The Elektrik Karousel
The Focus Group
A carousel scene from a black and white movie has been at the edge of my mind as I listen to the new Focus Group album. At first I thought it was from Bunny Lake Is Missing, but then I realized there is no carousel scene in that film, in one of those slippages of televisual memory explored to such great effect by Ghost Box artists in recent years. No, it was Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train I was thinking of. There is a scene at a theme park where the two main characters duke it out among the wooden horses on a rapidly accelerating merry-go-round. One of them has shot the operator of the ride, so the whole thing is spinning wildly out of control. Meanwhile, a little boy is happily clinging to his horse, oblivious to the mayhem. He even gets in a few punches on the bad guy.
The demented fun that kid having is a lot like the fun of listening to The Elektrik Karousel. The imaginary carny ride we are taken through joyously and deliberately spins off its axis at times. With its off-piste rhythms and telescoped half melodies, this magpie music appears to fall apart and come together all at once, a quality Focus Group’s Julian House has described as being a key element of Ennio Morricone’s little-known free noise experiment Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. The other, more obscure scene coming to mind is from a Czech film called Romance pro krídlovku (or “Romance for Bugle”). In the frame narrative, a man remembers falling in love with the beautiful carousel girl in a traveling circus. As the frame dissolves and we enter into his teenage memory, we see a close-up of something spinning, something that initially looks like a twirling film reel but gradually reveals itself to be the decorated surfaces of the carousel itself. That connection between memory and merry-go-round, with the merry-go-round as a technological point of access to other times and places, also seems operative in The Elektrik Karousel. In the best Ghost Box tradition, it’s hard to locate not just where we are but when we are as we listen to these sounds. The vinyl record as magical or memory-evoking spinning object (here housed in a glorious gatefold sleeve doubling as pop-art board game) gives the title a further layer of meaning.
If I had to hazard a guess, though, it’s 60s Britain where we ultimately end up. The Focus Group’s clockwork bird melodies and hobbyhorse percussion aren’t the usual instruments of psychedelic music, but the spirit of a certain experimental, baroque psychedelia is alive in every one of these nearly 30 tunes. It is this musical tradition, rather than some engineered roster of “hauntological” artists, to which House and frequent collaborators Broadcast truly belong. For House “psych” isn’t fuzz and wah; it’s an inclination, a turn of phrase, the way the chords fit and don’t quite fit.
The Focus Group is Ghost Box co-proprietor and graphic designer Julian House, whose sleeves for acts including Oasis, Primal Scream and Stereolab will be familiar to RC readers, even if his name isn’t. On Elektrik Karousel, the first Focus Group album since 2009’s Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age, House develops the cut-up approach of his previous releases, which is itself a sonic equivalent of his visual work.
The result is a densely layered digital/analogue sound collage, with 29 mainly short tracks programmed into 45 minutes, each assembled from multiple audio fragments. Lurching edits send you spinning through harpsichord arpeggios from a 60s TV series you can’t quite remember, backwards voices, clanging bells, phased drums, tremolo guitars, flutes: at first listen Elektrik Karousel is a disorientating ride. But with repeated plays an internal logic emerges, apparent disconnects fixed into familiar but distorted shapes by fleeting melodies.
Stated influences include Czech animation, Italian Giallo and Lewis Caroll, alongside the now obligatory radiophonics. The end result is a simultaneously playful and unsettling electronic psychedelia that’s distinctly Ghost Box. and richly rewarding
Apparently at least one person cancelled their subscription to Shindig! after last issue’s coverage of Broadcast and the Ghost Box label proved too esoteric for their tastes. And if you’re similarly inclined, please look away now because The Elektrik Karousel by erstwhile Broadcast collaborator Julian House, under his Focus Group moniker, takes Broadcast’s experimental streak and pushes it to even more obtuse extremes. The Elektric Karousel consists of 29 mostly instrumental tracks (the shortest clocking in at just 16 seconds) of waltzing melancholia, phased psychedelia and baroque electronica. By turns haunting, hypnotic, beguiling and startling, it conjures up dim memories of nightmarish Eastern European cartoons melded to Delia Derbyshire’s experiments and the music box themes to old kids’ shows like Picture Box and The Magic Roundabout. It’s not always an easy listen but if you give yourself over to its ghostly rhythms, it’s a richly rewarding one.
Julian House, the man behind those beautifully retro Ghost Box sleeves, is back as The Focus Group with more broken melodies, distorted children’s TV programme themes, Cold War psychedelia and all-round English weirdness. Possibly the most fascinating artist on the hauntology label, House’s vignettes on The Elektrik Karousel don’t break the formula of his four previous LPs – bursts of jazz, creepy old Theremin – but he’s so good at it now fans know what to expect. Want to convince a friend you’ve just spiked them with four tabs of LSD? Lower the lights and discretely press play. They’ll be clucking by track three.
Despite its surface weirdness, The Elektrik Karousel is a lot of fun, built around psychedelic jingles and Man From U.N.C.L.E. interrogation music. ‘The Plastic Castle’ and its guitar-edged harpsichord sounds like Brian May sent back to medieval times, while ‘Chordfl’ combines brass telephones and cheery piano into a teatime detective theme. Vinyl skips and matinee movie strings play over everything, House’s air of a cosy past never faltering – and never quite playing ball either. Ideas keep restarting, giving us glimpses of a universe of bellbottom trousers, free love and authentic wooden toys. Carousel indeed.
But between the steam fair music and jazzy tailpieces, The Elektrik Karousel has a malicious side, and sits comfortably in the more challenging section of Ghost Box roster. House’s queasy production is not unlike Xela’s 2006 zombie ocean album The Dead Sea, mixing medieval static with nightmarish shanties. The jangling on ‘The Heavy Blessing’ sounds like someone deliberately opening and closing a cash till, while ‘Harmonium’ blends hissing snakes and gospel choirs into a ghastly new whole. These pieces are as erratic and interchangeable as the rest of the LP, shattering the idea that restlessnesss is next to cheeriness and making for some wonderfully dark surprises: the squealing organs on ‘Petroleum Paisley’, a triangle being tapped over a stalling choir on ‘The Magic Pendulum.’
House balances both of The Elektric Karousel’s personalities, and keeps his circus of ideas revolving so quickly that the record becomes a spellbinding whole. Its colourful moments match the highs of the Third Eye Foundation – eerie, string-pecked symphonic warbling – and the less memorable numbers have the failsafe of never lasting too long, leaving you wondering what The Focus Group will throw at you next. The odds are it’ll either be some reverberating glockenspiel or a whimsical harpsichord ditty, but it makes for a trippy LP; possibly Ghost Box’s most abstract record yet.
Drowned in Sound