“A twilight world of magick without a New Age sugar-coating, and darkness without Goth cliches”: John Coulthart on a particular variety of recent British electronic music (Arthur, 2007)

An Invitation to the Electric Seance

by John Coulthart

Posted Dec 14, 2007 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo


At precisely 20:02 on the 20th February, 2002 (20/02, 2002 in the UK date system), nine people gathered at the banks of the River Thames where it passes the Greenwich Observatory at 00 longitude, the world’s Prime Meridian. They were there to perform “a mass for palindromic time,” “to celebrate and to devastate, to perform an act of chronological terrorism, strike a blow to the heart of the Great Wyrm time” as one of the participants, Mark Pilkington, described it. If use of the word “terrorism” seems ill-advised it should perhaps be remembered that the Greenwich Observatory was the site of a genuine bomb attack by a French anarchist in 1894, an event which inspired Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent.

The 2002 ritual is one of the more striking manifestations of a largely unobserved current of inspiration running through the margins of British electronic music in recent years. A loose network of musicians have been following similar paths of interest or obsession, paths that frequently end up in places where ritual, magick and paranormal occurrence are the spur for musical invention. Themes and reference points include weird tales and ghost story writers (especially some of the names that influenced HP Lovecraft), psychogeography (or the physical examination of the psychic qualities of our cities), renegade science, and nostalgia for half-remembered (or mis-remembered) films and television, typically science fiction and horror. These groups are eager to use their work to lift the veil on the mundane and shine a light into occluded zones. What they’re delving into might be called “occulture” (for want of a better term), “occult” meaning hidden, and it’s with hidden, forgotten or secret arts that occulture concerns itself.

One of the participants in the Greenwich event was Drew Mulholland, a Scottish musician whose Mount Vernon Arts Lab (also Mount Vernon Astral Temple and Black Noise) released a CD later that year which spins off from the ritual. Musick That Destroys Itself is two dense slabs of electronic texture running for 20 minutes, 02 seconds. The cover art shows a Victorian tomb in Brompton cemetery, London, supposedly built according to Egyptian specifications to act as a “time portal.” Mount Vernon have been mining a seam of esoteric British lore, both real and imagined, for the past decade, with a varying line-up that includes Mark Pilkington (Raagnagrok), Jhon Balance (Coil) and Adrian Utley (Portishead).

The structure that appears on the cover of Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s The Seance At Hob’s Lane is a convex mass of concrete known as a “sound mirror,” one of several constructed on the southern coast of England during the 1920s intended to detect approaching enemy aircraft. Seance takes its title from the fictional street in Quatermass And The Pit, the third of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass science fiction dramas for the BBC, later made into a Hammer horror film. That story concerned the unearthing of an alien spacecraft from beneath a London Underground station whose dead inhabitants turn out to have been–among other things–the source of mankind’s ancestral memory of demons. Kneale had a genius for mixing the ancient past and the technological present and his cross-pollination of science fiction and horror makes him a kind of British equivalent of HP Lovecraft even though he always regarded himself as a TV dramatist, not a genre writer. A 1972 TV play of Kneale’s, The Stone Tape, is an acclaimed ghost story about a group of scientists using the latest technology to investigate a haunting in a renovated building. Despite the terrors those scientists eventually unearth, it’s easy to imagine them as precursors–if not actual role models–for Mount Vernon Arts Lab.

The Seance At Hob’s Lane was reissued recently on the Ghost Box label and the Ghost Box family of groups form the core of this network of occulture cartographers. Ghost Box, aka graphic designer Julian House and Jim Jupp, subdivide into The Focus Group and Belbury Poly, “Belbury” being a name borrowed from That Hideous Strength by Narnia author CS Lewis. Then there’s The Advisory Circle (Jon Brooks) and the deeply sinister Eric Zann (name borrowed from a haunted violinist in an HP Lovecraft tale) whose Ouroborindra is a sustained work of horror atmospherics. Belbury Poly describe their productions as “imaginary soundtracks to televised versions of Arthur Machen tales, beautifully filmed in grainy day for night lighting, yet too disturbing and explicit ever to be broadcast.” Arthur Machen (his name rhymes with “blacken”) is one of the ghosts at this particular feast, a Welsh mystic and a very fine writer of weird fiction whose work influenced Lovecraft. His early tales of horror and the supernatural, notably his extraordinary story The White People, cast a spell over many of the Ghost Box pieces and he’s also acknowledged by Mount Vernon Astral Temple. He’d no doubt have been surprised to know that 60 years after his death he was influencing more musicians than he was writers.

