The Belbury Tales
Sleeve notes for Belbury Poly’s fifth album suggest the soundtrack to a travelling salesman’s adventures with an acid-spiked ploughman’s lunch, somewhere in early 1970s rural England. Belbury Poly play like dispirited 1960s psychedelic survivors, reluctantly meeting the demands of television in the subsequent decade, redeeming their banal compositions with snatches of haunting folk melodies, hairy funk basslines and experimental electronics. The overall effect is disorientating and brilliant, the past re-created in a nostalgic fug, stabs of sincerity slashing through superficial veils of irony. These tales are both satirical social critiques and lost-world laments.
The fourth full-length album from Jim Jupp’s past-haunted electronic eccentrics is a beautiful, eerie thing – a piped gateway to false memories of a time when the benevolent nation state commissioned young men to re-score English folk songs with government issue analogue synthesisers.
At the beginning of the fourth track on this fourth album from Belbury Poly, an erudite professor type proffers a few words that feel central to its core: “The geography of peace.” The sound of The Belbury Tales lies equidistant between those two poles, with the familiar smell of dusty old textbooks and public information films mixed in with a loose, quietly psychedelic feeling. This opening up of the Belbury Poly sound can partly be attributed to founder Jim Jupp welcoming in a couple of guest players on a number of tracks– Jim Musgrave on drums and Christopher Budd on bass and electric guitar. It feels like a strand picked up from the fissure Jupp sliced open on “Scarlet Ceremony” from 2006’s The Owl’s Map, where a faint sense of groove was breathed into the astringent Belbury Poly template.
It’s a similar action to the overhaul Stereolab took on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, bringing space and depth into their sound through the muted funk of “Metronomic Underground”. Here, it helps widen the scope of an act that felt like it was getting backed into a corner on From an Ancient Star in 2009, which was a pleasing but somewhat pro forma exercise in the kind of work we had come to expect from Belbury Poly. Many of the central tenets of the sound remain intact, with Jupp’s impressively fussy arrangements the foundation on which he hangs a series of loopy and fascinating musical notions. It’s often about finding an unusual sort of proximity in styles, such as the startling introduction of a child’s off-kilter vocal in the standout track “Green Grass Grows”, which floats like a spectral presence over analog synth runs that pay tribute to old 1970s station idents.
Naturally, that kind of feeling is something anyone acquainted with Jupp and Julian House’s Ghost Box label have come to expect. But most of The Belbury Tales falls shy of creating musical phantasms. Instead, shades of folk-tinged prog acts emerge, particularly those from the Canterbury scene that Jupp confessed to be a fan of in a recent FACT interview. But it’s a Belbury-ized interpretation of those works, delivered through a filter of antiquated synths, creepy 1970s horror features, and esoteric library music. The prog influence can be heard seeping through the cracks in “A Pilgrim’s Path”, which feels like it’s one or two chords away from toppling over into the excesses of that genre. But Jupp has a headmasterly way with his music, quickly reining in any signs of disobedience via carefully plotted structures and neatly clipped synth lines, which form like a plume of chalk dust rising from a blackboard eraser slammed hard on an old wooden desk.
That type of reserve Jupp utilizes in Belbury Poly aligns him with a number of English acts well versed in rock history but with a distinctly un-rock approach to the art, who sometimes work in pop or on the fringes of it. Bands that listen to mountains of old psych 7″‘s with yellowing sleeves then distill the feeling from them while shearing out all the fatty excess– the long hair, the flowing tie-dye ponchos, the hoary old guitar solos. Bands like Saint Etienne or House’s former collaborators in Broadcast. So on “Now Then”, the wildly distorted guitar passages come with a muzzle attached, pushed into the background over loops of the most un-rock instrument of all– the panpipes. “Chapel Perilous” and “Goat Foot” even threaten to boil over into solid rock grooves, only for Jupp to skillfully pull back by smothering them in great whirls of electronics and processed sound, comfortably anchoring it in Belbury land.
One of the crucial aspects of Belbury Poly is the notion of “building worlds,” as Jupp put it in a recent interview with the Wire. But there’s always something held back, something not clearly defined, making the listener do the work to fill in the gaps. The Belbury Tales is stranded somewhere between the abstract work of Jupp’s past and the fuller sound of the live instrumentation he is applying, making this feel like his most pleasingly open-ended release so far. There’s fantastic detail in the packaging, as we’ve come to expect from Ghost Box, with a short story from Electric Eden author Rob Young decorating the pages of the CD booklet. Even the variations in paper in that booklet– sleek and soft on the outside, coarse and craggy on the inside– feels like an aesthetic choice that was labored over for days. That’s the world of Belbury Poly, like a meticulous sketch of an old town plan that never got finished, leaving plenty of scope for its creator to pencil in the blanks.
The solo project of Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp, the ‘Poly has been responsible for some of the finest releases in the label’s catalogue, most notably 2004’s The Willows (which was named among FACT’s 100 best albums of the 2000s). The Belbury Tales is his fourth album to date, and the follow-up to 2009’s From An
Though its mood and aesthetic is very much in keeping with previous Belbury offerings, sonically speaking The Belbury Tales has a more live, organic feel than we’ve come to expect – the result not just of substantial contributions from Jim Musgrave (drums) and Christopher Budd (bass, electric guitar), but of Jupp himself playing guitar, zithers, melodic and ocarina as well as his usual analogue synths and keyboards. Voices too, presumably sampled, are deployed to suitably bewitching effect on ‘Green Grass Grows’, ‘My Hands’ and especially ‘The Geography’.
The library music of Basil Kirchin is an obvious reference point, as perhaps is the electronically-enhanced British jazz of Neil Ardley, and some of the more whimsical, folk-influenced prog records to have emerged from the mists Albion in days of old. The Belbury Tales is the kind of record you feel should have come out on Vertigo around ’73, but never actually did.
