few could predict. After ToiToiToi’s excellent Im Hag LP from May, they maintain their good form with the weird but welcoming strains of Stop-Motion Happening by The Focus Group. The alias of Ghost Box co-founder Julian House, The Focus Group make synth-heavy instrumentals, whose wistful air envelops the listener like a series of long, lazy hugs. Dreamy sounding yet unsettling at times, most of the tracks last less than two minutes, helping the record resemble a series of vivid, overlapping dreams. Vignettes such as Arpington Main, Hazy Time, Stage Craft And Screens and The Gone Outside have a bright, woozy air full of inspiration and charm. The seven minute long opus Medium In The Mirror almost acts as the album’s centrepiece, its string refrains and out of tune synths creating a wonderfully compelling fog of sound. Tired of the daily grind? Then allow yourself some time in Stop-Motion Happening’s strange, pastoral world.
UK’s The Focus Group mine British psychedelia, Italian horror movies and eastern European animation for inspiration, creating an exotic collage of sound that lingers in the past – reminiscences of memories that were never truly were. Despite three albums between 2004 and 2007, they came to wider prominence via 2009’s collaboration with Broadcast, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age (Warp), though have since continued to release some really fascinating collage music where exotic instrumentation, processed samples and fragments of electronics collide often within the same song.
It’s the work of Julian House, co founder and graphic designer of Ghost Box. Stop-Motion Happening With The Focus Groop continues his obsession with woozy fragments of eccentric aged audio memorabilia that could have come from anywhere in the last five decades. Most of his pieces are very short barely over a minute in length, which further adds to the belief that these are sound cues from an obscure slightly demented library record, with eccentric atmospheric musical pieces to be used for all manner of nefarious film, television or radiophonic purposes.
Despite the brevity of the majority of the pieces, House manages to pack in some pretty wacky, at times disparate ingredients. His ability craft these uneasy often quite experimental collages, yet very much evoke a distinct atmospheric world is fascinating. His pieces are almost like trailers for a retro futurist audio feature, somehow distinctively British, yet at the same time exotic acid tinged and slightly mad.
It’s mischievous music for sure. It’s restless, barely staying one spot for a second, a series of themes building an atmosphere before abruptly pulling up stumps and moving on to the next one. It’s peculiar and slightly demented, a cartoonish swirl of exotic grooves, stop start melodies and even odd spoken word.
Bob Baker Fish
Fascinated by sonics, by signals, by snatches; born out of a restless exploration of pasts and presents that can never resonate with you as much as they do with them… but which, when taken all together, add up to something just as valuable; this is the Focus Group (aka Ghost Box co-founder Julian House)’s fifth album, and a vivid smorgasbord it is.
Sounds are thrust towards you, then snatched peremptorily away; a phone rings, a voice repeats, a melody floats, a rhythm sinks. If “psychedelia” had never been co-opted by a bunch of long-hairs playing guitar for hours, while singing about Uncle Molly’s Platonic Washboard, it would be a fitting description – an evening with the Focus Group is at least loosely comparable to a night spent out of your body, while you watch a bunch of movies at five times their normal speed. Not many albums sound like a rapid blur of flickering light, but Focus Group have done it.
Even when you think they’ve relented, and “Kinodrome Koolaid” opens up with a riff, it’s only so it can disappear again, loop around a couple of times and then, after fifty seconds of such, turn into the next track – which might be a science show theme played backwards, but could as easily not.
What it never is is boring… uninteresting… uneventful. Most of the tracks are over in minutes, if not seconds (and the longer ones feel like short ones that have been softly folded together); start the disc and you won’t be leaving the room to let it play out alone, even when you’ve heard it a few times and think you know what to expect. There’s always something else around the bend, snatched and grabbed from a recess some place, and there’s a tone to the whole thing that keeps you seated; a restful calm, a gentle drift. Imagine falling asleep with pins-and-needles. You know you ought to move but, no. You’d rather find out what happens.
Julian House again picks up his mantle as The Focus Group, spreading Radiophonic frequencies out into the ionosphere with precision, ingenuity and a glint of madness in his eye. The crux of The Focus Group has always acted like a high pressure drill, tunneling through human consciousness and presenting the core sample of childhood fears and delights alongside the useless ephemera and practical static that gum up the works in the average human brain. There’s bits of pop magic stuck in the mix here, but its littered with the lint of noise and jumbled into an organization that would befit a Burroughs cut-up.
Still, despite the chaos, he manages to evoke the low wattage flicker of a bare bulb projecting animation through cellophane on the walls while you sleep. Stop-Motion Happening moves like dreams, drenched in half-remembered facts and saturated with colors almost too rich for human consumption. This is the magic and the terror that House evokes. He’s a mad scientist of memory, plowing past the surface scratches that the likes of The Books, Boards of Canada and his own collaborative muses, Broadcast, have made their bread and butter. His approach, fittingly, is more on the level of visual art than that of musician. The album feels like it might easily soundtrack a gallery and have a dozen or so accompanying pieces that fit all these sparking wires together.
That dreamlike quality also puts him in league with film Auteurs like Michel Gondry, another artist trying desperately to capture the moment between sleep and awake. House’s work evokes the disorientation of signals that get trapped inside our many heads. He’s filtering and processing the data but it’s hard to figure out what’s noise and what’s important. That conundrum, in fact, seems to be the root of modern anxiety. House has put his finger squarely on the flashpoint of modern madness – what goes, what stays, where to look next, who to believe in all this? He’s not offering a rubric, but he’s at least showing us that someone else is having as much trouble quashing the noise as we are.
Raven Sings the Blues