The Gone Away
Hauntology big chief’s topsy-turvy fairy tales.
“When I say I’ve been recording music about fairies, after the inevitable silence there’s usually an awkward response somewhere between ridicule and revulsion,” admits Jim Jupp, Ghost Box co-founder and the shadowy rector of Belbury Poly. “I guess that’s because the tiny winged fairies from 19th century children’s stories have won out over the weirder and wilder versions from folklore.” So forget any preconceptions about Tinkerbell. Instead, look to more traditional tales of these malevolent woodland beings, abducting babies (‘The Gone Away’ indeed) and leaving changelings in their place. Such is the inspiration behind this haunting, immersive album that it feels like a nod to Ghost Box’s roots: where Jupp, working alone this time, is a channel for ancient, rustic strangeness, passed through the filter of some long-forgotten children’s TV series. Album opener ‘Root And Branch’ is the show’s eerie radiophonic theme tune, worthy of Paddy Kingsland at his most melodic, and the deceptively alluring ‘Magpie Lane’ would segue seamlessly into a commercial break for Texan bars and Tizer. Belbury Poly albums rarely give up their secrets easily. It’s been four years since 2016’s ‘New Ways Out’ toyed with the frothy, school holiday synths of Chicory Tip and The Rah Band, and only repeated listens uncovered the sickly unease lurking beneath. ‘The Gone Away’ can be equally deceptive. Much like the fairy folk themselves, its true nature is best glimpsed sideways on, lurking among the shadows. So the gently upbeat ‘Star Jelly’, with its tooting ocarina, surrenders to the chilling woodland dance of ‘Copse’, where a grumbling medieval crumhorn stands firm in an onslaught of swooshing electronica. Fallen twigs crack beneath advancing footsteps, and the message becomes clear — you are not safe here. In recent years, Ghost Box has admirably sought to expand its palette of influences, playing host to the psychedelic tropicalia of Beautify Junkyards, the woozy sound collages of Berlin’s ToiToiToi, and the transatlantic beat poetry of Justin Hopper. But Jupp has clearly not forgotten the scenario in which his heart first opened to the weird – that childhood chill of being left, alone, as darkness descends in the woods. For Ghost Box at least, that feeling has clearly never gone away.
Bucolic futurism and alternative nostalgia from Ghost Box supremo.
If Ghost Box’s aesthetic is based around the half-heard, half-remembered sounds and images of a childhood world where it’s always 1975 – a sinister Public Information Film on the television, a Pan Book Of Horror from the library -it’s appropriate that prog should creep in too. The sixth album from Belbury Poly – aka label co-founder Jim Jupp -embraces this idea on opening track Root and Branch, its monophonic synth lines underpinned by dreamy Mellotron and acoustic guitar. BP exists at the intersection where naïve melodies and novelty music from the past take on a more mysterious resonance in the present, and this is a beautiful, strangely moving example. Ffarisees and Sticks And Stones mine the hard electronic pulses of late 70s Tangerine Dream skewed into some uneasy shapes. It’s difficult not to imagine some of these tunes as themes to imaginary TV programmes: the title track’s slow weaving basket of light could he about a series of disappearances in the New Forest: Magpie Lane a whimsical waltz for a pre-school lunchtime show where toys come to life. A lovely album, both charming and oddly affecting.
No introduction needed for Jim Jupp – it only takes the name Belbury Poly for a whole realm of familiar sonic ectoplasms to be conjured in listeners’ heads. A confirmed champion of the eerie, Jupp makes The Gone Away a kosmische one-man show of rare charm: eeriness has rarely sounded this seductive. Sporting a devoted obsession with fairies, crossroads magic and all the vanishing things in between, this might be Belbury Poly’s most cohesively immersive work to date. It combines the magnifi cence of last year’s Chanctonbury Rings – Jupp’s collaboration with Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus – with the mesmeric fl ow of 2006’s The Owl’s Way. And while the prevalent ambience favours pensive, earthy hallucinations from an ancient future that never was (‘They Left On A Morning Like This’), the more effervescent side of Ghost Box is also wonderfully represented (‘Fol-de-rol’ wouldn’t feel out of place on the newest Plone record).
