Skip to content

Broadcast: Berberian Sound Studio (39 fragments)

January 15, 2013


  1. I do like this kind of thing.
  2. Berberian Sound Studio, the new album by Broadcast, has more tracks than minutes.
  3. That’s 39 in 37, if you’re interested.
  4. The album is a soundtrack, and a soundtrack-within-a-soundtrack.
  5. (Eerie, atmospheric electronic sound is often remarked on as sounding vaguely “like” a film soundtrack, but there’s something more definite going on here.)
  6. Berberian Sound Studio is tied in with Peter Strickland’s film of the same name, about an English radiophonic sound-maker.
  7. The composer or bruiteur, Gilderoy, goes to Italy to make a score for an Italian horror film.
  8. This leads to disquiet and derangement.
  9. Here is a still from the film:        Image
  10. The movie within the movie, The Equestrian Vortex, is not actually seen in Strickland’s film, but plenty of it is heard.
  11. Some of the music here, then, is the music of Broadcast;
  12. Some of it is the music of an implied or imagined composer from the past.
  13. This recording was conceived before the sad death of Trish Keenan, almost exactly two years ago.
  14. Trish’s voice appears here and there, thinly, beautifully.
  15. This comes from Dictaphone recordings made when material was being sketched, apparently.
  16. I probably don’t need to tell you that the effect is haunting.
  17. In many respects this album is a joy; it reminds me of the pleasure of miniaturization.
  18. Even leaving aside the connection to the film, you can choose to simply take this album as a nice old cabinet of curiosities.
  19. There are some lovely, some spooky, some grotesque treasures extracted from a fanciful library.
  20. The closeness to “library music” is meant to add up to something studious, like scholars finding horrors under dusty calf-skin.
  21. I mean, common to both the biblioteque and the discoteque is a sense of rising unease:
  22. That is, the menace of the archive, the dubiousness of reviving the past.
  23. Here is a preview of the album:
  24. What’s new? For one, a gorgeous horror-organ sound that keeps booming, at points, throughout the album.
  25. This album sits very nicely alongside Broadcast’s earlier, similarly fragmentful collaboration with The Focus Group, … Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age.
  26. It’s all quite a way from the songs on The Noise Made by People (dreamy, yet nightmarish;
  27. A distance, too, from the clipped stripped style on Tender Buttons.
  28. The fact that this is both soundtrack and meta-soundtrack might have opened up too many chances for self-parody.
  29. In fact, there are some movie-kitsch moments with screams and demonic babbling
  30. (then again, why shouldn’t there be?)
  31. These are balanced, though, by sweet pastoral airs, in particular a magnificent recurring theme.
  32. A proper hard modernist composer would have put the whole thing as one track, I reckon.
  33. Presenting the piece as thirty-nine tracks is the work of someone with a pop sensibility.
  34. Is there any difference?
  35. The film deals with the process of composing sounds (the point where everything’s still in bits and pieces, yet to be fully formed);
  36. Collecting these sounds leads to derangement.
  37. The bitty nature appeals to the listener as collector, and the collector as madman.
  38. Our collections are probably a good indication of the individual manner in which we will all, inevitably, become deranged.
  39. This soundtrack is a thing worth having.

What’s going on…

January 13, 2013

… with Frank Sidebottom’s head? And why is he standing next to Maggie Gyllenhaal and a lad who was in the Harry Potter films? These are the questions in everyone’s gobs after the emergence of this picture:


This is the photograph that’s being parade as the “first look at Michael Fassbender as Frank Sidebottom”, from an upcoming film that is to some degree (there’s some mystery here) “about” the late Chris Sievey’s comic alter-ego. Of course, we have to accept it’s true that it’s Fassbender under the papier mache head; it could be Ed Miliband for all I know. But what about that head?

