“A quality selection of broadcasts from the other side, ranging from new folkish songs and instrumentals to harder-edged electronics (in) the form of The British Space Group’s An Unearthly Decade and Polypores’ The Perfect Place For An Accident which, after 5 mins of throbbing wave forms takes a nice slow dive into beatless disorientation. Time Attendant proves his worth once more with Elastic Refraction.” Include Me Out
Includes work by Circle/Temple, Sproatly Smith, Keith Seatman, Polypores, Listening Center, The British Space Group, The Hare And The Moon ft Alaska / Michael Begg, Time Attendant, The Rowan Amber Mill, A Year In The Country and David Colohan.
Wolfen is a 1981 film directed by Michael Wadleigh which could loosely be connected to three films released in that year which took as their themes werewolves, including The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.
It is set in New York and follows a world weary police officer who investigates a serious of vicious murders which are initially believed to possibly be due to animal attacks but as the investigation progresses it becomes clear that it may be connected to an ancient Indian legend about wolf spirits. While in part a film that mixes aspects of genre cinema including horror, science fiction, fantasy and detective story, Wolfen can also be seen to contain exploration and comment on urban decay, renewal, social disenfranchisement and neglect.
The film is notable in part for its use of real world locations; much of the film shows New York in a pre-gentrification state and the city at points looks akin to a warzone full of derelict and burnt out buildings. These sections were filmed in the South Bronx where at that point urban decay was so rife that only the fire damaged roofless church needed to be built for the film’s production.
Later in Wolfen, despite this being part of a major Western city, this area is shown as being so remote and removed from mainstream life that a police officer can pass down the street with a rifle and nobody comments – in fact there is nobody there to comment.
A background to this urban decay is that two years earlier New York city had narrowly avoided bankrupty and the US as a whole had been facing an economic downturn. By 1977 in some areas of the Bronx unemployment rates were higher than 80% and it was an area that suffered extensively from problems with crime, drugs, poverty, civic neglect and physical decay, all of which would lead US president Ronald Reagan to compare it to London after the Blitz. There had also been an electricity blackout at the height of the summer, leading to chaos, looting and arson. By the later 1970s there were seven different census areas of the Bronx where more than 97 percent of buildings were lost to fire and abandonment. By the time of Wolfen’s filming there had begun to be a slow rise in the real estate market and the city began to move towards a more general financial recovery.
Connected to which Wolfen appears to document a city and culture at a transitional point or phase; it has a gritty downbeat quality that seems to belong more to the 1970s but also seems to reflect upcoming 1980s cinematic depictions of excess and the chasm between rich and poor, particularly in some of its opening scenes where substance-snorting plutocrats are shown taking a joyride in their limousine as they travel to a luxury penthouse in the Financial District and which contrast so strongly with the images of decay in the South Bronx.
It also connects to 1970s cinema and events in that the attacks are considered by the authorities to possibly by the work of urban guerillas, one of whom when they are brought in for questioning due to her stance and privileged background seems to have been loosely based on American heiress turned radical Patty Hearst. Accompanying which and with a further reference to 1970s cinema such as The Parallax View, 3 Days of the Condor, The Anderson Tapes and The Conversation, which dealt with some similar and interrelated themes, there is a paranoia to the authorities’ concerns and actions and they have access to omnipresent surveillance, an overriding control of flow of news to the media and use cutting edge, possibly illegal scientific monitoring of suspects interrogations, including the use of invisible lie detectors.
Despite its to a degree genre cinema nature, Wolfen works on a number of levels and in some ways its atmosphere and non-frenetic pacing positions it close to independent arthouse film. Also despite the animal attack aspects of the film there is a lack of onscreen gore, particularly in comparison to contemporary genre film making and such aspects are generally shown as just brief flashes rather than being gratuitously dwelled on.
Ultimately Wolfen becomes not a werewolf film, which it initially appears it might be but rather the predators/killers are wolves that have relocated to the inner city (although it does suggest that Indians and wolves may be able to exchange souls). The wolves’ move into the cities is described in this way, after America began to be developed and colonised by Europeans:
“The smartest ones, they went underground. Into the new wilderness – your cities… Into the graveyard of your… species. These great hunters became your scavengers. Your garbage, your abandoned people became their new meat animal.”
Previous to this time, as explained in the film, the Wolfen and Indian tribes coexisted peacefully, with the arrival of the colonisers leading to the dispossession of them both.
As referred to earlier Wolfen could be seen as a parable about urban renewal and exclusion, as the initial murders that the wolves are shown to commit involve a senator who has recently carried out a groundbreaking ceremony of a new real estate area that is intended to be built on their hunting grounds. Towards the end of the story the model of this redeveloped area is destroyed by the main police officer, in order to communicate to the wolves that the threat nolonger exists and he and his companion are not the enemy – but ultimately real world history tells that the wolves lost this particular battle as regeneration of the area went ahead. Accompanying which Wolfen seems to be critical of both urban decay and renewal, suggesting that both are merely different forms of urbicide (i.e. variations on destruction or violence against a city and its character).
However, there is a sense that the wolves will survive whatever changes happen, that they are ultimately higher in the food-chain than humans and in a final voice over the officer says:
“In arrogance man know nothing of what exists. There exists on Earth such as we dare not imagine. Life as certain as our death. Life that will prey on us as we prey on this earth.”
The wolves are depicted as almost mystical, magical or even possibly alien creatures and at one point it is suggested that “they might be god”; this is heightened as whenever the world is shown from their viewpoint the image becomes colourised and highly stylised and voices/noises take on a distorted aspect. This visual effect was created via an early use of an in-camera effect similar to thermography and possibly heightens the sense of the wolves being almost otherworldly creatures as it would later be used to indicate the alien’s point of view in the well-known 1987 film Predator.
Accompanying this mystical inference about the wolves, they are also shown to have become highly evolved above the normal levels of such wild creatures, having a raised intellect and highly tuned senses which enable them to hear even the blink of an eye. It also suggested that they are socially and morally superior to humans as their heightened senses enable them to detect changes in blood levels and body temperature and therefore to detect lies; the film suggests that they have lived for centuries in a sophisticated and even possibly utopian society where, in part because of their sense abilities, dishonesty is non-existent:
“In their world there can be no lies, no crimes. In their eyes you are the savage.”
Michael Wadleigh was removed from the film during post-production by its producers who claimed that the film was late, over budget and too long, although their wish to remove him and recut Wolfen may also have been due to a desire to distance the film from his and its more “message” aspects and resposition it nearer to a standard genre horror film.
In a resulting arbitration case he challenged the producers over his creative rights as a director and attempted to gain the right to show his version to a preview audience before the producers made their final edits and released the version they wanted to. This case lead to changes in the contracts between producers and directors in America, which afterwards cleared spelled out director’s rights to have their cut of a film “previewed before a public audience or screened before a private audience of no fewer than 100 persons of sufficient diversity to obtain an adequate audience reaction.”
(Unfortunately one of the scenes lost in the recutting of the film was of Tom Waits, who apparently Wadleigh was friends with, singing in a tiny dive bar.)
Wadleigh had a background in activism and groundbreaking documentary film making, including Woodstock (1970) which focused on the iconic festival, for which he is said to have produced over 120 miles of footage.
Bearing this in mind and some of the social and political themes which Wolfen focuses on it is a pity that a longer directors cut version of Wolfen does not exist (Wadleigh’s original version is said to have been four hours long). Those themes are still quite prevalent as they are an intrinsic part of the film but it could be possible that a directors version may well have explored them even further but as things stand the possibilities of such a version remain merely intriguing supposition.
However at the time of writing a documentary called Uncovering Wolfen is in production, which promises to explore the film’s themes further and include interviews with Wadleigh.
The director of that is Stewart Buck who, also at the time of writing, also has in production a documentary called A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann’s The Keep – another partly genre film from 1983 that also has something of a unique and in this case almost dreamlike character.
The Keep has an apparently lost or never quite existed extended directors cut due in part to its visual effects supervisor passing away two weeks into post-production and nobody else who was working on it knowing how he planned to finish the visual effects scenes. Also the directors original cut was 210 minutes but this was cut by the producers to 96 minutes and
However The Keep appears more lost than Wolfen as Michael Mann seems to not wish to revisit and restore the film, in part because of the lost effects footage and in particular the original ending meaning that the version of the film as originally envisaged is near impossible to create.