Ghost Box is a label that has become synonymous with a certain sound and aesthetic; when we think of acts such as The Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly or The Focus Group the tinted, 70’s hued sleeve art of in-house artist Julian House immediately springs to mind, as does an aural image of vintage electronica, snippets of unsettling 70’s and 80’s public information films and a spectral sheen reminiscent of such eerie children’s television shows as ‘Children of the Stones’ or ‘The Owl Service’. Not unlike a hauntological version of 4AD Records, Ghost Box releases are instantly recognisable and cohesive, as well as equally likely to appeal to fans of the different artists on the label. Yet there is much more to Ghost Box and its roster than this; each of the afore mentioned artists offer a quite radically different take on analogue electronics and the label’s discography also includes such variety as the lush Portuguese psychedelia of Beautify Junkyards, spoken word psychogeographical excursions with folk musician Sharron Kraus and author Justin Hopper and, more recently, a 7” single with mod stalwart Paul Weller.
Belbury Poly, Ghost Box’s ‘house band’ (and essentially Jim Jupp, the label’s co-founder and owner alongside Julian House) has also conducted its own ramblings around a number of different facets of electronic music, alternately revelling in space age Quatermass cosmiche (‘From An Ancient Star’), flirting with Wicker Man-like bucolic, synthesised folk (The ‘Owl’s Map’ and ‘The Willows’) and lurking amongst BBC Radiophonic style analogue horror (‘The Belbury Tales’). With new release, ‘The Gone Away’, there is a sense of a number of these strands coming together, which befits an album based upon fairy folklore and of unearthly things occasionally glimpsed out the corner of one’s eye that may just be travelling through…Jupp describes the appeal of the subject matter and its allure, remarking that ‘there’s a wealth of folk tales and even contemporary accounts of the subject, but unlike ghosts, aliens and half-baked new age spirituality, it’s usually only spoken of in the context of childhood or mental health issues. Look at it directly and it’s not there at all, but the stories persist.’ With their back catalogue already rich with folkloric and supernatural references and inspirations, Belbury Poly and the Fairy Folk make for an appropriate partnership.
The album begins with the Paddy Kingsland-style electronic harmonies of ‘Root and Branch’, pensive keyboards and strummed acoustic guitar recalling the gentle, doomsday electronics of the theme music to the apocalyptic children’s TV show ‘The Changes’. It’s at once hauntingly beautiful and disquieting, waves of strings washing over a plaintive and addictive reoccurring melody and motif. Belbury Poly are in their element here, their innate sense of nostalgia and hazy snapshots of memories half recalled is a perfect match for mirroring the half seen world of the Little Folk. ‘ffarisees’ opens with evocative sampled dialogue exclaiming ‘my eyes are doors, the moon walks through them’, framing the lunar lullaby that follows; disorientating electronic pulses, swoops of woodwind and shadowy percussion combining to conjure an element of genuine otherworldliness. The album’s haunting title track is next; flanged synths and delicate modular harmonies overlaid with voices that sound as if they are passing through a veil, half heard utterances from Fairyland. This is a darker Belbury Poly, a more twilight version, hinting at things hidden and unseen, with a melancholy beauty that softens the more ominous edges. ‘Fol-del-rol’ by turn is a jauntier, nursery rhyme of a track, its percussive electronics performing a whirling folk reel or jig, as jubilant notes ring out; a more earthy soundscape than its previous, enchanted and mysterious bedfellows. ‘Corner of the Eye’ returns us to the Arthur Machen-esque landscapes of sinister rolling hills and soft places where something ancient and other resides, the song’s chimes and harpsichord shimmering atop swells of synths and crooked , earthen melodies.
Belbury Poly are hugely adept at evoking a certain mood or sense with the most minimal of sounds (although these sounds are expertly layered, built and utilised) and here they provide a filmic soundtrack to another dimension or existence with apparent ease, with all the attendant uncanniness, magic, wonder and creeping edge. ‘Magpie Lane’ owns these attributes, and more. Whilst this could easily be found chronicling and providing the soundtrack to a dystopian 70’s TV show such as ‘Sky’ or ‘Survivors’, the track is also is a thing of beauty in its own right. A mournful motif runs through a fragile cobweb of clockwork percussion and choral electronics, evocative of yesteryear and of another age, but curiously prescient and vital today also, reminding us that the past is always here with us, informing our present.