The cover art and design is, as with all Ghost Box releases, by Julian House, beautifully evoking the cover of a wyrd fiction paperback from the 1970s. Also included in the booklet is ‘The Journeyman’s Tale’, a piece of short fiction by Rob Young, whose 2010 non-fiction book Electric Eden convincingly positioned Ghost Box and its artists as part of Britain’s visionary folk continuum, and a short quote from the late Trish Keenan of Broadcast: “It seems to me that the past is always happening now. In the present we are always memory.”
We’ve not had long to digest The Belbury Tales, but it’s already safe to say that in terms of both music and concept it’s one of the most rewarding and fully realised projects in the Ghost Box catalogue and that’s high praise indeed.
Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen is probably best known for his short story, The Great God Pan. This eerie narrative of abysmal medical experimentation and occult visitations has the scribe relating a series of unnerving happenings taking place at the peripheries of mainstream Victorian society. It becomes apparent that dark forces are scheming, tampering with the lives of mortal men. It’s a typical Machen scenario and a subject taken up by writer Rob Young in the short story that accompanies this, the fourth full-length, from Belbury Poly aka Jim Jupp. The Journeyman’s Tale recounts a standard visit to a village watering hole that ends with the chief protagonist wallowing in the froth of Bacchanalian debauch. Here lies the strange quasi-mystical inter-zone where the veil partitioning the mystical from the everyday is lifted, with Jupp’s music providing a temporary gateway transporting us from one to the other.
For the first time Jupp has enlisted the help of other musicians: the addition of Jim Musgrave (drums) and Christopher Budd (bass and electric guitar) enabling arrangements – an amalgam of electronica, progressive rock and ethnological sounds – more complex than those previously featured on 2009’s astrologically-obsessed From an Ancient Star. These elements are employed during the odd enchantment of Cantalus, a miasma of spooked synth and black mass sighs which comes on like the Tomorrow’s World theme penetrated by an ancient Egyptian hex. This Eastern interference is also prevalent during Goat Foot where the heat-sodden rhythms of the souk are visited upon the rural idyll of the Suffolk coast. More Anglo-centric is Green Grass Grows, where a child’s voice delivers a pagan rhyme with a mixture of menace and wonder over the circuits of a misfiring ZX Spectrum. Imagine a combination of The Incredible String Band and Boards of Canada and you won’t be far off. Elsewhere, Chapel Perilous wigs out on a cosmic Can-like groove, launching cascades of backwards guitar chicanery and tumbling horror tones.
Like the majority of Ghost Box releases, The Belbury Tales is infused with a deep vein of paranoia, a palpable fear, an attempt to reconcile the imminent unknown (evoking a reimagined or never experienced past). But whereas previous albums have alluded to the grim spectre of the Cold War, this time around the spooks appear to be a little closer to home.
BBC Music Review
Jim Jupp is the founder of Ghost Box records, and as Belbury Poly sits on the poppier side of his label’s retro library music. Weird analogue synths? Rural symbolism? Artwork like a John Wyndham paperback? If you’re into all three then The Belbury Tales is Christmas; the label’s first full-length since their spree of double A-sides. Once again Jupp’s masquerading as the vicar of Belbury: an imaginary parish somewhere in the sticks where technology stopped with the first Speak & Spell. He’s back with a new sermon of soundtracks for cathedral audio tours; more queasily mid-Seventies than the second series of Catweazle.
This time, however, the formula’s been perfected. Shaking off the hauntology tag applied to label mate the Advisory Circle, the fourth Belbury album places sunshine over Satanism, with a fondness for BBC schools programmes that only insomniacs ever see. These have always been Jupp’s calling cards but this time production and melody have been quadrupled, real musicians adding muscle. ‘Now Then’ arranges Moog bass around descant recorder (and then that around the beat from ‘Teenage Dirtbag’), while the funky harpsichord of ‘Goat Foot’ deserves a blaxploitation movie of its own. Just when you thought the theme here was enjoyment ‘Green Grass Grows’ offers a shrill and spooky alphabet song, while ‘Earth Lights’ plays with groovy kaleidoscopes, creating a game show theme even UK Gold wouldn’t touch.
To protect against crossing into Austin Powers territory there’s still a thread of darkness on The Belbury Tales, with a few of the 13 tracks implying nights of bones, spirits and campfires. Like the Spinal Tap Stone Henge scene done seriously, Jupp combines prog rock and medieval mysteries, saluting every vicar who tripped balls in his study. ‘Unheimlich’ (literally, ‘unwelcoming’) is like Midsomer Murders gone beserk – forget about the thud of witch house; this is the real deal, the one Hansel and Gretel had to escape from. He hits bullseye on ‘The Geography’ with Chris Budd’s eerie guitar, and again on ‘Unforgotten Town’ where he samples BBC Acorn game The Flowers of Crystal [no he doesn’t… GB]. The narrator’s voice here sounds like a resurrected Vivian Stanshall. There’s a Rob Young horror story in the liner notes.
It’s this level of detail that’ll make The Belbury Tales the gateway record into Jupp’s world. Uneven and addictive, it does Ghost Box proud – a record label whose quality control is usually strict enough to convince you they’re a front company for Volvo. Jupp’s parting shot, the delicious ‘Summer Round’, might just be Belbury Poly’s finest moment to date: filled with half-remembered incidental music, schoolchildren and bees, it’s like watching Vangelis sneak downstairs for milk. After 39 minutes, Jupp completes his puzzle and aligns his new-found oomph and his old mysteries. Nostalgia doesn’t often feel as good as this. Prepare to feel both spooked and studious.
Drowned in Sound