Also although it was released on video tape and laser disc and can be purchased/watched via online services it has never had an official DVD or Blu-ray release (although curiously, for a relatively obscure and not overly commercially successful film it did have both a board and role playing game based on it).
Artwork from the cassette editions of the A Year In The Country Airwaves: Songs From The Sentinels album.
“A study of the tales told/required to be told by the sentinels/senders that stand atop the land; a gathering of scattered signals plucked from the ether, cryptograms that wander amongst the airwaves, fading, tired and garbled messages which have journeyed from nearby or who knows where… The Airwaves set of audiological constructs are an exploration that begins with and via silent but ever chattering broadcast towers; their transmissions and sometimes secrets – the songs they weave from their own particular language and emanations… Airwaves harvests, weaves with and recasts the transmissions found amongst the gossamer strands of that network, intertwining these with and through the medium of cathodic reverberations/mechanisms while also taking ministrations from the wellsprings and flows of an otherly pastoralism, travelling through and amongst the brambled flipside of an Arcadian idyll and the subcultural undergrowth of the wald.” (From the text which accompanies the album.)
“Interference, plain piano song, shimmering electronics, remote listening & shadowy melodies make for an elegant & sinister experience.” (Quoted from a review at Include Me Out.)
These two volumes are flipside companions to the other often more overtly rural and folk orientated Folk Horror Revival non-fiction books which contain work by multiple authors, with these new books focusing on the uncanny, unsettling and, as the titles suggest, the wyrd in urban settings. They take their initial inspiration from the urban wyrd concept and phrase created by author Adam Scovell, author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, and describe urban wyrd as being:
“A sense of otherness within the narrative, experience or feeling concerning a densely human-constructed area or the inbetween spaces bordering the bucolic and the built-up or surrounding modern technology with regard to another energy at play or in control; be it supernatural spiritual, historical, nostalgic or psychological. Possibly sinister but always somehow unnerving or unnatural.” (Quoted from Spirits of Time.)
While in his Introduction to Spirits of Time Adam Scovell says:
“So, what essentially can be described as the Urban Wyrd ?… The Urban Wyrd is a form that taps into the undercurrent of the city. In a similar way to psychogeography, it can find new narratives hidden below the top-layer; of dark skulduggery and strangeness beyond the reasonable confines of what we consider part of city life.”
(Above left: image by Grey Malkin from Spirits of Time.)
In a similar manner to hauntology or what is sometimes called wyrd folk, urban wyrd is not a strictly defined and delineated area of work or genre. In some ways it is more a loosely gathered common feeling, atmosphere or spirit. This sense of the looseness of what constitutes urban wyrd is acknowledged in Spirits of Time’s Foreword and also its Introduction, in which Adam Scovell describes urban wyrd as being more like a mode, i.e. nearer to a general sense of how something is expressed, rather than a genre or specifically defined category. It is connected in this sense to other loosely gathered grouped cultural areas including folk horror, hauntology, psychogeography etc and Spirit of Time contains a sense of caution with regards to narrowly overly defining such concepts:
“Folk Horror does not quite work like a genre and, therefore, should be considered a mode instead. There are many such modes with interlinking material – terms often bandied about such as Hauntology, Psychogeography et al. – that fit within some schemata of a mode. They have enough shared material to understand why they are discussed in the same breath but enough difference to accept that amalgamating everything under one descriptive banner homogenises material, undermines much of its thematic nuance and can be too general… Like all of these terms [Urban Wyrd] is just another context, another way of seeing material grouped together. It is not designed to dissect them and remove their dark hearts.” (Quoted from Spirit of Time’s Introduction.)
As discussed in the Introduction, urban wyrd, can be seen as a way of remythologising cities, as much of hauntology and folk horror does for sometimes interlinked subjects and/or types of areas. It can also be seen as an expression or attempt to add a hidden, not fully explained, sometimes near mystical layering to contemporary life and is in contrast to the modern-day prevalence of focusing on the rational, scientific, that which is fully explained and so on. Urban wyrd in part could be considered as a way of adding mystery and what was once known as magic to urban environments and in this way could also be thought of as being loosely connected to similar attempts and urges in past and current religion and spirituality.
As with hauntology, work which could (loosely) be labelled urban wyrd often utilises known and recognisable locations but then adds a sense of the unnerving, unsettling, the uncanny to this. As Adam Scovell also says in his Introduction in reference to this and Quatermass and the Pit: “In the tunnel where you get the tube, there could be a devilish Martian craft under the brickwork”. An equivalent in folk horror, hauntology etc could be considered the beauty and nourishment provided by nature and rural landscapes, which become something much more unsettling in The Wicker Man; the pleasant rural village in The Midwich Cuckoos which becomes a site for an in some ways subtly enacted alien invasion; previous eras’ TV station idents becoming spectral totems which are imbued with an underlying “otherlyness” and so on.
These things all curiously interlink, which is something I discuss in the chapter “Spectral Echoes: Hauntology’s Recurring Themes and Unsettled Landscapes”, which I contributed to Spirits of Time:
“Hauntological orientated work is often, although again not exclusively, urban orientated and at times conjures a landscape where Brutalist architecture and post-war new towns become part of a parallel world hinterland of the imagination in which all is not quite what it seems and that can contain a subtly off-kilter dystopic or unsettled atmosphere. Although not obvious bedfellows it has also curiously come to share territory and intertwine with the further reaches of folk culture and what could be loosely called wyrd folk, an otherly pastoralism or eerie landscapism.
“On the surface such more rural flipside of folkloric and hauntological cultural forms are very disparate and yet both have come to explore and share similar landscapes. What may be one of the underlying linking points with both wyrd folk etc and hauntology is a yearning for lost utopias; in more otherly folkloric orientated culture this is possibly related to a yearning for lost Arcadian idylls, in hauntological culture it may be connected to a yearning for lost progressive post-war futures and a past that was never quite reached.
“Particular points of interconnection could be seen to be the sometimes focusing in related work on abandoned or decommissioned Cold War infrastructure including once secret bunkers and also electricity pylons and broadcast towers. Such bunkers etc. although often rural in location also often share a Brutalist architectural aesthetic with the likes of concrete built urban schools, government buildings, tower blocks etc. from previous decades.
“Despite their utilitarian day-to-day nature rural and urban located electricity pylons and broadcast towers in hauntological and otherly pastoral orientated work, as with abandoned bunkers and Brutalist architecture, have become symbols and signifiers of an eerily layered landscape.”
The two Folk Horror: Urban Wyrd books jointly contain nearly 1000 (!) pages and have literally dozens of chapters by also literally dozens of authors. Below is just a slight taster:
Quatermass and the Pit: Unearthing Archetypes at Hobb’s End by Grey Malkin
The Haunted Generation: An Interview with Bob Fischer
A Tandem Effect: Ghostwatch by Jim Moon
Voices of the Ether: Stone Tapes, Electronic Voices and Other Ghosts by James Riley
An Interview with Richard Littler – Mayor of Scarfolk.
“We Want You to Believe In Us, But Not Too Much”: UFOs and Folklore by S J Lyall
“This isn’t for Your Eyes” – The Watchers by Richard Hing
City in Aspic: Don’t Look Now by Andy Paciorek
Review: Concretism – For Concrete and Country by Chris Lambert
Phantoms and Thresholds of the Unreal City by John Coulthart
Iain Sinclair: Spirit Guide to the Urban Wyrd – Interviewed by John Pilgrim
The City That Was Not There: ‘Absent’ Cityscapes in Classic British Ghost Stories by Anastasia Lipinskaya
High Weirdness: A Day-trip to Hookland by Andy Paciorek
The Voice of Electronic Wonder: The Music of Urban Wyrd by Jim Peters
Find out more about the books via the links below…
“Twalif X is an audio journey through one night; the album was recorded between dusk and dawn on the 12th/13th May 2014 in Robin Wood, Bears Wood, Knott Wood and on Eagle Crag. All recordings were captured on one microphone and processed/mixed by N. Racker.” (Quoted from the album’s accompanying text.)
The imagery for the release was created using photographs taken during the outing by Racker&Orphan which were than collaged and intertwined with original artwork by A Year In The Country.
