Boundary-expanding sounds from left field
“ToiToiToi” for those not overly familiar with the superstitious rituals of the operatic world, is a pre-show blessing whispered in the wings before a performance, a folkloric “break a leg” designed to frighten away evil spirits from sensitive tenors and sopranos. Thankfully, Berlin-based Sebastian Counts seems entirely unaffected by such devilish hexes. His second album for Ghost Box — after 2017’s wistful ‘Im Hag’ — is a splendidly jolly excursion into Mitteleuropean medieval traditions.
Not many Ghost Box albums begin with a cheery whistle, but album opener `Schlendersilber’ does exactly that, before launching into endearingly unsteady synth-folk wobbliness. Next up, ‘Never A Dull Moment’ is a giddy raid on the playtime music box, with pre-school guitars and parping melodies wrapping themselves around clip-clop rhythms. There’s light and shade, though while ‘Kuckuckwalzer’ boasts infectious childish giggling and the call of a comedy cuckoo, ‘The Inner Hobo’ is a restless evocation of haunting train whistles and aching wanderlust.
Those determined to incorporate ‘Vaganten’ into Ghost Box’s trademark playground of half-forgotten analogue TV may cite faded memories of ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’, ‘Heidi’, or indeed any of the imported European serials that brought smiling goatherds and the occasional alp to pale summer holiday mornings on BBC2. But ‘Vaganten’ is steeped in older traditions. The word itself relates to the itinerant monks that wandered central Europe in the Middle Ages, fuelled by little more than ballads and a raging thirst for the local bier. It’s a sense of ruddy-faced Chaucerian abandon that pervades huge swathes of this charmingly melodic collection.
Counts, away from the parallel world of his adopted label, is respected German artist Sebastian Grafe, whose work —physical, conceptual and musical is characterised by a sense of playful mischief and a desire to evoke magic. He’s a perfect fit for Ghost Box, whose boundaries continue to expand in deliciously unexpected directions. It’s no wonder closing track ‘Wrong Place, Good Times’ sounds positively paralytic. Abandoning sinister TV themes and leafy English woodland for riotous early music and the Grimm fairy tales of the Black Forest, they’ve taken us all on the most delightfully debauched holiday.
Germany’s ToiToiToi returns to Ghost Box with Vaganten, an LP of wayward electronics, Medieval plunderphonics and Chaucerian machine music.
In the real world, you might expect to hear electronic music informed by foundational tracks from Chicago and Detroit. Not so much in that other place where Ghost Box resides of course, but even by the label’s own standards of strange, an electronic album steeped in Medieval Germany and evoking Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sounds like an unpredictable proposition. Yet that is what Sebastian Counts, who returns as ToiToiToi, has brought to the feasting table, with the even more wayward follow-up to Im Hag (2017). That LP alerted psychogeographic investigators to the fact that Ghost Box hometown Belbury was in fact twinned with Ethernbach im Hag, Germany. This made perfect sense, as ToiToiToi’s wonky electronics were at once familiar and alien to the label’s listeners. Here was continental Ghost Box steeped in folk tales of the forests and Vaganten goes even further down paths untrodden, while also sounding more at home than ever on Belbury’s finest.
The doors creak open with “Schlendersilber”, an unspooling of unstable electronica that somehow evokes The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the closing dance with death from The Seventh Seal and In the Night Garden (a series of comparisons it is safe to say I won’t be making again). “Life is dull and everything in the world bores me” opines the first narrator on “Never a Dull Moment”, before his jaunty companion steps in with the counterpoint: “How can you say such a thing? Life is wonderful and the world is an exciting place.” The track thus goes from BBC Drama Workshop to Rainbow with a spring in its retro-futurist step. “Kuckuckswalzer” remains in the daylight, despite taking a decidedly sinister turn, with its wound-up mechanical gait and threateningly innocent samples.
Something akin to the beer bottle percussion from the Head Hunters version of “Watermelon Man” lends form to a gentle electronic suite on the title track, before giving way to a Medieval marching band. Therefore Herbie Hancock does Chaucer is the new genre you never knew you needed. Elsewhere, “Durch die Glut” is a swooning march with shades of Kompakt co-owner Jürgen Paape’s “Ofterschwang”, albeit traveling further sideways and in the shade. Whereas “Goliards” is abstracted chamber music which unfolds from brittle Squarepusher-like organic glitching to Middle Eastern orchestral vistas and “Corpus” projects Balearic dawns with its way-off-kilter house music stabs. That these seemingly competing time periods and styles form a cohesive, if discombobulating, whole is quite the wonder. Sebastian Counts can ultimately be excused for his mad archaeologist approach to electronica (Medieval plunderphonics anyone?), since the resulting sound world is so invitingly peculiar and Vaganten such an oddly satisfying experience.
