Broadcast have been at the centre of Birmingham’s quirky, quietly innovative music scene for a good few years, so it comes as shock to discover they’ve upped sticks and relocated to Hungerford, this mini-album marking their arrival among the Berkshire poppies.
Hungerford might appear safe territory to the uninitiated, prosperous M4 corridor commuter land, but there are forces at work here. Michael Ryan’s “I should have stayed in bed” killing spree granted the town a lasting, unwanted notoriety. Perhaps the dark side comes from sitting on the brink of the West Country, holding back the swirling myth that threatens to creep up the Thames Valley and swamp the home counties. Whatever is in the air, the place has given Broadcast a new, peculiar energy. Scanning the ether for sounds, they’ve succeeded in channelling an entire record, the sounds pouring out of them as a barely controllable transmission from a parallel place.
Collaborator The Focus Group is otherwise Julian House of the Ghost Box label, a long time friend of Broadcast’s James Cargill and Trish Keenan and a man with an insatiable appetite for electronic off-cuts, horror film soundtracks and what he describe as “retro-futurism”. Getting together with his friends has given rise to a rush of ideas, a so-called EP that’s actually 48 minutes long and features 23 tracks.
Witchery, radios and investigation are the touchstones for all the music here, the dark forces of the unknown combining with analogue technologies to speak to us in terrifying, rumbling tones, a psychic experiment gone off the rails.
The album begins with ‘Intro’ – toy piano scales and mechanical fluttering noises before segueing into the ‘The Be Colony’, the nearest thing to a conventional song on ‘Witch Cults’. Trish Keenan intones “All circles vanish” like a medium in a trance, transmitting from the other side. Its delightful, eerie melody is something like psychedelic-era Beatles performing in a cave system.
A succession of unbroken minute-long tracks follows, called things like ‘How do you get along sir?’, ‘Reception/Group therapy’ and ‘You Must Wake’. We get a sludge of library effects slowed down to 33rpm. A radio seems to flick through the stations picking up 20 seconds of surf guitar here, a choral recital from the underworld there, someone tuning up their harp, someone else attacking a zither with a fork, clashing, homemade percussion, and snatches of an unexpectedly beautiful oboe.
Trish Keenan sings on five of the tracks, playing the role of a medium or a soothsayer. ‘I See, So I See’ was written in the British Museum, an explicit attempt to recreate lost ritual. ‘A Seancing Song’ is sung by her and the voices of the dead, through a din of knocking and ringing telephones.
On ‘Libra, the Mirror’s Minor Self’ Trish chants a high rhyme, while ‘Royal Chant’ has lyrics spoken over a sad, sad melody. It’s hard to make out the exact words because of a wash of echo, but there’s almost certainly something in there about tea leaves. It says a lot about the density of the album that, while this is pretty much the calmest track, there’s still space for a swanee whistle, some groaning, a music box, a gentle choir, and barking dogs.
In the second half of the album, the tracks become longer and less like snatches of overheard sound. They acquire form and direction, as the jam focuses and takes shape. It’s leading us to a dark place.
‘Mr Beard You Chatterbox’ lurches into dark puppet theatre music played, no doubt, by a decrepit, leering street band for opium money. ‘Drug Party’ has free jazz drumming and what is surely a man moaning into a drain pipe, underwater. This is not the sort of drug party to wander into by mistake.
‘Love’s Long Listen In’ features a maniacally cheerful flute, soloing away to itself, and marching band in the dim distance floating over farmyard pig effects. ‘Ritual/Looking In’ is more blissed out, drums driving a soaring, ethereal drone accompanied by improvising pan pipes. It comes to an end with an Exorcist child voice, possibly coughing up ectoplasm.
The album roars to a close with a final medley ‘The Be Colony / Dashing Home / What on Earth Took You?’ which reprises track 2 while soaking it in distortion and smothering it in layers of mysterious sound.
And what a ride it’s been. This record has so much energy it threatens to run away with itself, but it seems churlish to complain about such enthusiasm. If you’re looking for cosmic horror, 70s tv soundtracks, library effects, radio serials, weird folk, English psych, schools tv and more you’ll find it all here. If you’re not, lock your doors and windows and pray – Broadcast are coming to get you.