‘Sticks and Stones’ takes us back into Paddy Kingsland/BBC Radiophonic territory again, its rubber band synths illustrating a universe where the edges have become stretched and moveable. Tense bass notes signal a finale of singing strings and synthetic pizzicato notes that reach a stirringly triumphant ending. ‘Look Again’ is a forest waltz filled with uncanny sounds and whirring beats , both graceful and off kilter, whilst ‘Star Jelly’s lolloping beat and keyboard brass takes us to a fairy hill via the unexpected sounds of early 90s’s bliss out ambience, as if in the company of Alex Patterson and The Orb. Penultimate track, ‘Copse’, is a perfectly pitched slice of electronic folk horror, woodwinds and crumhorn extolling a sense of dread and droll as synth blasts rattle between the trees. Akin to Delia Derbyshire soundtracking ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (which, upon writing this, sounds like the best thing ever), this creeping , stalking track paints a disturbing and bewitching picture of something moving around the woods; something decidedly not human. These are not the post Victorian ‘Disney’ fairies of movies or cartoons; these are ancient and unnerving creatures that one should be wary of. Finally ‘They Left On A Morning Like This’ is a gorgeously adorned and starry hymnal, a sense of hope creeping through on the glacial synth sweeps and glistening notes, not unlike catching sunlight bursting through the leaves of the trees. The sound of a motorway drops us back in the human world, back in our own more humdrum existence, and there is a real sense of having been on some kind of bewitchment or half remembered journey into something more super or preternatural, of having been enchanted, pixie led.
For Belbury Poly aficionados ‘The Gone Away’ will already be essential listening, for the uninitiated it is a perfect starting point; all of Belbury’s personalities and reference points are here, presented in these beautiful vignettes. Follow the willow the wisps, hear the distant music and be led on a journey that is at once frightening, spellbinding and addictive. You might not return.
Belbury Poly is audio nostalgia, a synthetic representation of a kind of feeling that you get when falsely remembering a bygone era (possibly English television the 1960’s) with a certain longing or warmth. You were probably never there, or if you were it was never like this, but that’s not what’s important. Belbury Poly creates another world, an alternate past, and it is simultaneously magical and reassuring.
It’s the work of Ghost Box founder Jim Jupp, who has previously enlisted others to augment his vision, yet this time he is all on his own. More recently he contributed to a pretty mystical and magikal spoken word album with Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus Chanctonbury Rings (you can read our review here). His new work is similarly magical, influence by fairy folklore.
“…the wild songs of fairyland sung to unearthly tones, are the only medicine for the heartache and the headache of humanity,” reads a quote in the inner panel of this disc. It comes from Arthur Machen in 1911, and it feels like an apt description of what is happening here.
As always Jupp is mining British educational films and library sounds, yet they always seemed so cold (and slightly horrific). He rescues them, imbuing the arpeggiated patterns and brisk no nonsense sequences with not only a mournful soul, but also a peculiar kind of pathos. There’s real emotion here. With an acoustic guitar and various synthesizers, Jupp creates a woozy electronic psychedelia, a jaunty melancholic wobble. At times it can sound reminiscent of recent Ghost Box signing Plone in the woozy synthetic sense of wonder inherent in his sounds, whilst there’s even a Morricone moment on the disturbed sweetness of Magpie Lane. There is range here too, light and dark, perhaps best evidenced by the menacing highly theatrical fairytale Copse that conjures up an evil medieval army on the march, which is seamlessly followed up by They Left on a Morning Like This that wouldn’t be out of place on an Air album.
Belbury Poly has always been obsessed with a peculiar kind of psychedelic English mysticism, so the concept of fairies doesn’t seem entirely out of character, particularly when you realise the kind of mischievousness and darkness in Welsh folklore. Track titles include ffariesees, sticks and stones, Look Again, and Corner of the Eye – which is where we all know we see fairies and other mystical delights from. After all if you look at them straight on they disappear.
“My eyes are doors,” offers a strangely weighted voice at the beginning of ffarisees, “the moon walks through them. ” The Gone Away is a portal too, it’s a place of wonder and imagination, where the magical can be real, and the laws of our universe no longer apply. To some extent most Ghost Box albums feel like their own special world, yet The Gone Away takes it one step further. It’s medicine, Jupp’s “wild songs of fairyland sung to unearthly tones, ” feel like a tonic for these crazy times.