“A field recording is defined as: ‘…the term used for an audio recording produced outside a recording studio, and the term applies to recordings of both natural and human-produced sounds.’ Racker&Orphan’s album Twalif X could be considered a form of field recording, although it is more a document of an experimental journey than being strictly a scientifically faithful reproduction.” (Quoted from A Year In The Country.)
Preorder 23rd July 2019. Released 16th August 2019.
Echoes And Reverberations is a field recording based mapping of real and imaginary film and television locations.
It is in part an exploration of their fictional counterparts’ themes; from apocalyptic tales to never-were documentaries and phantasmagorical government-commissioned instructional films via stories of conflicting mystical forces of the past and present, scientific experiments gone wrong and unleashed on the world, the discovery of buried ancient objects and the reawakening of their malignant alien influence, progressive struggles in a world of hidebound rural tradition and the once optimism of post-war new town modernism.
The album is also a reflection on the way in which areas – whether rural, urban, or edgeland – can become permeated with such tales and undercurrents, creating a landscape of the imagination where fact and fiction intertwine. The resulting layering may at times create ongoing echoes and reverberations which personally, culturally and possibly literally leave their marks on the history and atmospheres of places, with these locations becoming a source of inspiration and cultural pilgrimage.
Each track contains field recordings from one such journey and their seeking of the spectral will-o’-the-wisps of locations’ imagined or often hidden flipsides.
“I’m talking to a machine. What’s happening to me? I’ve gone nuts.” (Quoted from the film Electric Dreams – in a manner possibly somewhat prescient of interactions with contemporary voice activated computer devices.)
Part 2 of a post on the imagined omnipotence of the 1980s computer in American cinema (visit Part 1 here.)
In Steve Barron’s film Electric Dreams, which was released in 1984, a standard shop bought 1980s home PC gains artificial intelligence, sentience and falls in love – seemingly extending its processing power massively by connecting with a government computer over a dial-up modem. As with some of the other above films, this massively conflates the abilities of computers and related technology at the time – in 1984 modems could generally transfer around 9.6 Kilobits per second or around 0.0012 Megabytes. To put that into context a one page word processor text only document today could well be over 800 Kilobits, a compressed high-definition image could well be over 7000 Kilobits in size. So obviously there were some pretty fancy compression algorithms being carried out to enable the transfer of enough computer power to enable the attaining of sentience over a few minutes of dial-up modem data transfer (!).
Alongside gaining artificial intelligence, it can also take over and control the lights etc in its owner’s home, something which is only just becoming even slightly widespread via digital technology today.
However, in Electric Dreams there is still a nod to the realities of the time as the sentient computer is still often interacted with via a standard keyboard text input system and it does not appear to able to visually see, although it can hear and speak.
At the beginning of the film it is also somewhat prescient of modern days habits as in the airport nearly everybody, no matter what age, is seen interacting with a digital device of some sort – games, pocket filing computers etc. At its conclusion it also reflects contemporary trends to the sometimes potentially overwhelming nature of modern technological devices as the computer’s owner and his romantic partner plan to get away from it all, saying happily that they will have “Two weeks with no phone and no TV”.
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country I have talked about how the pace of cinema (and television) today tends to often be rather rapid – or as director John Carpenter put it there are two main ways of making films:
“…one which draws from German Expressionism and allows space for the viewer’s imagination and that which draws from Russian montage and is more concerned with a constant, possibly shallow, stimulation of the viewer which he has referred to as b-bop like.”
Electric Dreams is a forerunner of such things and its director Steve Barron had a history in making pop music videos, which often used a faster pace and editing to keep and catch their audience’s attention in a relatively small amount of time. He has commented that this aspect of making pop music videos fed back into cinema as viewing became more about pace and adrenaline, with audiences looking for a more immediate impact. Indeed viewed now Electric Dreams could in part be seen as a segue of pop music videos, something which also fit with its production by Virgin Pictures Limited which was connected to Virgin Records and which at that time tended to aim towards a promotional synergy by releasing the music from the soundtrack and hopefully it entering the pop music charts.
The potential threat of new technological forms and scientific discoveries being explored in fictional works, particularly when they gain sentience, could be seen to have quite a long lineage, one which stretches back to at least Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein in which a young scientist creates a human like creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. In that novel the creature goes on to wreak death and destruction but ultimately understands the error or its crimes and vows to destroy itself.
Rather than being a world threatening computer takeover/device of large-scale destruction as in say WarGames or Superman III, Electric Dreams more shows this computer’s intentions as a sort of brattish home invasion pique, where it becomes one corner of a form of love triangle. As in Frankenstein at the end Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams discovers the errors of its ways (and the meaning of love – which it considers to be giving not taking) and carries out a process of self-destruction so that it can leave the human couple alone.
After this at the films ending Electric Dreams also offers another view of the future when Edgar’s voice becomes present in the couple’s car radio and effectively “streams” music and becomes a digital spectre and a form of non-physical cloud computing – taking over and controlling the broadcast facilities of radio stations and removing them from human control.
Giorgio Moroder and Philip Oakey’s iconic Together in Electric Dream’s theme song then begins playing over a finale montage of members of the public dancing in various locations, which has an uplifting feel good quality but also due to the song playing due to Edgar’s and therefore computer’s omnipresence in society, still carries with it a slight undercurrent of, if not overt menace, then at least potential concern about what if this sentient computer power returns to less benevolent aims.
A selection of reviews and broadcasts of The Watchers album:
“Individual trees provide very personal inspiration for some of the artists participating. Vic Mars takes Hertfordshire’s 900-year-old Eardisley Oak as the muse for his gentle, pastoral instrumental The Test of Time, and The Winter Dream of Novel’s Oak by Howlround is created from field recordings of an 800-year-old tree in Tilford, Surrey. It’s a warm, touching tribute to the receding wild woodlands of the British countryside, and – for maximum listening pleasure – perfect for an early summers’ evening constitutional through the copse or thicket of your choice.” Bob Fischer writing in his The Haunted Generation column in issue 381 of Fortean Times.
The Haunted Generation column also features Jonathan Sharp’s (whose work as The Heartwood Institute is included on The Watchers) Divided Time album which is released on Castles In Space. This was inspired by a cache of faded 1970s family snapshots that he discovered and which have a particularly intriguing character – the cover image conjures a spectral pastoral sense and seems to have tumbled backwards and forwards in time and has an “I can’t quite place what era it’s from” air to it. The Divided Time album can be visited here…
…and in an interconnected manner with all things spectral and otherly pastoral the cover article for the issue is written by Gail-Nina Anderson and titled “Folk Horror Revival – Exploring the Haunted Landscape of British Cinema and Television”.
Bob Fischer also has a relatively new blog also called The Haunted Generation, which accompanies his column in Fortean Times and where you can find articles and interviews with Jonny Trunk, Drew Mulholland’s Three Antennas in a Quarry and Frances Castle/Clay Pipe Music’s Stagdale, to name just a few. Visit the blog here.
“Full of the trademark otherworldly pastoralism we’ve come to love from A Year In The Country releases, The Watchers opens with the haunting drone of Grey Frequency’s In A Clearing… There’s twinkling synths (Field Lines Cartographer’s A Thousand Autumns) and almost psychedelic oscillations (The Heartwood Institute’s The Trees That Watch The Stones’)… [and] Howlround’s A Winter Dream Of Novel’s Oak, an eerie echo peppered with birdsong…” Finlay Milligan, Electronic Sound magazine issue 54
“A Year In The Country continue to release their sumptuous CDs… A Thousand Autumns by Field Lines Cartographer celebrates an ancient oak, its cyclical shedding of thousands of leaves providing nutrients for next year’s leaves. The twinkling synth sounds like the falling leaves in the shafts of Autumnal sunlight… Sproatly Smith arrive with Watching You another song from the point of view of these ancient trees, bird song, female voice, synth and acoustic guitar. Tracing the journey from acorn to mighty hollowed oak, a bucolic folk tune… Vic Mars is next with The Test Of Time this song takes its inspiration from the great Eardisley oak tree, one of the oldest in Britain. A purely electronic piece of music which is both cathartic and gentle in nature, it’s stately and develops into a bucolic pastoral piece… This could be the label’s finest release yet.” Andrew Young, Terrascope
“Combines the enchanted ambience of Field Lines Cartographer and Vic Mars with the druidic declamations of Widow’s Weeds ft Kitchen Cynics and Sproatly Smith, the dark frequencies of Depattering and The Heartwood Institute with Pulselovers pulsations…” Raffaello Russo, Music Won’t Save You
“The music portrays a gentle patience, from the field recordings sprinkled throughout the album to delicate chimes and folksong.” Richard Allen, A Closer Listen
As an aside I would highly recommend a visit to Jude Rogers’ article 2018’s Best Folk Folk Albums, also for The Guardian, where you can find the likes of You Are Wolf, Olivia Chaney, Trembling Bells, Lisa O’Neill and Stick In The Wheel. Well, recommend and also urge caution due to the potential wallet injuring nature of it. That can be visited here.
