G2: Film & Music: Review: Signal to noise: Broadcast's final album, atypical as it may be, serves as a reminder of what a remarkable band they were: Broadcast Berberian Sound Studio Original Soundtrack WARP 4/5
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Broadcast's Trish Keenan died of pneumonia in January 2011, it brought a sudden and shocking end to one of Britain's most singular bands. They emerged in 1996, not so much the height of Britpop as the zenith of its prematurely wizened kid brother, dubbed "Noelrock" by NME: trudging bloke-rock fast-tracked into the charts by the patronage of the then-omnipotent elder Gallagher brother, a man whose music tastes gave every impression of running to "a Saturday night session on a pub jukebox", as John Harris waspishly noted in his book The Last Party. Here it seemed, was proof that indie music had succeeded in taking over the mainstream largely by narrowing its horizons.
By contrast, Broadcast's sound suggested a boundless world of hitherto-unexplored possibilities. Their starting point was recherche enough - the singular attempt to meld psychedelia, electronics and musique concrete found on The United States of America's eponymous 1968 album, which Keenan referred to as her "bible" - but their interests ventured into ever-more esoteric waters: library albums such as Basil Kirchin's Abstractions of the Industrial North, the children's music of German composer Carl Orff, the soundtracks to Czechoslovakian surrealist films. At first, they seemed almost peerless in the most literal sense: they clearly had something in common with Stereolab, for whose label they released some singles, but while Stereolab's brand of retro-futurism was Day-Glo bright, Broadcast's was monochrome and spooky and very British, filled with shadowy childhood memories of testcard music and the soundtracks to Programmes for Schools and Colleges.
Perhaps Broadcast's ability to invoke a dimly remembered past was why their music struck a deep chord: they never sold many records, but as their career progressed, others soaked up their ideas. It's hard to imagine the Ghost Box label, or any of the music dubbed "hauntological", existing without them. Paul Weller, of all people, fell under their spell and began releasing instrumentals to prove it.
In fact, if you were looking for further examples of how the kind of ideas Broadcast first started playing with in the mid-90s have subsequently seeped into other artists' work, you could do worse than alight on Peter Strickland's psychological thriller Berberian Sound Studio, the soundtrack of which they were working on when Keenan died. It's a very Broadcast kind of film: set in the early 70s, depicting a Dorking sound engineer's descent into madness when he stops working on natural history documentaries and starts on an Italian giallo horror film, it's packed with shots of vintage electronic and recording equipment, obsessed with the evocative, sinister effects of sound. Completed by Keenan's partner, James Cargill, the soundtrack's 39 short pieces offer a partial index of Broadcast's various styles. Like their 1997 track Message from Home, the theme to the giallo itself, The Equestrian Vortex, is filled with harpsichord and tumbling, jazzy drums. The North Downs Dimension and Collatina Is Coming feature a flute - or some arcane piece of electronic equipment that sounds like a flute - playing a heartbreaking descending melody that conjures up, as Broadcast tracks so often did, a kind of rainy, mid-afternoon melancholy. The assemblage of bells and organ on Theresa, Lark of Ascension is simultaneously wistfully pastoral and oddly unsettling. Found Scalded, Found Drowned and Mark of the Devil are fragments of pulsing, icy electronics.
What's missing, for the most part, is Keenan's remarkable voice. It could sound by turns imperious, detached, melancholy or lost in reverie, but on the few occasions it appears, it sings wordless melodies and is so heavily treated with effects that it sounds as if it's being beamed from another world. Its absence isn't the only reason you couldn't quite call this album a fitting epitaph to Broadcast's career. There are no songs on it, just instrumentals, and Broadcast's greatest skill may have been alchemising the strange, abstruse musical influences they'd turned up by scouring Birmingham's junk shops into remarkable pop songs.
Instead, with its 30-second cues and oblique titles, it resembles one of those old library albums Broadcast were so influenced by in the first place. That gives it a certain closing-the-circle charm, which it was never intended to have: it should just have been another stepping stone on a wonderfully idiosyncratic, inspirational musical path.
THIS WEEK ALEXIS LISTENED TO:
Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies - You Can't Ever Come Down
Mention of The United States of America on Twitter led me to another album by their architect Joe Byrd, which is equally beguiling and strange
Peerless . . . Tim Felton, Trish Keenan and James Cargill of Broadcast
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