Bob Baker Fish
Belbury Poly’s The Gone Away reopens the town of Belbury with a musical journey through the eeriest Ghost Box hinterlands
After months of news items relating to nothing but death and misery, I felt a renewed sense of hope when rumours surfaced that the bus service between here and there was operating once again. The prospect of a return trip to the town of Belbury was most welcome, particularly after suffering restrictions relating to “the unpleasantness” (as the Belbury Local Office of Information refers to current global events). That left the small matter of locating the co-ordinates of a bus stop in a thin place, but I had my ear to the ground, as it were, and so discovered a stop was due to appear in Avebury village three days hence – from there, unseen roads would lead back to Belbury. It would be, at the very least, good to get out of London. I already had the means to make the journey – the required fare a dull black stone seal I’d had in my possession for many years – so I packed my things and left without further ado. I must admit that I half-expected to find my fellow passengers wearing beak-shaped masks reminiscent of plague doctors, but the reality was actually more disconcerting, as I was in fact the only passenger. The bus driver remained hunched over the steering wheel for the entire journey, grunting and shrugging rather than speaking. Nonetheless, I felt myself drifting off pleasantly, lost in thought. Oh to return to Belbury! But I wondered whether the shops on the high street would be bustling with activity or boarded up? More importantly, would I still be able to get a pint and a ploughman’s from The Bury Bell? I considered these questions as the bus rolled along.
All is not well with the world of course and the terrible unseen also has Belbury in its inexorable grip. But as The Bury Bell jukebox comes to life with the latest album from Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly, it soon becomes clear that there is, more than ever, a need for otherworldly music. That it is called The Gone Away might suggest an absence, or at least a removal from the real, but the music rather feels like a journeying in. Jupp actually completed the record prior to lockdown, but like all great Ghost Box works it still manages to straddle the real and the unreal of then and now. The Gone Away marks a turn away from the project’s more jaunty progtronica side, which reached its purest expression in New Ways Out, and finds Belbury Poly lean further into eerie musical hinterlands. Significantly, Jupp plays everything on this record, rather than also utilising session musicians. 2011’s The Belbury Tales was my gateway narcotic into Ghost Box Records and in many ways provided a map that pointed simultaneously to the past and the future. The Gone Away may best be considered an essential part of a future-past trilogy alongside The Willows and The Owl’s Map, the very existence of which can be divined from within The Belbury Tales. Which is to suggest Jim Jupp as someone who exists in different time periods at the same time, rather than view him in the more prosaic role as time traveller.
Opening chapter “Root and Branch” sounds like an afternoon spent in Tolkien’s Old Forest, wandering down towards the Withywindle, its synths and pipes bringing to mind Tom Bombadil as some 1970s dystopian survivor. The sunlight doesn’t linger long though, as Belbury Poly’s fairy folklore intentions are made clear and insidious Machen-ations exposed on “ffarisees”. A woman enunciates words to the night at the track’s beginning (“My eyes are doors / The moon walks through them”) before lopsided electronics contract and expand, suggesting a dive into the infinite through the smallest of doorways. Parts of the title track are then sung from the deepest past, the sampler as photographic device breathing new life into a faded replica. The Gone Away might dial down the progtronica of its immediate predecessors, yet “Fol-de-rol” provides evidence that that avenue hasn’t been erased from the Belbury landscape.
“Sticks and Stones” deploys motorik manoeuvres in the service of Machen, defining a very specific new genre in the process, while “Look Again” feels like a Casio-assisted dance across moonlit lawns. Meanwhile, the bass and stalk of “Copse” presents a cinematic mystery, seen through repeated looking out from around corners. Finally, the gateway back to the place of non-dreams is prised slowly open across “They Left on a Morning Like This”. Delicate magic evoked through vintage electronics, it would intriguingly provide a quietly charged alternate soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy or an imagined finale for the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, albeit one with a murkier than suspected outcome.
Vintage electronics come and go, but Ghost Box has never fallen into the trap of its own influence, remaining as distinct an entity in terms of recorded output and artwork as Mo’ Wax back in the day. A quote from Spike Jonze, writing in the Beastie Boys Book about the band, also applies to why Ghost Box so consistently get it right: “They weren’t just making records, they were making worlds.” Ghost Box and indeed Belbury Poly continue to make records that are worlds and The Gone Away is no exception.