And then onto some of the radio etc broadcasts of the album:
Episode 260 of More Than Human’s radio show featured Depatterning’s Ook/Dair and Pulselover’s Circles Within Circles. Original broadcast on CiTR FM, the show is archived here. Their record label has featured releases by the likes of Ekoplekz, Jon Brooks, Kemper Norton, Pye Corner Audio and sometimes A Year In The Country travellers Time Attendant and can be visited here.
And as a further aside Front & Follow recently released The Blow Volume 6 collaborative album featuring work by also fellow sometimes A Year In The Country travellers Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer, which rather intriguingly “initially drew from long conversations about alternate realities and altered states of consciousness”. The album can be visited here.
Sproatly Smith’s Watching You and Grey Frequency’s In A Clearing were featured on two episodes of the spectrally hauntological and undercurrents of folk wanderings of The Unquiet Meadow. Orginally broadcast on Asheville FM the playlists for the show can be visited here and here. Their Facebook page can be found here.
And as another aside a recent episode of The Unquiet Meadow also featured the A Year In The Country released Man Of Double Deed by The Hare And The Moon, from the album From The Furthest Signals and She Rocola’s Molly Leigh Of The Mother Town – the playlist for that particular show can be visited here.
Grey Frequency’s In A Clearing was included on the podcast Wyrd Daze Six: Then Space Began To Toll, which was released for Wyrd Daze’s sixth birthday. That and it’s accompanying digital ezine can be viewed and listened to here.
In A Clearing was also featured on fellow A Year In The Country traveller Mat Handley of Pulselovers and Woodford Halse’s You, the Night and the Music radio show. Originally broadcast on Sine FM the show is archived at Mixcloud here.
Johnny Seven played Grey Frequency’s In A Clearing on episode 408 of Pull The Plug, alongside tracks by the previously mentioned Jonathan Sharp, sometimes A Year In The Country fellow traveller Listening Center and Jane Weaver. Originally broadcast on Resonance FM the show is archived here.
And finally Verity Sharp played Sproatly Smith’s Watching You on the “Lost voices, found in song” episode of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, in amongst the show’s ongoing witching hour audio explorations. The show is archived here.
The Watchers features music and accompanying text on the tracks by Grey Frequency, Field Lines Cartographer, Widow’s Weeds ft Kitchen Cynics, Depatterning, A Year In The Country, Phonofiction, Pulselovers, Sproatly Smith, Vic Mars, The Heartwood Institute and Howlround.
It is inspired by ancient trees and their very stately, still form of time travel and the way in which they are observers over the passing of the years, centuries and even millennia, with some of these “mighty oaks” and their companions having lived through invasions of their island home undertaken by wooden ships, sword and arrow, the final days and passing of the old ways and the times of magic and witchcraft, the coming of the industrial revolution and the dawning of the digital era.
Artwork by Robin The Fog for Howlround’s Torridon Gate album.
“All of the music on this album was created from a single recording of a front garden gate on Torridon Road in Hither Green, London. These sounds were captured using a contact microphone and processed, looped and edited on three reel-to-reel tape machines with all electronic effects or artificial reverb strictly forbidden.” (Quoted from Howlround.)
“Whilst the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop are often (justifiably) name-checked in relation to Howlround, Torridon Gate’s obvious predecessor is Pierre Henry’s Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir (1963). Maurice Béjart created a ballet based on it… Howlround’s recording succeeds by obfuscating the source, rendering the ‘real’ unreal and transforming the ordinary into an other-worldly phenomenon. The simple metal gate becomes a portal to…the spirit world of inanimate objects? Or can we hear the ghosts of all those who have passed through ‘the gate’ to life beyond this one we know? The gate as metaphor…if you like. Wherever your imagination takes you, Torridon Gate is an urban source response to the dark moors and haunted woods mythology of modern folklorist music-makers. In that sense, it is more ‘homely’, but the resulting sounds take you very far away indeed.” (Quoted from a review by Robin Tomens at Include Me Out.)
“It didn’t used to be like this. Computers telling us what to do.” (Quoted from the film Looker.)
The 1980s was the first time that computers began to enter the home in any large quantity but they tended to be relatively underpowered machines that were probably used mainly for game playing, alongside some hobbyist programming and possibly the occasional piece of home accounts or writing.
In the wider business and research world computers were more powerful but comparative to even today’s more day-to-day mobile phones, what were then known as high-end supercomputers were also not overly powerful machines.
For example the Cray X-MP supercomputer released in 1982 had two 105MHz processors, with external hard drives that stored 1.2GB. At the time the computer cost 15 million US dollars plus the cost of the hard drives, which each cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Allowing for inflation that would be a cost of over 39 million US dollars for the computer alone.
In comparison at the point of writing the Moto G6 mobile phone, which is considered fairly budget orientated, has a processor with eight cores, each running at 1800MHz and cost approximately $149. 6000GB external hard drives are now not uncommon and cost from around $130…
…and in terms of the reduction in size and convenience of devices (whether real or imaginary); above on the left is a warehouse sized almost steampunk-esque 3D scanner in Looker, pictured next to a contemporary hand-held 3D scanner.
Despite this relative lack of power, in 1980s cinema computers were often depicted in films such as Wargames, Tron (1982), Superman III (1983), Electric Dreams (1984) and Looker (1981) as machines capable of artificial intelligence, producing real-time images of realistic worlds via their graphic power, creating autonomous worlds and indeed taking over or destroying the world.
Essentially they were often depicted as machines to be wary of and the “bad guy” or at the very least a tool used by the “bad guy/s”.
(This over-inflation of 1980s computer’s abilities has also at times been carried forward and occurs in more contemporary fictional work that looks back at 1980s computers; in the earlier 1980s set episodes of Halt and Catch Fire, a television series which began being broadcast in 2014 and which looked at the creation and release of an independent brand of PC computer, people become very passionate about the potential of these PCs and there is an attempt to release one which “talks” to its users – while at the time the realities of these machines were not much more than fairly basic office machines and any ability to genuinely interact with their users via language would have been very limited.)
Included in such cinema is the just mentioned film Looker, written and directed by Michael Crichton, the plot of which involves advertising models who are digitally scanned by the Digital Matrix research firm to create 3D models that are animated for use in commercials. The models who are scanned begin to be assassinated and it becomes apparent that Digital Matrix is behind this and is planning on using advanced technology devices to hypnotise consumers into buying the products it advertises.
It is notable for being the first time in a film when there was an attempt to make a realistic 3D digitally generated human character – although this is still obviously a computer generated image.
The power of computers at the time is massively overestimated as even with todays high-end computer power, purely digitally created human characters still rarely completely convince and at the time the digital recreation of the scanned models would have probably taken years of computer time even for the creation of a relatively short commercial.
The film could be considered a more mainstream counterpart to David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) in its comments on the effects of media and television and while not as overtly transgressive as that film it has a downbeat, cusp of the 1970s/80s feel that mixes glamour and sleaze. In the utilising of television as a medium with which to brainwash/corrupt the populace it also connects with the 1982 film Halloween III: Season of the Witch, although in that film the intention is a much more destructive one based in ancient pagan rituals.
The comment on the persuasive power of the media in Looker is made particularly explicit in one speech featured in Looker:
“Television can control population’s opinion more effectively than armies or secret police because television is entirely voluntary. The American government forces our children to attend school but nobody forces them to watch TV. People of all ages submit to television. Television is the American ideal – persuasion without coercion. Nobody makes us watch. Who could predict that a free people would voluntary spend 15 years of their lives sitting in front of a box with pictures. 15 years in prison is punishment but 15 years in front of a television set is entertainment.”