Belbury Poly’s Machen audioscapes are presented as a blend of spooky samples and the kind of jaunty library music produced by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (creators of the Doctor Who theme), only those light-hearted tunes have now been twisted to take on a creepier cast than they ever had before. This is the past seen through the distorting lens of the future, like analogue video feedback processed through digital filters, or the ghostly playback recorded by the Stone Tape researchers. The first Belbury Poly CD is entitled The Willows, an innocuous enough name until you discover that The Willows was also the title of a terrifying story of the supernatural by English writer Algernon Blackwood, and a tale hailed by Lovecraft as one of the greatest in the language. The Focus Group and the Advisory Circle follow a lighter path although even here the shadows fall, with titles such as Starry Wisdom referring to Lovecraft’s murderous band of Nyarlathotep worshippers in The Haunter Of The Dark.

The Ghost Box artists are relatively new to this party, some of the territory having been already mapped by Current 93, the late and much-lamented Coil and Cyclobe whose The Visitors from 2001 is a seriously unnerving collection of sample madness. Then there’s Birmingham band Pram whose work draws a different kind of inspiration from filmmaker and voodoo documentarist Maya Deren, the animations of Czech director Karel Zeman and electronica outfit White Noise, who should probably be regarded as the grandparents of this entire scene. Pram’s Museum Of Imaginary Animals from 2000 includes a song called The Owl Service, after Alan Garner’s fantasy novel for children. Garner’s books have been overshadowed in recent years by the Harry Potter juggernaut, but he’s another author with a special interest in the way that ancient and magical forces can come to affect the present. Pram recently provided a theremin-inflected score for a short film, Electric Seance, by Scott Johnston in which the band appear as tabletop scientists manipulating a range of steampunk contraptions to produce clouds of ectoplasm.

This is a twilight world of magick without a New Age sugar-coating, and darkness without Goth cliches. The Ghost Box releases might be dealing with horror themes but their packaging refers back to scientific books of the Sixties and Seventies which gives them a marvellously disjunctive aspect, like opening an old chemistry textbook only to find it filled with alchemical rituals. The title of most recent Focus Group release, We Are All Pan’s People, refers both to a dance group from the BBC’s Top Of The Pops TV show in the 1970s and to The Great God Pan, a Machen horror tale from the 1890s. The sense of humour at play here finds a complement in the descriptions of Raagnagrok‘s electric sitar and synth drones, a series of imaginary soundtracks for increasingly demented Weird Tales-style scenarios.

And speaking of soundtracks, the light-into-dark quality runs through the perennial interest among many Brit groups for The Wicker Man, the 1973 film of modern-day pagan sacrifice starring Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. (The less said about the pointless Hollywood remake, the better.) Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack did a great job of underscoring the often forgotten sexual and ritual dimensions of traditional English and Scottish folk music. Among the latest generation of UK folk acts, both Tunng and Adem have credited The Wicker Man as an influence and Willow’s Song (willows again!) from the film has been covered widely, the most recent version being by ex-Belle & Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell. Folk strains have surfaced in Pram’s work while Belbury Poly’s album The Owl’s Map blends folk themes with samples and analogue electronics. Coil were moving in a folk direction towards the end of their career, not as a nostalgic exercise but as a deliberate connection to the nation’s pagan past. An interest in folk and paganism doesn’t preclude the use of electronics.

December is a month of gloom particularly suited to ghost stories. Charles Dickens gave A Christmas Carol a ghost theme partly for this reason and the BBC had a tradition throughout the 1970s of screening a special ghost drama each Christmas, one of which was The Stone Tape. If you’re already tiring of the saccharine inanities of the holiday season then this is the ideal time to explore some stranger attractions. Take your place at the table for the electric seance; switch on the machines, join hands and wait for the ectoplasm to form.

Select discography:

Belbury Poly: The Willows, The Owl’s Map

Coil: Astral Disaster, Moon’s Milk, Musick to Play in the Dark 1 & 2

Cyclobe: The Visitors

Eric Zann: Ouroborindra

Mount Vernon Arts Lab: Warminster, The Seance at Hob’s Lane

Mount Vernon Astral Temple: Musick that Destroys Itself

Pram: The Moving Frontier

Raagnagrok: The Purple Cloud

The Advisory Circle: Mind how You Go


John Coulthart is a Manchester-based artist, writer and blogger of some repute. He is also a contributing editor to Arthur Magazine.

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