The Owl’s Map
While it seems like everyone’s soundtracking an imaginary world these days, in 2006 Jim Jupp’s recycled 60s and 70s kid’s TV themes, long-forgotten library jingles and British folk sounds that accompanied a sonic walkabout of a strange and wonderful fictional village, Belbury, was pioneering stuff. This, a vinyl re-issue of Belbury Poly’s second LP, found him composing melodies on an array of vintage analogue synths, adding hand percussion, melodica, psaltery, bells, bongos and samples to illustrate 12 stops on his magickal mystery tour. Disembodied laughter, intrusively chirpy Minimoog and shimmering sci-fi FX lead you from ‘Rattler’s Hey’ to ‘The People’ and ‘Lord Belbury’s Folly’. Memories stir as the InterCity 125 leaves ‘The New Mobility’ and we push aside the tangle of vines to reveal the Penda’s Fen-like ‘Pan’s Garden’. It’s not only chilling stuff, by day or night, but it’s a now-seminal idea that’s encouraged a new wave of folk horror dystopians from Scarfolk to Ben Wheatley to emerge.
(on the 2017 LP re-issue of Owl’s Map)
Take a springtime stroll through the streets of Belbury. This provincial English town, created by C.S. Lewis in his allegorical novel That Hideous Strength, is also the imaginary home of the electronic eccentrics Belbury Poly. There are Tudor buildings next to modernist municipalities; spots of Arcadian reverie and pleasant public gardens with fountains and statues of nymphs; and on the outskirts, green fields, unexplained crop circles, haunted woodlands and ancient stone monoliths dedicated to pagan deities. Listen to Belbury Poly’s most recent album, The Owl’s Map, and you’ll find all of this invoked by some of the most delightful electronica to arise in Britain since Aphex Twin, the Black Dog and Global Communications in the early 1990s.
The Sunday Times
If Ghost Box are the torch bearers for the hauntology “zeitgeist”, as Simon Reynolds suggests in The Wire 273, then label cofounder Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly is the psychogeographer amongst his cohort. On The Owl’s Map Jupp aims for nothing less than the (re)creation of previously unknown topography. The album’s liner notes detail a tourist guide to the fake town of Belbury, and the songs leap from jaunty radio stings to clamarous drone rock vamps and on into yet more uncertain territory, willing the village into being via audiovisual means.
By accessing the disquiet of Britain’s other hidden reverse, Ghost Box trace an after-effect of the realtionship between high modernism and populist thought that was endemic to British culture between the 1950s and 1970s. This makes it easy to trace key influences: you can hear the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Basil Kirchin, The Wicker Man soundtrack and so on. But I can also hear, in the jaunty TV ident music of Owls and Flowers and Your Way Today, shadows of The Human League’s Dignity of Labour of Thomas Leer’s Tight As A Drum, and the charmingly gauche post Cluster solo recordings of Roedelius. Indeed, the chintzy toytown quality and simple melodies of German electronics post-Krautrock shines through good portions of The Owl’s Map: music made after the experiment, somehow “settled” or content and yet shot through with disturbances drawn from creative impulses stored away in history’s files.
Nearly every American born within the past 40 years has had the realization that Ernie and Bert, the felt-faced cohabitants of Sesame Street, were probably gay. As kids, we didn’t know and couldn’t have cared; if we were going to learn division, having a jigging puppet to teach us was a cupful of sugar. Post-puberty, these facts start to rise up as hallucinations. I was counseled on the values of friendship by a massive canary and never thought twice. The subtle strangeness of public television and instructional film isn’t limited to children’s shows; I’ve spent nights literally, eight hours slowly drooling in front of BBC documentaries like The Life of Birds or Jacques Cousteau episodes on VHS. What shrub will odd little David Attenborough pop out from next? What seemingly fanciful journey will Jacques and his crew conduct fathoms below the surface of the ocean today? And, of course, what will soundtrack it?
The British label Ghost Box would very much like to weird you out to the rhythms of these half-remembrances; to say yes, some of the most otherworldly records you will ever hear were commissioned by a bureaucrat at a national arts council;yes, sometimes mood music can also be head music; yes, Satanists wear tweed. In cobbling together the neutered, institutional sounds of commercial public broadcasting with twists of folk arcana, ambient, and streaks of the occult, the four artists on Ghost Box have managed to make a new strain of psychedelia instead of your intellect or perception, they want to trash your cultural memory.
Jim Jupp’s previous album as the Belbury Poly, The Willows, was a deep dive into pastoral muzak that suggested Boards of Canada free from their distancing, pre-fab sonic decay the thing that made them safe and cool in the first place. Chintzy synths spilled into zither and melodica lines; recalibrated samples of hundred-year-old vocals were trapped like an EVP reading of an old English cottage. A little night music.
The Owl’s Map is significantly more diverse than The Willows. And while much of Ghost Box’s project rests on the stylistic reanimation of Old, Weird referents, some of the material towards the end of the album particularly the kitschy regalia of Lord Belbury’s Folly, the Broadcast vamp of Scarlet Ceremony, and the vocoder jingle of Your Way Today loll like good exercises rather than the dark, nuanced music Jupp is capable of.
But the album’s variety turns out to be its strongest suit. Itty-bitty Ghost Box has accidentally squeezed out its first compilation. The tense webs of The Willows reappear in The Moonlawn, the thrilling sample Ouija of the Focus Group haunts Pan’s Garden, the dark ambiences of Eric Zann get balled up into gorgeous Enoisms on The People, and the Advisory Circle’s fanfares for brave new worlds of progress first nicked from Yellow Magic Orchestra herald The New Mobility. And Jupp, to the best of his ability, makes these things his own.
Belbury Poly’s music, while ripe with anodyne melodies and soft-toothed waveforms, is unsettling. What unsettles, of course, isn’t just the thought that all the snoozer science reels called to memory were actually much more quietly batshit and fascinating than I’d ever realized as a kid. It’s the possibility that my memory has distorted it even further, that my reaction to Jupp’s music is itself queasy, misfired nostalgia. Heaven only knows how I’d squirm in Big Bird’s arms today.