It was twelve months ago today that Trish Keenan, singer and songwriter in Broadcast, tragically died after contracting pneumonia in Australia. I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the work of one of my favourite bands.

The first Broadcast record I owned was Ha Ha Sound, their somewhat avant-garde second album for Warp. As a lover of analogue/retro-futurist synth stylings it instantly grabbed me. There are any number of Radophonic Workshop fetishists knocking out genre-exercise library music pastiches, but Broadcast were better. Broadcast had heart. They were a pop band (lest we forget, they were able to fit snugly onto the Austin Powers soundtrack).

Pop music should always feel like it comes from outer space. I can remember seeing endless BBC documentaries where rent-a-talking-heads types would reminisce about listening to Radio Caroline and the like. The story always goes that they would listen to these new rhythm and blues bands which couldn’t yet be heard on mainstream radio and feel like the musicians involved were ‘from another planet’.

These days much of the mystery’s gone. With the X Factor and the like proceeding from the assumption that being involved in the commerce of music is what people want, they’ve shattered the illusion of pop stars as alien. Even in the world of indie music you’re apt to see some songwriter whose sensitive musings on love and life you admire tweeting off #lols and banal domestic observations… so it’s nice to hear a record which still feels like it could have come from another place.

Of course Broadcast were borrowing from the tradition which gave us Delia Derbyshire’s recording of the music for Dr Who. Early synth enthusiasts had their avant-garde dabblings subsidised by selling them as soundtracks for Quatermass and the Pit, Forbidden Planet and the like. The wobble of an analogue oscillator fed through a space echo will be forever evoke cheaply costumed space monsters stalking across distant planets/disused quarries.

Broadcast used all these potentially sci-fi signifiers in their work, but it was Trish’s vocals and lyrics that made them so beautifully alien. The headline in this obituary ‘Alice through the test card’ captures it perfectly. She hinted at this wonderland when she sang ‘curiouser and curiouser’ in Black Cat from Tender Buttons.

Instrumentally Broadcast were a whirl of ideas, you can’t understate the contributions of the original members to the first two albums. The drums in particular are excellent and recall Phil Spector’s girl groups, the balance of keyboard textures is perfect, the lead melodies all memorable. Then every now and again a little flourish makes you realise that a computer has crept in somewhere and it almost feels like an anachronism, like seeing a digital watch on a roman soldier. Even when they stripped down to a duo for Tender Buttons and brought more guitars into the mix, they somehow found a way to make that most generic of instruments sound strange….

At the heart of it all was Trish’s Alice gazing back out into the world. Her lyrics filtered her observations through phrases cut up and rearranged into surrealist poetry, always delivered in her beautifully blank melancholy chanteuse’s style. Usually evoking love and loss, the other side of the looking glass seemed to be somewhere deep inside her, rather than an alien planet (which of course would have looked suspiciously like a disused quarry).

“Here I am, at the end, before the beginning…”

I think my favourite Broadcast song is Before We Begin and I was just checking to see if there was ever an official video for it which I didn’t know about. Instead I found this fan made one:

Which is actually quite delightful. It’s a quick ‘n’ dirty re-edit of some old footage, but the way it flits in and out of sync with the track, with the singer dancing out of time, stuck in a loop works much better than it was probably even meant to. Like Trish’s Alice, lost and out of sync with the real world.

I hope this doesn’t come across as some sort of posthumous attempt to reframe what Broadcast’s records mean. I’ve always felt this way about them. Trish Keenan’s death was just one of those occasions where basic human frailty catches you out. There were no hints of it in her music.

The good news for fans is that James Cargill has apparently been working on material for a new Broadcast album using vocal tracks she recorded before her death. Certainly when I saw them perform at Chapter in December 2009 a large chunk of the set was new material, so I had been wondering (somewhat selfishly) if there were usable recordings of those songs which might see the light of day.

I can only imagine how difficult it must be for James to work on this material given that Trish was not only his bandmate and creative partner, but his romantic partner too. Still I’m glad that the record’s on it’s way, and hope he’s taking some comfort from making it.


Byetone – SyMeta (and the brain’s perception of spatial relationships)

I bought this record because it was’s 2011 album of the year, maybe this makes me some sort of mindless conformist pseud, but nevermind. I still enjoy the giddy thrill of buying records I haven’t heard, splashing out my £10 and taking a gamble.

[This is not a review by the way, I don’t review records. Even if it may read like one at first….]

picture of Byetone CD

The artwork on the sleeve is embossed, making it sexy like an American Psycho business card.

It’s always difficult going into an album thinking ‘this is the BEST thing released this year’ it carries quite a burden of expectation (see my last post for more on that). SyMeta starts relatively inauspiciously with a simple back and forth noise-wave drum sound, but then does that lovely thing where another rhythmic element comes in which re-contextualises what you’ve just heard as a different part of the beat. There’s probably a proper word for that but I don’t know it.

Beyond that the track, called ‘Topas’, unfolds nicely enough with some more shifts in rhythm, urgent sounding bleeps competing for your attention at high tempo and lots of sinister inhuman textures. It segues seamlessly into the next track ‘T-E-L-E-G-R-A-M-M’ which is more of the same. I liked it but it didn’t feel like OMG Album Of The YEAR material.