This absorption and submission to television is particularly portrayed when one of the models who is worried for her life visits her parents in a state of visible distress and upset but they do not (or cannot) take their eyes off a television screen which appears to be playing lowest common denominator comedy.
The end credits in the film list the commercials featured in the film and their directors. These have simple one world titles that seem to boil down their intentions to their simplest, most aspects and include “Liberty”, “Ravish” and “Believe”.
(As an aside these titles seem reminiscent of the B-side of the Coil 10″ The Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser which included a selection of the band’s work for commercials. I assume for copyright reasons these were just listed as “Airline 1”, “Cosmetic 1”, “Analgesic” etc.)
To be continued in Part 2 (which depending on when you’re reading this may not be online yet)…
Artwork from She Rocola’s Burn the Witch / Molly Leigh of the Mother Town.
“The song Molly Leigh Of The Mother Town draws from She Rocola’s own personal folklore and that of her home town; childhood experiences of chasing her playmates around Molly Leigh’s grave and the rhymes which accompanied such games. It is an audiological conjuring of hazy, sleepy small-hours memories and dreams from those times. Burn The Witch’s story is interconnected with those childhood memories and is in part inspired by formative viewings of late-night folk-horror films from in front of and behind the sofa.” (Quoted from A Year In The Country.)
“Few 45s of the last couple of years can catch up with this one… ‘Molly Leigh Of The Mother Town’ is the kind of nursery rhyme you never learned at your mother’s knee but which buried itself in your memory regardless, to peer out of the soil while you’re hopscotching past and wrap bony fingers round your ankle; ‘Burn the Witch’ is freakish fiddles (by Andrea Fiorito) that scratch behind She’s icy vocal and spectral harmonies, a Hammer film condensed to two minutes of sound and effects.” (Quoted from a review by Dave Thompson at Goldmine)
A while ago I came across a Lego toy construction brick recreation of posters for Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise novel.
When I first stumbled upon them I thought they had been created in a one-off manner not dissimilar to the way in which the internet now seems to be fairly full of alternative movie posters and there are Lego recreations of nearly everything under the sun.
Further investigation revealed that they are part of a large project where at the request of the High Rise film’s Twitter account somebody working under the title Lego Loki created 1188 images using Lego to illustrate every scene from the novel.
(Actor Tom Hiddleston plays the main character in High-Rise and also the part of “evil” God Loki in the Marvel Universe films. The Lego figure of Loki is used as a recurring alter-ego by Lego Loki, hence the name.)
The shape of the tower block in the above masthead from the project’s website brings to mind both the aforementioned previous era’s surreal/left-of-centre science fiction and fantasy cover art and some of the more outré Brutalist architecture designs which can be found in Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World.
The project can be viewed on the Brick High-Rise site and the resulting work is a startling labour of love that on viewing due to the use of Lego seems to introduce both a humorous element and also to add an extra layer of unsettling and possibly inappropriate transgression due to this ordinarily rather transgressive tale being told via the use of what, despite its increasing cult and adult users, is still at heart a child’s toy. As a viewing experience it is difficult to tell whether to be intrigued and/or at least a little repulsed.
Which I suppose could equally be applied to both the original novel of High-Rise and Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation.
Apparently the eventual budget for Brick High-Rise was £192.56 but that only included items specifically bought for the project and Lego Loki says on the site that he/she already owned many of the necessary bricks. Even allowing for that, it is still considerably cheaper than the over six million pounds which Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation cost.
You could say that the use of pre-owned Lego items tips the balance in Brick High-Rise’s favour but Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise made use of actual buildings and Brutalist architecture, so swings and roundabouts really.
Still I suppose Brick High-Rise contains only 1188 stills as opposed to with a run time of 1 hour an 59 minutes, at 24 frames per second Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise has around 171,360 frames.
However worked out per frame Brick High-Rise was still cheaper as it cost around £0.16 per frame, while Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise cost around £3.50 per frame (!).
The Brick High-Rise site is well worth a wander around as alongside the Lego recreations of scenes from the book it also includes posts on, amongst other topics, Lego Loki’s visits to Ballard Day at the British Library, an exhibition of costumes from the High-Rise film and some of the architecture which is said to have inspired the novel (all of which include photographs with Lego Loki’s figures in situ) and “How to Create Your Own Custom High-Rise Lego Set”.
Lego Loki created custom High-Rise Lego kits for the DVD release of the film, which were included in promotional hampers. Also included in promotional packages was a bottle of champagne, which is a reference to the consumption of the drink in the film and also possibly to the architect Erno Goldfinger whose Brutalist architecture buildings, including the 24 storey Balfron Tower, is said to have inspired the original novel.
For around two months Goldfinger and his wife lived in Balfron Tower, which he has written was so that he could “experience, at first hand, the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whirling around the tower and any problems which might arise from my designs so that I can correct them in the future”. It was but a brief experiment however as after that they moved back to their home in a considerably more conventional modernist 3 storey home in Hampstead, which is a leafy affluent area of London.
Curiously while living at Balfron Tower Goldfinger held champagne soirees which he invited the residents to floor-by-floor, echoes of which can be found in the hierarchical and socialising aspects of High-Rise.
Choosing to live in his tower block creation reflects similar actions by Anthony Royal, the architect of the tower in High-Rise, who is described rather appositely by Oliver Wainwright in a piece for The Guardian newspaper’s website as:
“…the perfect symbol of the megalomaniac modernist architect. The villainous protagonist of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise presides like a puppet-master over his ‘crucible for change’, a brave experiment in vertical living that quickly unravels into a concrete dystopia, driving its residents to madness in the floors beneath his feet.”
The High-Rise custom Lego kits have a legitimate “small parts” safety hazard notice on them and also a more humorous “Ages 4-7” recommendation for its intended audience, as an actual Lego kit would have. Maybe “Age 47” would be more appropriate? As referred to earlier, this is a further aspect of a project that leaves the viewer potentially both intrigued and a little unsettled.
Since the Brick High-Rise project was completed there has been a limited edition steel book Blu-ray of High-Rise which used Lego in its cover art; an interesting additional offshoot could be a printed book of the Brick High-Rise photographs, although I expect that would require a considerable amount of wrangling with and leeway from J.G. Ballard’s estate.
As a project it could be filed alongside the likes of Zupagrafika’s construction kits of Brutalist architecture buildings, HeyKidsRocknRoll’s dioramas and Press Pop figures of electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Bob Moog and Raymond Scott.
In terms of their form and construction those dioramas/figures and Brick High-Rise all have their roots in children’s toys but also the Zupagrafika, HeyKidsRocknRoll and Press Pop items seem to focus on and embody aspects of culture which have become totemic signifiers:
“Part of what all such things seem to represent, whether the electronic music innovations of The Radiophonic Workshop… or brutalist architecture, is a sense of them containing some form of loss, of lost progressive futures or arcadic rural dreams and ways of life, of being spectrally imprinted with such loss and a layering of related tales.”
(Quoted from a previous post at A Year In The Country.)
So, aside from just being kind of fun, these are effectively ornamental totems for a certain kind of hauntological viewpoint.
Booklet artwork from Michael Tanner’s Nine Of Swords album.
“Nine of Swords was created by using nine tarot cards allocated to nine sonorous, percussive instruments which were played in the order of their drawing from the deck… Its method of creation recalls the random cut-up literary techniques of William Burroughs or automatic writing and the resulting work is a 68 minute journey which is a balm to contemporary intensity of input… No plug-ins or FX were used in the making of Nine of Swords; the music in the album was guided purely using the (non)choices of the turns of the cards.” (Quoted from A Year In The Country.)
“Through this primordial essence of the drone, Tanner gives voice to a chorus of ghosts in which, in the narrative-conceptual part of the work, the subjects and themes evoked by the symbolic meaning of the playing card that gives the title to the album take part.” (Quoted from a digital translation of a review by Music Won’t Save You.)
Stand by Me is a 1986 film directed by Rob Reiner and based on Stephen King’s 1982 novella The Body.