As fans will know, this is what Frank Sidebottom really looks like:


The version played by Fassbender is eerily “off”, to the extent that I reckon the wrongness must be intentional. My favourite suggestion is that an actor playing a role in a biopic never looks exactly like the film’s subject, and a Michael Sheen-ish almostness is being created. The gormless, lipless mouth and untwinkling eyes are certainly unsettling. In the real Sidebottom’s eyes, of course, there’s a light that never…

Digital degradation

January 7, 2013


An update on my recent post where I was going on about how Holly Herndon’s Movement might be an intelligent response to the non-living and “non-degradable”problem of digital music: here’s a piece showing a way in which digital files might be made to degrade — an album made by copying and recopying an mp3 of Beethoven’s Große Fuge by Har$, who asks:

what would happen if I fed the output of an mp3 encoder back into itself, and then continued to do so? Make an mp3 of the mp3, then an mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3, an mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3 of the mp3, and so on…?

Here’s the resulting album on a bandcamp page, and here’s a detailed description of the process from the SoundBlog site. “The result,” writes the composer, “is a dense flow of digital artifacts. But if you listen carefully, within this bubbling electronic stream, you can still make out the outlines of the fugue. It is floating in the depths, like a ghost.”

Wrong artwork, clown

January 4, 2013

I’m not sure how usual these particular mistakes are, but here are some cases of [famous digital media library] trying to be clever and guess the right artwork for some fairly canonical albums I own, and not getting it right.

1) Roxy Music’s eponymous first album:


This one’s strange, in that they’ve got the colours kind of right.

2) The Velvet Underground and Nico:


Naughty failure to find one of the most recognisable album covers ever.


3) Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom:



Holly Herndon: Movement

January 3, 2013


I suppose a common prejudice against computer music – proper, fully digitally made electronic music – is that it’s not made to move, in any sense of the word: see the clichés about laptop performances as profoundly unbodily experiences; about the unfeeling, unmoved logic of unsentimental software; about the non-living, not-live character of the computer. Add to this the sense that digital sound is unmovable, non-degradable: while hauntologists, cassette-cults, dusty stylus lovers prize analog electronic sound for its ability to decay over time, digital sound becomes conversely a matter of ecological crisis, refusing to molder or delight with its dying.

Holly Herndon’s album Movement is, I think, a hugely important record, responding to the question of the relationship between body and software, rightly showing up these prejudices as antiquated. More importantly still, the album is a real delight, its pleasures visceral as well as intellectual.

Herndon’s music insists on the human form, whether that be the body in movement (the rhythmic, beat-based, fully danceable title track, for example) or the body in crisis – this is the sense I get from the more abstract, voice-and-breath based compositions like Breathe and Dilato, which seem to unsettle with their microscopic intrusion into anatomical pulses, interrupted or strained or stretched bodily rhythms.

Admittedly, Herndon claimed in a recent Quietus interview that Breathe, with its drawn-out gasps and magnificent long pause just a few seconds in, isn’t necessarily intended to be an unsettling piece, but there’s surely an ambiguity here which in itself is stimulating (and ultimately more challenging than unremittingly dystopian, doom-bellowing electronic music). What are we hearing? Relaxation (and breathe…) or panic (breathlessly)? Claustrophobia (breathing down your neck) or an erotic thrill (breathing on your neck) or a turning inside-out (breathing down your own neck)? I hear the closeness of these sensations, all cased in the same flesh.

Above all, I take Breathe and Dilato as abstract songs; the former is especially welcome after a couple of years where the signature sound of TV advertising has been a faux-ksy strum of string and a standard-issue “breathy” female vocal. This is what a breathy vocal really sounds like.

Christmas Number One

December 20, 2012

If you don’t play this to your children on Christmas morning then you are a bad parent.

Stills from Radio On

December 18, 2012

(Christopher Petit, 1979)





Mick Ronson: Hey Ma Get Papa

December 18, 2012

bowie ronson1

Everyone has their own favourite “surprise” Bowie song from beyond the trusted territory of the 1969-1980 albums. Mine doesn’t come from the unpromising expanse the wrong side of Scary Monsters, nor does it come from the sixties period before Space Oddity signaled the start of the seventies Bowie; as I’ve already noted, Bowie did loads of brilliant things in the sixties, so a gem from that period doesn’t seem too rare a discovery.

My own pet non-canonical Bowie song is Hey Ma Get Papa, written by Bowie and performed by Mick Ronson on Ronson’s confused post-Spiders album Slaughter on 10th Avenue. It’s easy to miss this song, since it’s tagged on the end of the fairly dire longer song Pleasure Man, by way of an extended guitar / studio effects transition. I can only find one version on Youtube with just Hey Ma Get Papa; happily, it’s paired with an image of a hammerhead shark.