My first thought was ‘this is just like a straighter version of what Autechre were doing around LP5′, though the sounds aren’t identical. I’d say the sounds Byetone uses are similar to the ones you get coming out of Reaktor Prism. The whole album has the feel of some very deep software synths trying to recreate an analogue feel. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that no sound on the record took the trouble to pass through a wire on its way to the final mixdown.

The textures all have a harsh metallic quality to them, sounding hollow and cold but with some sort of gloss, and ultimately they’re what have hooked me in and convinced me that whilst I’m not going to say it’s the best thing that came out last year I can see what’s good about it. Structurally the tracks are classic ‘add a bit, add a bit more, take some away, repeat to fade’ tracks, and by initially focussing on that I missed what is most interesting about this record which is the sounds themselves, and how he’s balanced these cold inhuman Ae-like textures with clubby structures.

SyMeta is, in a nutshell, a cold, inhuman-sounding techno record – but it’s one of the most fun cold, inhuman techno records I’ve heard.

It made me think about space within synthetic sounds. I read a book about neuroscience and music recently (which I’ll be talking about more later). It’s full of nuggets like the fact that you can confuse people as to what instrument they’re hearing by simply removing the attack portion of its soundwave. It’s just that split second at the start of a sound which seems to carry all the character. What the implications of this are for drone-metal bands I’m not sure. Likewise when you hear a sound properly, like a bell chiming for example, it evokes the material it’s made of and the space it’s in.

It occurred to me that what I love about certain kinds of synth sounds is that they evoke structures and spaces that don’t, or even can’t, exist. People always flail around for adequate descriptions (as I’ve done above) because their brain is telling them that what they’re hearing is some sort of impossible structure with an infinity of reverberating semi-liquid columns stretched across a gaping oval of copper ON THE MOON or some such thing. It’s a sign without a signifier, or a simulacra of something that isn’t real.

A Calabi-Yau manifold

You could use a Calabi-Yau manifold as your oscillator, as George Formby once said.

But despite this, your brain does its best to evoke the properties this weird thing making the sound would have if it did exist. Images come to mind, textures and temperatures. Even something basic like tempo is filled in by your brain. High bpm music feels ‘fast’, low bpm music feels ‘slow’ – but there’s actually a disconnect between what these things mean for music and physical objects. This despite the obvious fact that an instrumentalist has to move faster to play a fast piece, you still perceive it as fast even if you can’t see a musician. If you don’t believe this, play a very fast and very slow record for a young child and ask them to dance to it. The understanding of tempo is innate and not linked to the movements needed to create the music. More likely it ties in with the human heartbeat, hence the preference for 4/4 as a time signature.

So imagine the maths your brain and ears, working in tandem, have to do to conjure up the image of the non-object which creates a synth sound. Unlike a record which uses conventional instruments, a sound-design record is inherently evocative, because it has to be. You can’t just say ‘that’s a nice accordion solo’ because there’s no reference point for it. Sure you can say ‘that’s a synth’, but a synth isn’t just one thing. The more complex synths or digital processing become, and the more divorced they are from physical equipment, the deeper the potential for these utterly alien sounds.

I love analogue synths as much as the next sentimental geek, but digital synths offer a richness that goes beyond any other instrument. It reminds me of the quote from Autechre that with the equipment available today, there’s no excuse for any one band to sound like any other band.

‘Pure’ electronic records are just about exploring sound. People use strange flowery language to try and describe them and link them back to feelings or ideas, but really they’re just struggling to cope with the awe at the power of their own minds.

(As an aside, I wonder if you could reverse engineer an object from a synth sound using a 3D printer? You can certainly do it with 2D images.)

Stradivarius, James Blake, and the KLF

I want to set the tone a little for this new blog. The plan is for this to mostly be a music blog, but I don’t really want to do reviews and stuff, more to talk about what music means in a wider context. As well as talking about music making technically as well as aesthetically.

So this first post is about ‘authenticity’, and it’s been prompted by two things. The first is the report that professional violin players prefer a cheap modern violin than a priceless antique in double blind tests. The second is one of the threads in ‘How Pleasure Works’ by Paul Bloom, a book which looks at the science behind ‘why we like what we like’.

Two books and a James Blake CDBloom suggests that the reason we have art, music and such, is because of mental systems – such as imagination, i.e. the ability to envisage a hypothetical situation and therefore plan ahead – which gave us an evolutionary advantage. But our brains no more evolved to make music or art, than our legs evolved to run marathons or kick footballs. Both pursuits later made use of things which originally had a different purpose.

He attempts to unpick the innate human belief in ‘essence’, that sense we have that under the surface of an object is a truth which is greater than its empirical properties. So a hat that belonged to Michael Jackson is worth more than the same make and model of hat would be if it belonged to me. This pebble is worth more to you than a chemically identical pebble because you brought it back from a nice day out at the beach. And so forth…

This new study (small and provisional as it is) finds that people, when denied the knowledge of what violin they’re playing, are less impressed by a nice Stradivari than the millions some pay for them suggest they should be. Bloom would presumably believe that this is because when people know they’re playing an authentic antique instrument they perceive this ‘essence’, which gives them pleasure in itself, and that they also come to the instrument loaded with expectations about how it will sound or feel to play. This produces a kind of placebo effect when they do start playing it.