What The Volk?
Vaganten is apparently German for a kind of musically adept clerical vagrant, with a taste for wild living and boozing and a knapsack full of songs and poems which they would readily declaim in exchange for board and lodging. Sort of how I imagine Eden Ahbez would have lived, had he been born in the middle ages, or Falstaff, if Shakespeare had made him a monk with a decent singing voice. And it’s literally the best – indeed, the only – possible title I can imagine for this unique collection of tracks by Sebastian Counts, aka ToiToiToi. Because otherwise I’d really be struggling think of a way of pinning down this idiosyncratic stumble through the woodlands of Germany and surrounding nations, but the image of a chubby Friar Tuck figure boozily wandering across the country, sozzled but happy, stopping now and again to sing an old song, tell a tall tale, or chat up a willing peasant girl is as close as I’m going to get.
Actually, that’s not quite right. Bear with me, but I have a theory. Rather than the real thing, picture instead a 1970s kids’ TV show about a chubby Friar Tuck figure boozily wandering etc etc. Now imagine that it was originally shown in Germany or Belgium or somewhere like that, and ported over to the UK to be shown, dubbed, on weekend mornings or on BBC2 during sunny summer school holidays. A sort of middle European cross between The Storyteller, Bagpuss and Fingerbobs, if you remember them. And this is the soundtrack album for that show, finally released to a public with fond memories of their childhood in front of the telly! (I mean, it’s probably not intended to be anything of the sort, but if Mr. Counts is reading this, please don’t disabuse me of this notion!)
It all begins with the show titles. Schlendersilber (Strolling Silver, according to online translation, which might well be the name of this imaginary show) just needs some basic geometric visuals to work perfectly as the introductory tune for an educational kids TV show in the mid-70s, with the sound of a man’s steps approaching gradually being covered up by a deceptively simple build up of amusing and unusual electronic sounds, which eventually creates an infectiously upbeat melody. This serves as a handy lead in to Never a Dull Moment, in which the show proper begins and our jolly vagrant host is introduced: ‘Life is dull and everything in the world bores me’ says a typically authoritative TV voice, and is then rebutted by another voice – that, I imagine of our vagrant – saying that no, ‘life is wonderful’. The tune which follows bounces along as though to support the vagrant’s more positive claims, complete with bells and flute, and we’re off! It’s an intriguing opening (I’d have watched this show as a kid) made all the more so by the decision to drop the short Whimsical Waltz in next. It does exactly what it says on the tin, musically similar to what’s gone before but in slightly quick waltz time. In my head, there’s a paper cut out animation of some sort playing out on screen while this plays, perhaps of a prince and princess dancing (yes, I know, I’ve gone off the deep end a bit with things which are certainly not mentioned in the sleeve notes to the album – but it’s that kind of imagination stimulating record!)
Kuckkuckwalzer (Cuckoo Waltz, as if you couldn’t guess) follows on from this brief diversion. Another voice, this one speaking what I assume is German, with the sound of a cuckoo in the background and more waltz music. If this isn’t the music played behind a story being told, then I’ve lost the plot entirely. And the album continues in that vein across the rest of its running time. It’s never repetitive, and packed with unusual and interesting sound choices, but for every track, I could close my eyes and imagine a short video clip of people dancing in traditional costumes in Bavaria, excited children visiting a factory or a farm, or the host singing a song or telling a folk tale.
Sometimes (as in The Inner Hobo) the music is downbeat and introspective, and sometimes its more discordant and slightly darker, as with the jagged notes which punctuate Tee Muss Tanzen (Tea Must Dance? – Google Translate may have let me down there). But the general tone is as upbeat and positive as you’d expect from children’s programming, with lots of big fat notes and insistent percussion, in front of which I imagine our indigent priest walking through leafy forests (Locus of Control), reaching a town and walking along the main street, surrounded by the bustling sounds of town life (Ley Hunter’s Chant) and generally having a jolly, but always instructional, time.
I began this review hoping that nobody would disabuse me of my notion that this is really the absolutely delightful soundtrack to an imaginary European kids’ TV programme, but now, as I get to the end, I wonder if it so obviously is that, that someone will be along in a minute to comment on the way I wasted all these words pointing out the bleeding obvious. Either way, this is only the second album I’ve reviewed this year where I’ve immediately ordered a copy of the record on vinyl. You can’t a much greater recommendation that that.
We Are Cult