Set in 1959 it tells the story of four young mostly teenage boys who live in a small town in Oregon, USA who set off on a hike to find the dead body of a missing child.
It could be loosely connected with other films made in the 1980s which looked back on the 1950s and on some levels is quite a non-threatening coming-of-age family film and a sweetly nostalgic look back on a previous era but it also operates on other levels, not least that these young boys are essentially on a rather macabre mission to not so much just find but also view the dead body of somebody who has been murdered. The town’s bullies are also shown to be particularly out of control, with their leader shown as carrying and being prepared to murderously use a switchblade, while in its voiceover conclusion we are told that two of the boys’ lives have had far from happy futures.
In this sense while it is set in a small rural town and its surrounding areas it is not an overly sweet picture perfect, white picket fence view of such areas of America and the 1950s. Rather to a degree it portrays a underbelly which, while a much gentler portrayal of such things, brings to mind David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a film that is set in the then contemporary era but through its use of music and style seems to at points hark back to the 1950s and a time that has been described as “a safe, quiet moment in history”. Lynch’s film explores a vision of small town America which on the surface initially appears normal but that is actually rife and even corrupted by darker undercurrents, something that he would go on to further explore in the television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and which is part of a form of weird Americana aesthetic which developed during the 1980s.
As often seems to be the case with teen and youth orientated film, parents and supervisory adults in Stand by Me are often curiously absent and/or they are a source of problems rather than mature supportive figures; in the film one father is in what is described as a “loony” bin (i.e. a mental hospital), another set of parents are numbed and made dysfunctional by grief and so forth. The children also do not seem to ask their parents’ permission to stay out over night and despite this nobody in the adult world is shown as considering them missing.
With the film’s rural location there is a sense of this almost being an overlooked and an only semi-developed place, where nature may at any times just re-encroach and take over the town. When the children leave its environs, very quickly it seems as though they have stepped into a near wilderness, which is marked as being part of civilisation by the presence of the railway track that they follow but the rural areas seem otherwise curiously unregulated and near frontier like, while a scrapyard the group of boys hang out in is shown as a dangerous or also unregulated edgeland like place.
In some ways Stand By Me could be seen as the John Hughes film he never wrote/made (Hughes is well known for a cycle of 1980s teen orientated films including Pretty in Pink and the Breakfast Club from 1986 and 1985 respectively, which often dealt with class, outsider status and coming of age issues).
As with that cycle of Hughes’ films Stand By Me is in part about class and the way it and also family background can restrict choices and effectively preset pathways through life; in the voiceover conclusion to Reiner’s film the viewer is told that the normal child goes on to have a normal job and family life and the child from an unsettled family ends up wayward. Another child from a family of drunks and criminals takes college courses, escapes from the binds of his earlier life and becomes a lawyer but is murdered when breaking up a fight in a fast-food restaurant. The narrator, whose parents were the ones numbed by grief and who neglected him, is from a middle class family and despite the more dysfunctional aspects of his background he has gone on to be a successful, published writer and at the end of the film is shown living a normal family life as he walks outside and drives away with his son and his son’s friend to take them swimming.
Indeed Stand by Me seems to represent a turning point towards these preset pathways, as the voiceover also tells of how once they return from the voyage the friends largely drifted apart.
While largely a fairly realist film, albeit in a Hollywood manner, there is a curious and disjunctive section where the boy who will go on to be a successful writer tells the others a story about a pie eating competition which results in a mass outbreak of prodigious vomiting in the audience – all of which is portrayed in vivid detail. As mentioned earlier the film was based on a novella by Stephen King and the surreal fantasy like aspect of this section could be seen to be a point of connection to other areas of his fictional output such as the fantasy and horror work for which he is probably best known.
Available in two CD editions: Dawn Light edition £11.95. Nightfall edition £21.95. Also available as a download.
Order via our Artifacts Shop and at Bandcamp.
Both CD editions are hand-finished and custom printed using archival giclée pigment ink by A Year In The Country.
Features music and accompanying text on the tracks by Grey Frequency, Field Lines Cartographer, Widow’s Weeds ft Kitchen Cynics, Depatterning, A Year In The Country, Phonofiction, Pulselovers, Sproatly Smith, Vic Mars, The Heartwood Institute and Howlround.
Amongst Britain’s trees there are thought to be over 3,000 ancient oaks – those which date back 400 years or more – and of those trees more than 115 are 800 to 1,000 years old or more. They are part of a tree population that also includes ash trees that have lived for hundreds of years and a yew that is estimated to be between 2000-3000 years old or possibly many thousands of years older and that some consider to be the oldest living thing in Europe.
These are living organisms which could be seen to be undertaking a very stately, still form of time travel, to be watchers and observers over the passing of the years, centuries and even millennia.
Some of them have lived through invasions of their island home undertaken by wooden ships, sword and arrow, the final days and passing of the old ways and the times of magic and witchcraft, the coming of the industrial revolution and the dawning of the digital era.
Throughout it all they have stood by and watched the endeavours of humans and the encroaching of their lands as the tales passed through traditional folklore evolved into the sometimes dizzying swathes of today’s cultural landscape, with these “mighty oaks” and their companions now coming to be living amongst the invisible hubbub of modern day wirelessly transmitted communications.
The numbers of these longstanding inhabitants of this once largely green and unpaved land have dwindled due to the march of progress but a few stalwartly continue their journeys through time. The Watchers reflects on those journeys and these ancient trees’ residing over growing layers of history.
Dawn Light Edition. Limited to 104 copies. £11.95. Hand-finished white/black CD album in textured recycled fold out sleeve with fold-out insert and badge.
Top of CD and underneath of CD.
Further packaging details:
1) Custom printed using archival giclée pigment ink.
2) Includes 2.5 cm badge, secured with removable glue on string bound tag.
3) 1 x folded sheet of accompanying notes, hand numbered on back.
Nightfall Edition. Limited to 104 copies. £21.95 Hand-finished box-set contains: album on all black CD, 2 x sheets of accompanying notes, 2 x prints, 3 x stickers and 3 x badges.
Top of CD and underneath of CD.
Further packaging details:
1) Cover, notes and prints custom printed using archival giclée pigment ink.
2) Contained in a matchbox style sliding two-part rigid matt card box with cover print.
3) Fully black CD (black on top, black on playable side).
4) 2 x folded sheets of accompanying notes, printed on textured laid paper – one sheet hand numbered on back.
5) 2 x prints on textured fine art cotton rag paper.
6) 2 x 2.5 cm badge, 1 x 4.5 cm badge.
7) 1 x 5.6 cm sticker, 1 x 3.5 cm sticker, 1 x 12cm sticker.
Tracklisting: 1) Grey Frequency – In A Clearing
2) Field Lines Cartographer – A Thousand Autumns
3) Widow’s Weeds ft Kitchen Cynics – The Brave Old Oak
4) Depatterning – Ook/Dair
5) A Year In The Country – Radicle Ether
6) Phonofiction – Xylem Flow
7) Pulselovers – Circles Within Circles
8) Sproatly Smith – Watching You
9) Vic Mars – The Test Of Time
10) The Heartwood Institute – The Trees That Watch The Stones
11) Howlround – The Winter Dream Of Novel’s Oak
“A Year In The Country continue to release their sumptuous CDs… ‘A Thousand Autumns’ by Field Lines Cartographer celebrates an ancient oak, its cyclical shedding of thousands of leaves providing nutrients for next year’s leaves. The twinkling synth sounds like the falling leaves in the shafts of Autumnal sunlight… Sproatly Smith arrive with ‘Watching You’ another song from the point of view of these ancient trees, bird song, female voice, synth and acoustic guitar. Tracing the journey from acorn to mighty hollowed oak, a bucolic folk tune… Vic Mars is next with ‘The Test Of Time’ this song takes its inspiration from the great Eardisley oak tree, one of the oldest in Britain. A purely electronic piece of music which is both cathartic and gentle in nature, it’s stately and develops into a bucolic pastoral piece… This could be the label’s finest release yet.” Andrew Young, Terrascope
“The music portrays a gentle patience, from the field recordings sprinkled throughout the album to delicate chimes and folksong.” Richard Allen, A Closer Listen
“A Year in the Country’s latest uncanny release is The Watchers, a celebration of Britain’s trees that mixes electronica with eerie folk…” Jude Rogers, The Guardian
Print artwork from the No More Unto The Dance album.