There’s also this comment in the article from a violin maker:

“If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn’t work for them, they’ll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works. Give them a modern violin, and they’ll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn’t work for them.”

So people will make more effort with something if they value its essence and grow to like it. Mark this idea because it’s something I can see me coming back to a fair bit in future. It ties into the way I worry the consumption of music is changing, as are attitudes to owning physical formats, or even paying for music at all. More on that later no doubt…

For now though I want to talk about James Blake and the KLF.

The KLF with some sheep

The KLF with some sheep

At the end of 2010 I did a ‘My albums of the year’ post in which I said that if the three James Blake EP’s that year had been collected that would have been the album of the year. I was well excited for his proper debut LP. As it turned out, ‘James Blake’ the LP is a bit medium – it’s a 7/10 record. I barely listened to it after the first few weeks because basically I couldn’t help but hear it as a songwriter record. Once I stopped listening to the detailed production and his admittedly very nice voice, the basic songs were a bit weak.

I’ve kept on buying the James Blake releases since, and I’ve been particularly keen when he releases something on a dance label, because there’s always the promise that these tracks will hark back a bit more to the instrumental electronic stuff that grabbed me at first.

Artwork for Order / Pan by James BlakeIn July 2011 James Blake released a single called ‘Order/Pan’. ‘Order’ is basically five minutes of very minimal drum programming, and the distant wobble of a sub bass. No peaks or troughs. No vocals or melody to speak of. No-one’s idea of a hit single.

I want to make clear up front that I actually like ‘Order’ as a piece of music – so what follows isn’t a sustained anti-JB rant. Artistically it fits with James Blake’s other work, and whilst it’s very subtle there is a lot going on in it. The b-side is actually even better but similarly sparse. It’s certainly welcome to see a fairly major artist doing something risky, albeit with a fairly big safety net.

A slight detour here via the KLF. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty followed up their 1988 number one hit ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ with a book called ‘The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way’. This slightly satirical book offered a full refund of the cover price to anyone who followed the instructions to the letter and failed to have a number one.

What ‘The Manual’ fails to mention in its refund policy is that the cost of making said single would easily reach into the tens of thousands of pounds (in 1980’s money). I reckon that, after purchasing all the equipment (which he presumably owned anyway), making ‘Order’ probably cost James Blake roughly £0.00. Not that I’m saying he was aiming for a number one with it.

still from 'The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid' film

The KLF could do stuff like this because they had lots of money. Once they burned a million pounds just for the hell of it.

In ‘The Manual’ one passage touched on the same notion as Paul Bloom does when talking about ‘essence’. The KLF suggested that some musicians just have what we would now call the ‘X Factor’, a personality which shines through in their music. They illustrated it by saying that you could take two people, one of whom had it, and one who didn’t and get them to produce two otherwise identical pieces of music consisting of eight minutes of a single kick-drum playing the fours at 120bpm. The hypothesis was that one piece of music would just be better than the other.

The point is that James Blake has made a track which in conventional terms is not far off from that kick drum solo record. The point is that people are listening to it and giving it the time and space to be hailed as a minimalist classic.

But is this because, as the KLF might suggest, James Blake has some innate personal quality which bleeds through into everything he does? Or is it more along the lines Bloom suggests, that they perceive the essence of James Blake in the track? Or is it the Stradivarius way, are people trying to see something which may not actually be there because they’ve bought into the Brand (and spent £1m on it)?

If they didn’t know it was by James Blake, they might possibly think it was a bit shit. Or at least they might not be willing to take the time to appreciate the subtleties. It would, let’s face it, be quite an easy piece of music to dismiss as ‘boring’.

I had the same experience the other day when JB’s cover of ‘A Case Of You’ by Joni Mitchell came up on shuffle. This is a borderline awful version of a great song. It’s JB at his worst, mawkish awful piano, he mangles the vocal melody. It’s the kind of cover I really hate. If it wasn’t being performed by someone who also does completely different music which I do like then I’d be hurling my iPod down a grid. But I sat through it and concentrated on happy memories of the original, admiring the lyrics and such. Again, the essence of James Blake The Brand was making me give it the time of day – but only just….

Same with those Stradivari violins. When people didn’t know what they had in their hands they either couldn’t appreciate it, or they were more honest about it. Robbed of the opportunity to engage with its ‘essence’ they had to judge it on other qualities. The subtext in the Guardian article is that actually the mad love for Stradivarius violins is a load of old cobblers and people should stop paying millions for the things. I have some sympathy for this point of view, but only some.

Because if we’re talking about ‘authenticity’ then where is that in this equation?

Is it on the side of judging something on some supposedly objective qualities alone? Or is it on the side of judging something as a whole, including the possibly illusory ‘essence’? Is that maybe more human? Is it better to persevere with something because you believe in its essence, or write it off because you don’t?