Hey Ma Get Papa is one of three songs donated by Bowie to Slaughter on 10th Avenue, if you include Music is Lethal, a loose translation of a Lucio Battisti song. These songs apparently stem from Bowie’s infatuation with the streetwise, urban American style of the young Bruce Springsteen (Bowie went on to cover It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City), though of course the Boss’s earnest grit becomes something camper when tried on by the Dame: “Now I take pride in the way I behave, never see me stalking around,” goes Growing Up and I’m Fine, unintentionally funnily. The interest in juvenile delinquency was always present in the golden age of glam, as in Ziggy Stardust’s stolen guitars and Clockwork Orange references, or Mott the Hoople’s supreme teenage tough / queenly mincer duet, Violence. Ronson himself would have a bash at this type of song with Billy Porter, on his next album.

What happens to the tough / camp combination, beyond the break-up of the Spiders, at the effete end of glam, sung by the harder, Hull-ier cast-aside-kick Mick? Ronson sounds like he’s straining to sing it like Bowie or at least Ian Hunter, and I think this is what appeals to me about Hey Ma Get Papa, this weird tale about dubious characters called JJ Dean and Pigsty Paul and a sacrificial-symbolic stabbing in the side with a spike from a fence. There’s an almost comical absence of Humberside in Ronson’s voice. (There is usually something enjoyable about all-powerful guitarists made vulnerable as vocalists; I’ve always enjoyed Rowland S. Howard’s solo material for this same reason.)

The song’s not all Bowie, though. As a studio creation, the track grew from Ronson’s apparent interest in Todd Rundgren-like effects such as the lovely sweep of synthesizer that propels the intro to the song. There’s a highly lovable synth solo. Above all, though, what really nudges the song out of the post-Ziggy rut in which most of Slaughter on 10th… is the deranged background voices that infiltrate the song after the first chorus. These at first add to the same mixed glam/Berlin cabaret atmosphere as featured on Bowie’s Velvet Goldmine, but end up sounding like an out-take from Stockhausen’s Stimmung.


Vindicatrix: Mengamuk (and Die Alten Bösen Lieder)

December 17, 2012


Vindicatrix’s albums – 2010’s Die Alten Bösen Lieder, and its excellent recent follow-up, Mengamuk — shouldn’t be that hard to place. Plenty of the elements making up these records are familiar enough: the jittery beats and dub wobbles echoing Burial and beyond; some dusty electronics and hanging spirits reconvened from Ghost Box and its hauntological associates; the trembling baritone of later Scott Walker; an atmospheric persistence of ghosts of songs, as heard in The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom. There’s a context in which this stuff can be placed.

Even so, Vindicatrix — David Aird, by his other name — seems a little out on his own, impressively fitful and contrary. His first album (The Old Bad Songs is the literal translation of the title) wretches up traditional German songs, the gestures of cabaret performances; Vindicatrix’s live shows, by all accounts, are fittingly performances in the proper sense. But on record at least the up-frontness of cabaret performance is turned around. The voice is always buried, whispering under layers of sound like a thing resisting excavation.

It’s an expressive (and expressionist?) voice, working against the logic of the music, dragging down the moving beats. This is music that only the nervous system will dance to, the bone-bag now exhausted and paranoid, having frightened off all potential partners. There’s a comparison to be made with Scott Walker, beyond the low, unnervingly patient voice (I apologise, he probably gets that all the time); a point that came up in Scott’s recent Wire interview about Climate of Hunter, and the juxtaposition of slow-moving vocalizations with more frenetic rhythms, could equally be made about these records.

When the voice does surface and really make itself heard, its usually expressing something uneasy and extraordinary, as on Mengamuk’s brilliant opening song, Cellophane, when I think Aird sings, with rare impatience, “I need an organ! What’s an organ between friends?” It’s a good question, though it’s also likely that this is my own mis-hearing. I’m happy to hang onto my uncertainty.

Stills from La Guerre est Finie

December 14, 2012

(Alain Resnais, 1966)