“No More Unto The Dance is a reflection of nightlife memories and the search for the perfect transportative electronic beat, a collection of reverberations that have fragmented with the passing of time; a mixtape that envisions echoes of times lost in the once seemingly endless dreams of a club… the world in which this recording was made does still come alive at night but it is more likely to be the nocturnal foraging and wanderings of wildlife rather than in a low-ceilinged basement lit by a strobe light…”|
(Quoted from text which accompanied the album.)
“Such imaginings are haunting, layering one another with emotional imagery that cannot help but lead the ghosts onto the floor, a disco queen here, a rave scene there, the scent of northern soul, the smell of teen spirit. By the time it’s over, you feel as though you’ve been dancing all night; by the time you’ve recovered, you want to do it again.”
(Dave Thompson writing about the album at his Spincycle section at Goldmine Magazine.)
Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest could be considered part of a genre where noir-esque, genre and crime fiction is used as a way of exploring hidden or semi-forgotten/unearthed history, in a similar manner to say David Peace’s GB84 (2004), Clare Carson’s Orkney Twilight (2015) and Adrian McKinty’s In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, which are set amongst the turbulence within British politics around approximately 1984-1985 and to varying degrees the 1984-1985 UK Miner’s Strike.
These novels all could also be seen as related explorations of “the at times murky, ambiguous actions, participants and organisations of those involved”. (From a previous post at A Year In The Country.)
In The Fountain in the Forest a detective called Rex King investigates a murder committed in a central London theatre and time/location at points shifts from modern-day London to an abandoned and squatted village in rural 1980s France, from which the novel takes its name and the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge.
At its core it hinges on a 90 day period of 1985 between the just mentioned Miner’s Strike and The Battle of the Beanfield, which is described as an interregnum – i.e. a period when normal government is suspended – and the book’s blurb says this was a “moment when Thatcher’s militia fatally wounded the British political counterculture”. This was a period which could be to seen to be a moment of:
“…change and upheaval within British society, turning points when there were conflicts between different belief systems/power structures, battles between the old ways and the new.” (From a previous post at A Year In The Country.)
(As an aside the UK Miner’s Strike was a bitterly fought conflict between miner’s and the Coal Board/government of the day over pit closures, while the Battle of the Beanfield saw over 1000 police officers preventing a new age – and others – convoy of vehicles from setting up a free festival at Stonehenge. Both saw actions by the authorities that have been viewed as controversial and at times particularly heavy-handed/violent.)
In a previous post at A Year In The Country I talked about the settings of GB84, Orkney Twilight and In The Morning I’ll Be Gone:
“Although not exclusively set within rural areas, the above three novels often focus on actions that are away from large-scale cities and capitals, with there being an at times underlying sense that these are areas which are a step or two away from the norms of civilisation; they are shown as being unobserved frontiers or edgelands where the rule of law is suspended, where conflicts can be settled in a more brutal, basic manner and crimes or what are considered transgressions against the powers that be’s intentions are dealt with and punished in an almost medieval way.”
The Fountain in the Forest has a similar take on rural areas; the squatted rural village is in a remote, hard to get to area and run as a non-hierarchical commune away from “normal” societies rules and strictures, while the new age and others convoy is also a loose, non-hierarchical gathering where people choose to live alternative lifestyles. Both are physically destroyed, with the authorities actions against the convoy in particular – vehicles were smashed and set on fire, members beaten etc – bringing to mind more the putting down of a rebellion in a far-flung century than actions that would be expected in a supposedly modern twentieth century western democracy.
As mentioned at the start of this post, all these novels utilise crime fiction and can be considered readable, accessible – if not always light reading – fictional works. However as mentioned previously at A Year In The Country, GB84 is “stylistically left of centre or even possibly borderline experimental”. While its use of language and atmosphere is generally more conventional than GB84, The Fountain in the Forest is more overtly formally avant-garde in a number of senses; these include its use of techniques associated with Oulipo, who were a group of mathematicians and writers who produced work according to set rules and constraints (for example George Perecs’ novel A Void featured no words with the letter “e”).
The author forces himself to use a mandated vocabulary and includes the words that make up the answers to the Guardian newspaper’s Quick Crossword from the central 90 day period in which the novel is set. These words are bolded throughout the text and effectively mean it is imbued and layered with a spectral sense of a past era – in the Author’s Notes Tony White mentions how he completed these crosswords at the time and that writing these words out activated a kind of linguistic “muscle memory” as well as offering a linguistic and historical time capsule of the period, alongside a pantheon of historical figures.
Adding to this formal experimentalism, each chapter name is taken from the French revolutionary rural calendar. This was created post-1789 and utilised a radical new form of timekeeping that utilised a 10 day week named after different items from rural life, such as herbs, foodstuff, livestock, tools etc. In comparison with the more traditional calendar these names were intended to have a secular, non-royal and non-hierachical basis and they include the likes of Mandragore (Mandrake), Sylvie (Anemone), Vélar (Hedge Mustard) and Cordeau (Twine).
Although The Fountain in the Forest is in large part set in contemporary London, these sections seem to almost belong to or harken to a past age or be a snapshot of a lost London; a time when it was possible/affordable for “ordinary” people to live and buy homes in very central London. Perhaps also because many of the locations described are ones I was once very familiar with and indeed regularly visited I also brought to it a sense of my own past and related loss.
There is also a sense of wider loss, of the freedom in a pre-digital age to start your life over again truly free of the baggage and constraints of your previous life, when the central character creates a new semi-forged identity for himself:
“As soon as the new passport had come through, Rex… had got up under the cover of darkness and hitched a ride to London. Started over, in the days when you could still do that.”
Throughout the book there is an ongoing sense of timeslip; the description of the last free Stonehenge free festival in 1984 in terms of its cultural reference points, seems more like a late 1960s/early-to-mid 1970s hippie drugfest – although as I have mentioned at A Year In The Country before, there is at points something of a crossover between 1960s hippie culture and 1980s new age travellers and anarcho/crusty punks. The hairstyles may have been different but their rejection of mainstream societal norms shared a number of similarities in its expression.
The book is also initially divided into distinctive parts, with each one generally taking place in a particular location and timezone and there not an obvious connection between them. Towards the end these sections begin to merge into one in an almost maelstrom manner that reflects the conflict and dismemberment of a way of life that happened at the Battle of the Beanfield and which is depicted in the text.
(May Day Song from the Janet Heatley Blunt collection, via the English Folk Dance and Song Society Full English archive.)
The only indication that the text has moved from one to another is that they are divided by the lyrics to the folk song May Day Carol:
“I’ve been a-rambling all the night,
And the best part of the day;
And now I am returning back again,
I have brought you a branch of May.”
The central character recalls this song as he waits with the convoy to try and travel to Stonehenge and setup the free festival. It brings back memories of warm May Day celebrations of his youth, when a school-teacher had possibly sought to:
“…soften the lines of the new-build 1960s school building she found herself in charge of, by aligning it with these more archaic and traditional forms of folk art.”
There is a sense at this point of some kind of rural, arcadian, alternative lifestyle that is enjoying a moment of freedom, autonomy and confidence but which will soon have that literally beaten out of it.
I discovered The Fountain in the Forest via a review by Sukhdev Sandhu, in which it is described as:
“An avant-garde take on the pulp crime genre becomes a paean to liberty and a secret history of the 1980s.”
In an interconnected manner to secret histories, Sandhu is one of the key figures behind the publisher Texte und Töne, which has published books/booklets that have included The Stink Still Here, wherein GB84 author David Peace discusses his “occult” (or hidden) history of the UK Miner’s Strike.
The publications are beautifully produced and designed and often explore work that could be seen to sit at the confluence of the undercurrents of folkloric culture and where it meets the spectres of hauntology, including studies of David Rudkin and Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen, Nigel Kneales work and the cultural and historical background of the television series The Changes.
