Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Belbury Tales

Belbury Poly - The Belbury Tales
released 24 February 2012 on Ghost Box

In the days and weeks following his death, there were a substantial number of column inches and hours of television devoted to the work of animator and writer Oliver Postgate. Talking heads and cultural commentators were summoned, and those of a certain age were quick to acknowledge their gratitude to Postgate for shaping parts of their childhood with his creations. Even for someone not of the appropriate vintage to have grown up with Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers and more besides, just small snatches of film are sufficient to grasp the Postgate aesthetic. Here was a man who wished to create his own universe and invite you, the viewer, to share in all the wonder it had to offer. There was a charming, slightly amateurish – yet utterly distinctive – feel to the animation, warmth and a sense of mischief through the narratives, and a real sense of care in the development of the characters. As is often the case with such things, it’s only when given a moment to reflect that the true scale of what has been lost can be appreciated.

This sense of otherness and the creation of something bizarre yet simultaneously entrenched in a view that’s particularly British is something shared by the not-lost-but-very-much-back Belbury Poly. Jim Jupp, the man behind the fictional education establishment, is also co-founder of Ghost Box Records; an organisation with a very clear directive who have admitted in the past that their original idea was to build “not just a record label but an imaginary world”.

Over sixteen LPs and seven 7” singles since 2005, they’ve done just that. Ghost Box release music that has an English pastoral feel, yet is firmly rooted in analogue electronic experimentation of a BBC Radiophonic Workshop persuasion. Their output simultaneously recalls 1970s public information films, B-movie horror, psychedelia and the jingles of long-forgotten regional television idents. Their only real modern-day counterparts are Stereolab, Broadcast (who released a single with Ghost Box’s Focus Group in 2010) and the early work of Saint Etienne.

In adhering to the goals of the label he helped establish, Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly are the quintessential Ghost Box act. They're named after an institution from a C.S. Lewis work and The Belbury Tales is their fourth full-length album. It doesn’t take too many musical diversions from their previous work, but there remains tangible evidence of progression, and a willingness to draw from other styles. However, this being Belbury Poly, those styles are put through the group’s own filters and come out the other side sounding as if they were always created to be interpreted in such a way.

The Belbury Tales is front-loaded, and the squelchy melody and nightmarish guitars of Cantalus provide a great opener (after the obligatory Belbury Poly “logotone” track) to the album. Next song, Green Grass Grows, has an airy bassline that flits and bounces like a glide hockey puck, which is then teamed with an eerie childlike vocal that sounds as if it could be coming from a small girl warning you of the dangers of driving too quickly on rural roads near schools. The vintage ambience continues throughout the album and you get the feeling of a parallel universe where digital never existed and you could hear the synthesiser valves open and close if only you were to listen close enough.

But, as mentioned, the longer The Belbury Tales goes on, the more the group begin to flex their stylistic muscles. The Geography has Eastern-sounding vocals and what appears to be a gamelan fairly prominent in the mix; Unheimlich is a slow, ponderous waltz replete with crackling, fizzing harpsichord melody that sounds similar to a madrigal; Goat Foot mixes whirls of organ and cheap-sounding keyboard into a jam-band freak-out. You’re not going to get this kind of thing from your average Foo Fighters record.

The only real criticism is that, while each track is underpinned by a hook, the importance of which can’t be underestimated in pieces often without vocals, there’s nothing of absolutely stunning quality, nothing to make you play it again the second it’s finished. The Belbury Tales is a solid record and a fantastic listen but, if you’ve heard previous Belbury Poly work, this album isn’t going to make you jump up and down and pester your as-yet-uncoverted friends of the band’s genius.

However, it’s still likely to charm old and new fans alike. If you’re currently unfamiliar with the work of Belbury Poly (and indeed, the roster of Ghost Box Records), you’re in for a treat. If you already like Belbury Poly then, good news: they’ve released an album that sits comfortably within their already stellar back catalogue.

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