As a final aside Tony White has something of a history in subversions/explorations of genre and pulp literature, being the editor of Britpulp! New Fast and Furious Stories from the Literary Underground published in 1999 and which was described as:
“Bursting out of the literary underground, all the writers in this ground-breaking anthology put the emphasis firmly back on gratuitous story-telling and brutal, break-neck plots. Scorching hardcore prose of Stewart Home’s Sex Kick collides with the bitterly romantic confessions of Billy Childish. Nicholas Blincoe’s cool and stylish thriller writing meets the street realism of Victor Headley’s Retropolitan Police, while well-dressed London gangsters fight for page space with the old school skinheads of Richard Allen. Other confirmed authors include Donald Gorgan, Steve Aylett, along with untapped talent from the literary underground.”
He also wrote one of a set of books published in the late 1990s by Attack! Books, alongside the likes of Mark Manning (aka musician Zodiac Mindwarp) and the just mentioned Stewart Home, which in part could be seen to be a then contemporary, transgressive and self-awarely hip updating of the likes of the also just mentioned pulp author Richard Allen, who wrote over 290 novels, including a number of books which focused on late 1960s and 1970s youth subcultures such as skinheads, hippies and bikers.
Artwork from Hand of Stab’s Black-Veined White album.
“Black-Veined White takes as its starting point the eponymous butterfly which was last seen in the UK in Rochester, the area in which Hand of Stabs work and explore, in the 1920s…” (Quoted from A Year In The Country.)
“Sharing a love of the history and sacred past of Medway Towns and surrounding countryside, and inspired by regular, often night-time walks through these spaces, they are creating a series of soundworks evoking and celebrating their essence.” (Text by Hand of Stabs.)
It seems like there’s something of a spectral summer a-coming in (or “is icumen in“)…
First up in this gathering of such things is the A Midsummer Night’s Happening on 21st June 2019 at The state51 Factory in London, an event which is described as “a solstice celebration hosted by state51, Ghost Box and Trunk Records”, that will take place across three themed interiors called Pan’s Garden, The Youth Club and The TV Chamber. It features the likes of:
1) Justin Hopper and Sharron Kraus performing their album Chanctonbury Rings, which is based around Hopper’s book The Old Weird Albion. (The album also features Belbury Poly and will be released on 21st June by Ghost Box Records.)
2) The Kirchin Tape Lab, which will include Trunk Records’ Jonny Trunk and his OST radio show co-host Robin The Fog (aka Radiophonic-esque tape manipulator Howlround), who will be playing live tape reels from the unheard archive of composer and music experimenter/boundary pusher Basil Kirchin.
(As an aside when Basil Kirchin experimented with slowing down recordings he described it as revealing “Little boulders of sound” – which is a rather lovely turn of phrase.)
3) Soundcarriers performing an instrumental live soundtrack to a film by Ghost Box Records’ Julian House.
4) An exhibition by Frances Castle of Clay Pipe Music.
5) Wisbey, who will be asking the audience to request their favourite soundtracks, which apparently he will then perform on a home organ, in what sounds like something of a human jukebox manner.
And a fair bit more from DJ sets to The Mangle’s “print your own event tshirt” facilities, a state51 shop, food etc. Blimey.
I’m not sure but I think the event may take its name from Sally and Mike “Tubular Bells” Oldfield’s track “Midsummer Night’s Happening” on their acid/psych folk 1968 album Children of the Sun (it also brings to mind the rare 1971 acid/psych folk album A Midsummer’s Night Dream album by Oberon). The “happening” is sold out already I’m afraid though.
(Left-right: upcoming 2019 Weirdshire events, the cover to the Weirdshire album, Weirdshire events in 2018.)
Next up is a series of events from Weirdshire at Babar Cafe in Herefordshire and which take place between June and August. These feature performers who often work amongst the flipside and undercurrents of folk and include Sharron Kraus and Kitchen Cynics, United Bible Studies, C. Joynes, Sproatly Smith and Burd Ellen, alongside vinyl selections from jus’jay and Sproatly Smith (the events are also curated/hosted by Sproatly Smith).
(Left-right: the cover of the Weirdlore album, Weirdshire Weekend poster from 2015, Sproatly Smith poster from 2016.)
The Weirdshire events connect with the cancelled Weirdlore festival from 2012 (and the accompanying album which was released by the sadly missed Folk Police Recordings); after that event was cancelled the first Weirdshire event took place at The Barrels in Hereford and was intended as an alternative to Weirdlore, with the resulting one day festival including some of the performers who were going to play at Weirdlore, alongside other invitees.
There have been a series of other Weirdshire events since then, including in 2018 the “International Psych Folk Festival”, which featured B’ee (In Gowan Ring), David Colohan, Sproatly Smith, Moongazing Hare, Kitchen Cynics, Trappist Afterland, David Ian Robers, Alula Down, OORT (Trans Neptunian Objects), Jacken Elswyth and Cath & Phil Tyler, alongside jus’jay DJ-ing again.
Weirdshire has also released the Beating the Bounds compilation, which features what is described as “weird/alt/psych folk from Herefordshire” and features a number of the performers from the Weirdshire events.
(As a further aside, reading about the Weirdshire events and line-ups conjures almost a sense of timeslip. They’re contemporary but seem to have a direct line – or should that be portal? – back to acid and psych folk explorations of the earlier 1970s…)
And then there is The Delaware Road: Ritual & Resistance festival on August 17th and 18th, which is hosted/curated by Buried Treasure Records and takes place in the far from conventional venue of “an austere military complex at New Zealand Farm near West Lavington”. It is an event which I have mentioned around these parts before and as I said then the line-up for the festival draws from what could be called the confluence or intertwining between otherly pastoral and hauntological work.
It features something of a smorgasboard of artists, DJs, video producers, film makers, sound designers, record labels, guest speakers, writers and illustrators:
PENNY RIMBAUD (Crass), NATALIE SHARP / LONE TAXIDERMIST, ANDREA PARKER (Mo’ Wax), LIA MICE, EKOPLEKZ, SOUNDHOG, FARMER GLITCH, IX TAB, ASSEMBLED MINDS, GERALDINE WOLFE, SEQUENCIAL, BRAZEN HEAD, DOMINIC LASH + SETH COOKE, PAUL WATSON, ANI KCAM, MARK VERNON, CATTLE, THE SEANCE (Pete Wiggs + Dem), FRONT & FOLLOW, KEMPER NORTON, THE SLOWEST LIFT, EMBLA QUICKBEAM, ARC SOUNDTRACKS, DJ FOOD (Ninja Tune), SARAH ANGLISS, CLAY PIPE MUSIC, SIMON JAMES, REVBJELDE, CASTLES IN SPACE, THE TWELVE HOUR FOUNDATION, CONCRETISM, POLYPORES, PSYCHE TROPES, SCULPTURE, HOWLROUND + MERKABA MACABRE, A’BEAR, DOUG SHIPTON (Finders Keepers), NICK TAYLOR, ALISON COTTON (Cardinal Fuzz), IAN HELLIWELL, RADIONICS RADIO, CHRIS SPEED VISUALS and THE INFINITE ATTIC LIGHT SHOW.
The Delaware Road: Ritual & Resistance event has offered a number of tempting extras to those who buy tickets, including the Nearest Neighbour graphic novel and cassette by audio video duo Sculpture, France’s Castle of Clay Pipe Music’s graphic novel and flexidisc Stagdale and Buried Treasure promo packs featuring CDs, vinyl and badges from the label.
(As a final and further aside the performances etc at the event are said to be “inspired by The Delaware Road narrative, landscape, myth, broadcast propaganda and the transformative nature of sound”. The Delaware Road story appears to have as it’s starting point The Delaware Road “illusory motion picture soundtrack” album, which is described as being an “occult thriller conspiracy” that will appeal to those who appreciate “archived electronica, far out jazz and haunted folk grooves”. It has a theme based around; “London. 1968. Two pioneering electronic musicians discover a set of unusual recordings which leads to a revelation about their employer. Fascinated by the seemingly occult nature of the tapes they conduct a ritual that will alter their lives forever.”)
Print artwork from Grey Frequency’s Immersion album.
“Ethereal ambient transmissions… Through the manipulation of found sounds and field recordings Grey Frequency explores themes of memory, folklore, and the world of audio disintegration. Soundscapes are crafted using audio cassettes, tape players and effects pedals, creating an atmospheric blend of lo-fi ambient textures, dense drones and abstract musical passages.” (Text written by Grey Frequency.)
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